The islands in San Francisco Bay are going to figure largely in this series and perhaps no other island more than Alcatraz, the former federal prison just off the north shore of the city. We managed to get out before the exhibition closed to hear this temporary occupation of the infamous island prison.
Alcatraz is an icon as seen from its exterior. From the inside, the hollow sound of the prison cells, dining hall, and other spaces lend themselves to multiple interpretations: the prison is a ruin, a historical monument, a parallel world, the ur-prison, a symbol for incarceration everywhere. What more could Ai Weiwei add to a space which, with tourists constantly streaming through, still reverberates with the clang and clatter of a fully occupied prison? With all the fanfare and stories emanating from the official Alcatraz audio tour, it should be noted that the voices of the prisoners themselves cannot be heard. And this is where the artist steps in.
Spread across multiple buildings on Alcatraz, @Large finds numerous ways to cut beneath the layer of tourism to speak about the nature of freedom. Spread across multiple buildings on Alcatraz, @Large finds numerous ways to cut beneath the layer of tourism to speak about the nature of freedom. In one building, the faces of prisoners are visually linked together with Lego bricks. Elsewhere, stacks of postcards covered with birds invite visitors to send messages to individual prisoners. The visuals of the Lego tapestry and the act of sending a postcard both make the point that a political prisoner does not stand alone against injustices and violations of freedom and human rights. The most compelling installation for us, however, was the merging of songs, readings of poetry, and calls to action emanating from Cell Block A titled Stay Tuned.
Leaving the typical Alcatraz tour, we hear Stay Tuned before we see it: the Afrobeats of Fela Kuti mix in with an impassioned reading by Chinese poet Liao Yiwu and songs from Iranian singer Arya Aramnejad. One side of the Cell Block has been converted into a set of listening chambers for sixteen different prisoners who used their art to speak out against repressive regimes. These songs and readings reverberate off the hard surfaces of the prison interior, amplifying the austerity of the message.
A stool is set up in each cell, and a speaker lodged in a ventilation grate plays the sounds. The act of squatting on stools (which were made by Mr. Ai's studio) brings the listener into the position of an idle prisoner. Leaning even closer to the source of sound, prostrated, we feel the cold stone of the island prison. This tactile experience combines with the sound to render a humble scenario for witnessing some of the most historically repressed individuals search for a way out through their art.
The sound as we experienced it in Ai's Stay Tuned seems to also say that defiance and dissonance are closely related. The sound of Russian band Pussy Riot’s "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer)," which was a protest/performance by the group inside an Orthodox church, was a kind of sonic bomb against their national belief system. Two of the three members were put in prison for the act of “hooliganism.”
Stepping out of the cells, hearing these sixteen songs and impassioned cries for justice mix together into one boisterous cauldron of sound, we could imagine ourselves in a kind of global prison chamber. From this island in San Francisco Bay, a place that the artist himself is not permitted by his own country to visit, the swirling of many voices attempts to reach out from beneath the forces which desire to squash, confiscate, censor, and obliterate. We exist in a time when CIA black sites, Guantanamo Bay, and even domestic spaces like Homan Square in Chicago, remain lodged on the peripheries of the political attention span. Sometimes the periphery takes the form of the very central, as does Alcatraz, fixed in the center of the Bay. Whereas, for the Western world however, the global prison is something that happens "over there," "out of sight" and "out of mind," this show is a reminder that the peripheral is always a “center” to somewhere else. That the periphery of the dark edges is really front and center when you look and listen for it.