Returning to Prison: Future IDs at Alcatraz

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Returning to Prison: Future IDs at Alcatraz

By Brian Karl April 3, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Alcatraz, aka “The Rock,” is hard and cold. Even on a sunny day, the wind whips across its exterior walls from all angles. And on the inside, the thick, crumbling architecture channels a chill from some inexhaustible void below. During a recent visit, I kept thinking I was going to leave.

But the stories I encountered with the forty large-scale banners (each measuring fifty-by-eighty inches) of Future IDs at Alcatraz—including the actual individuals who positioned themselves in front of their self-portraits—gave me pause, provoking unaccustomed thoughts and triggering repeated swells of emotion. The portraits on view are just some of the outcomes of an ongoing project organized by Gregory Sale that proposes alternative identities to those narrow ones generated by the US justice and prison system. During the all-day public opening events, a series of roundtables, workshops, and performances gathered a number of the artists who were former prisoners to represent themselves beyond their portraits.

Nearby was the bay, the gulls, the boats, the way back to the city—the route would-be escapees failed to traverse, remaining subject to designations of criminal acts and the names and numbers assigned to them. From 1934 to 1963, reed boats or military craft plied the waterways in the surrounding East Bay, with governmental deliveries of human cargo and the supplies to maintain them on the island prison. These days, transit ferries approach Alcatraz Island on the half hour, primarily serving tourists.

Future IDs at Alcatraz, 2019; installation view, Alcatraz Island. Photo: Brian Karl.

The exhibition is installed in the New Industries Building, set apart from the former prison. In the farther reaches of the exhibition hall, laid out one after another, the banners form a sort of line-up, as in a display of criminal suspects—but in reverse, offering clues of non-criminal experience if not pure exoneration or innocence. Among the portraits’ diverse range of artistic treatments are photo-realistic paintings and drawings, caricatures, colorful abstractions, digital photographs from newspaper accounts, and stenciled words and emulations of text-message exchanges.

Each station marks different selves: those who have survived and transcended trials and tribulations that devolved to incarceration, no doubt going on to face additional challenges once outside prison. Hung from the ceiling, the larger-than-life self-portraits bear the simultaneous contradictions of uniformity in scale and one of only two orientations while managing to differentiate themselves from their peers. Produced by distinct hands, disparate in place and time, they declare different ideals of defining self and identity.

Stretching hundreds of feet, the long line-up of self-portraits proclaim a range of familiar vocational identities (“sea captain,” “motivational speaker,” “attorney”) and more abstract accomplishments and ambitions (“contributing member of society,” “candlelight in others’ darkness,” “rehabilitated and member of the human race”). As an ensemble, these effectively illustrate attempts to make changes in individual lives, no matter the oppressive burdens of institutional apparatuses.

Jarred Williams with Chris Santa Maria. Future ID, 2019; digital print on vinyl; 50 x 80 in. Photo: Brian Karl.

One example of the inspiring post-prison stories is Jarred Williams, whose portrait boldly declares his role as the director of research at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice; a dense photo-collage of his face is buoyed by an assemblage of images of protest signs and other faces in demonstration. In another striking instance, Lily Gonzalez’s pose asserts her vitality through a highly foreshortened fist holding an equally outsized rose; a single tag in the corner reads, “Viva la Vida.”

Conversely, some of the narratives still grapple with systems that depersonalize their subjects. Several self-portraits integrate oversized bar codes; the still-imprisoned artist John Winkelman substitutes QR codes for key facets of the face portrayed. Yahniie Bridges’s subtle self-depiction is hauntingly evocative, even ghostly: depicted seated, from the waist up, her likeness is sketched in nuanced gradations of graphite and open expanses of blank canvas. In contrast to a contemporary art world often beset with irony, there is a straightforwardness and sincerity to nearly all of the self-portraits on display.

J. Antonio Morales and Gregory Sale. Future IDs at Alcatraz, 2019; installation view, Alcatraz Island. Photo: Ben Leon.

The opening was well attended by many former prisoners, who contributed their stories in person. On the day I visited, the lively images in the exhibition initially seemed more full-throated; the softer-voiced testimonials given by many former prisoners in the roundtables actually said much more than their portraits. Viewers cried openly at the sight of some of these artists standing in front of their self-portraits, aspiring selves next to aspiring selves. More tears surged when those formerly constrained bodies embraced visitors and one another, testifying through presence and postures and gestures, as in a church more than a courtroom.

Places of official representation—like courtrooms, police stations, prisons, churches, and exhibition halls—also serve as sites of exposure and judgment. The dense, brittle features of tourist sites like Alcatraz expose people’s stories through particularly narrow lenses, many times collapsing or occluding possible meanings.

J. Antonio Morales, speaking in “Giving Forward Giving Back” roundtable, February 16, 2019; Future IDs at Alcatraz, 2019; installation view, Alcatraz Island. Photo: Chris Santa Maria.

Another way of seeing the Future IDs project is as an attempt by humans at occupying and rehabilitating a place. Asking critical questions about the role of prison and other foundational aspects of contemporary society has not been a primary feature of Alcatraz’s official course of interpretation. Future IDs intervenes in the cycle of hollow tourism by inserting the stories of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals into Alcatraz, complicating the site’s own story. The printed banners serve as avatars to expand notions of singular identity for those who have suffered from systemic lockdowns of possibility.

Previously, a 2014 exhibition of work by Ai Weiwei (the global art star who has a history of detention in China) offered an unprecedented intervention in Alcatraz’s usual tours, leveraging a confluence of the site, its massive audience, and contemporary art to address imprisonment as an international concern.

The National Park Service that administers Alcatraz has evolved admirably to acknowledge and integrate other charged moments in Alcatraz’s history, including the 1969–71 occupation by the Native American group, Indians of All Tribes. Challenging the status quo, the participants of the occupation banded together to create greater awareness of the suppression of Native American rights, successfully prompting changes to the US policy of Native termination. Since the Park Service became the custodian of Alcatraz, it has allowed a series of annual public gatherings that not only commemorate the occupation but also provide other signs of cultural resistance (such as Unthanksgiving, an Indigenous pushback to Columbus Day). The Park Service supports preserving murals created on the island during the occupation, and Park Service rangers acknowledge that history in their welcoming talks to visitors. Occasional tours of the island led by Native veterans from the occupation are also offered. A year-long exhibition marking the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation is scheduled to follow the Future IDs exhibition, in the same New Industries Building location.

Alcatraz remains a destination for paying visitors seeking vicarious thrills and a limited cultural interpretation, at the expense of human awareness and empathy. During the opening panel sessions of Future IDs, one ex-prisoner spoke of her discomfort with the cultural tourism of others’ past misery. This plaint was one potent reminder of other realities, amid the liberated feelings expressed by her peers about second chances that in many cases were experienced after decades of constraint. Such glimpses provided by the Future IDs exhibition provoke thoughts about possible prison reform in the face of Alcatraz’s dark cultural history.

Future IDs at Alcatraz is on view at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco through October 19, 2019.

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