Edmund Clark at HMP Grendon
Edmund Clark at HMP Grendon

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Edmund Clark at HMP Grendon

The identity of a maker informs the status of what is made. What happens when makers are men stripped of individuality, freedom and visibility? What name should we give to what they do? 

Edmund Clark is nearing the end of his three-year residency at the UK’s only therapeutic prison, HMP Grendon. As well as assembling his own body of work about the institution, the people it holds and the structures it represents, Clark assists the prisoners themselves as they develop their own artistic practices and, occasionally, feature in his. He is keen to stress that this aspect of his role does not constitute ‘art therapy’ – something the prisoners participate in outside of Clark’s involvement, and heavy with its own history. While people have been finding catharsis in creation since human beings first scratched on cave walls, art therapy as a distinct discipline emerged in the 1940s. Developed out of psychoanalysis, art therapy began in mental health institutions and has since spread into hospitals, private practices and correctional institutions. Some schools of thought have stayed close to their psychoanalytic roots, regarding the work produced by patients as a kind of visual speech to be investigated, while others simply believe in the restorative and relaxatory properties of drawing, painting or sculpting. Call it art therapy or just ‘art'; there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these practices can be transformational for all kinds of people, including prisoners. In fact, HMP Grendon is the only UK prison to have proven to reduce reoffending rates. 

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Edmund Clark, HMP Grendon (2016), © Edmund Clark. Credit: Edmund Clark at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 6 December 2017 – 4 March 2018, ikon-gallery.org

Part of Clark’s artistic interest lies in identity, and invests in ideas the men might have of themselves as creators, agents and artists rather than patients, prisoners or subjects. His practice focuses on seeing, not seeing and – crucially – what we are permitted to see. Themes of censorship run through his body of work, both restricting and enriching it. Unable, for example, to photograph the prisoners, Clark has used a pin-hole camera to capture their ‘presences’ instead; necessity is the mother of invention, but what is a portrait? What is an artist? And when does something become art?

Pieces made in an art therapy session are framed as by-products of the counselling process rather than ends in themselves. The Art Object, on the other hand, constitutes its own universe. It must be a result of the artistic process – whatever that might be – and of no other. A clay model made one afternoon, in a prison therapy session by a man convicted of assault, is destined to remain only an object. It is not Art. Another sculpture, ostensibly identical but made by different hands or displayed in the ‘right’ context, is critiqued carefully and taken as something with the power to inform or embody some wider truth. It is Art. To make it, you must be an 'Artist'. In this case, perhaps more than any other, the identity of a maker informs the status of what is made. What happens when makers are men stripped of individuality, freedom and visibility? What name should we give to what they do? 

Of course, imprisonment is an emotive subject. Part of the function of facilities like Grendon is to remove certain people from wider society. We are not accustomed to thinking about people inside them as people at all; rather, one act or other has removed their right to be considered human. Many people incarcerated have, indeed, demonstrated themselves to be a danger to people around them. Societal narratives about vice, though, and our emotional response to ideas of deviance mean that objective thinking is hard to come by when discussing the rights of prisoners. We are fascinated and appalled by them in equal measure. To be confronted with art work made by criminals is a surprisingly startling proposition. Over the course of his residency, Clark has organised exhibitions of the men’s work - not of pieces from their therapy sessions, but which they’ve made as part of their own practices - within Grendon itself. Sentimental ideas of the Artist in our society mean that it’s aligned with a kind of precious genius, above and beyond normal human fallibility. Being asked to transfer this status, one of our highest accolades, to prisoners, one of the most despised subsections of our communities, has proved challenging for many people - even the prisoners themselves.

Inside Grendon, a man enters into a contract of accountability with those around him. The prison is subdivided into smaller communities based on wings of the building, each functioning as a democracy within the wider structure of the institution. ‘Prisons are a distillation of the society in which they function’, explains Clark below. If so, we have a lot to learn about ourselves from Grendon – much of which Clark has begun to uncover.

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Edmund Clark, HMP Grendon (2016), © Edmund Clark. Credit: Edmund Clark at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 6 December 2017 – 4 March 2018, ikon-gallery.org

Emily Watkins

Are the two strands of your role at Grendon distinct from each other, or do you feel that your work with the men in the prison is part of your work as artist in residence?

Edmund Clark

My work is about getting them involved with what I’m doing and what I’m making, but that’s not necessarily their work. There are possibly some ways in which the two will come together, but what I’m looking to do is not a platform for their practice, or art therapy, or a documentary either. It’s not meant to be didactic. The work I’m making is a personal reaction to the process playing out at Grendon. The institution has the label ‘therapy’ attached to it, but my work is about people’s lives. About learning to live in a different way, and how that involves the prisoners, officers, staff in being held to account, holding each other to account. There are themes that come out about seeing, censoring and censorship, what I’m allowed to say and what I’m allowed to show. That goes off into more conceptual areas about Panopticon Prisons, which were built with the idea that anyone in them could think that they were being seen, but I think that the case was probably that they weren’t literally seen but seen in terms of a presence – a shadow or a silhouette. And Grendon is a psychological Panopticon in its own right. Because you go there to be seen, to be held to account, to hold others to account, not only for what you’ve done but what’s happened to you and that’s a very profound kind of experience in prison – to have that consensual environment.

EW

I mean, that’s part of the ethos of the institution – is that right? You talked about ways of living, and I expect that every prisoner, whether they’re in a therapeutic prison or a more standard prison, has to find a way of living very different to the way we do, outside of an institution. Like you say, Grendon is unique within the UK, so I was interested in how the men come to you, and how they come to the institution. I understand that they have to apply…

EC

Yes, broadly speaking they have to ask to be sent there.

EW

Right. And then, is their working with you while they’re there ‘part of the deal’, as it were?

EC

No.

EW

So the men you’re working with have elected to do so?

EC

Yes. Although sometimes they need permission to do it. That extends to everything in the prison, to each wing – the wings are separate communities, each with slightly different ways of working – and they have to get permission from each other to be able to do things. So it’s very bureaucratic and self-disciplinary.

Some talk about what they’ve done, some talk about what has been done to them, some talk about daily life. And as they stand and talk, they move.

Edmund Clark
EW

They need permission from the other prisoners?

EC

Yes. And the same applies to me – if I want to attend a group session or something like that, I have to get permission from that community. But yes, the men choose whether they want to work with me, and some choose whether they want to be involved in the work that I’m making.

EW

So the strands do meet…

EC

Well, they meet in as much as they’re both creative processes. Quite a lot of my work recently about the war on terror has nobody in it, for various reasons to do with censorship and privacy and problems of actually representing people caught up in these very tendentious subjects and situations. But I don’t want to do that in this prison. I did a book in a prison a long time ago, but the whole point about what happens with Grendon is that it’s about people and the process they are all engaged in. And actually, I think one of the key things I’ve said is how people who have committed crimes and been incarcerated are seen or not seen, or perceived by everybody else.

EW

How are they perceived by everybody else?

EC

I think we all know the typical narrative, ‘lock them up and throw away the key’, which is a slightly extreme version but you get my point. ‘They’re having a soft time’, there’s a demand for longer sentences, for harsher parole conditions, for victim’s rights… On the other hand, [David] Cameron tried to remove the right for some prisoners to vote. They are seen as very much the ‘other’, with a stigma of criminality… It’s hard to talk about this without staggering into cliché, but the view of them stops at the prison wall. They don’t really have an identity any more beyond the fact that they’re a criminal, and that’s partly why I’m not allowed to photograph them. There are valid factors like victims’ issues, and their protection, but there is this connection between the fact that I am not allowed to visualise the prisoners in photographic form or portraits and the idea that they are not ‘seen’ beyond the definition of their crime. I tackle that head on by creating images of them which are not identifiable… I’m going right back to an old and basic technology but for me a new way of making images, which is using a pin-hole camera. I make images where I work with a group, on a wing by wing basis, and I get an individual to stand in front of the camera – usually about a five or six minute exposure – and there’s no lens, so there’s no mediation of the image. It’s just light coming in through a very small hole into a dark box . And so they stand there and we talk – about why they’re there, about their experience of being there, what life is like in Grendon, ideas of trauma. Some talk about what they’ve done, some talk about what has been done to them, some talk about daily life. And as they stand and talk, they move. So after five minutes or so they create an impression – of themselves. I am doing this with the prisoners and the officers and the therapeutic staff – with everyone that is part of Grendon.

EW

But the image they make isn’t identifiable? Nothing visible which would mark them as an individual?

EC

No. And that’s interesting considering the idea of the Panopticon. A camera which has no lens in it and is just a chamber with a light source in some ways reflects the architecture of the cell in a Panopticon prison. So I’m partly playing around with that idea, and with a number of different ways to create images of people, which I then get them to respond to. That’s either by talking to me about what they see in the image – and the images are quite ghostly, and quite problematic because you don’t see people, just presences – and that conversation is also about transition, and what they’re going through. It’s about how they see the image of themselves, and it gets reflected back to them in a therapeutic way, in that they have to talk about and respond to what they see in this ‘presence’. In terms of intervening on the image, I’ll give them a print and get them to write on it, draw on it, deface it… do something to it, if they want. I talk to each person about the image and what they see in it, what they think people outside prison would see in it, what it says or omits about the experience of therapy, and what they would want the image to communicate. There are other ways in which I’m looking at the place using film and performance, installation as well.

EW

What aspect of performance are you working with?

EC

There are two key kinds of creative therapies which exist there. There’s art therapy and then there’s psychodrama, which is a way of getting a group of about six people to revisit episodes relating to an individual in the group. They will take the part of their own victim, and then other members of the group play key participants involved in the event and the central figure’s life. They go through this process, and it sparks off reactions in other people, and they start to talk. I’m not allowed to see those because my being there would destabilise what happens in the group, but I’m working with the head of psychodrama to develop a psychodramatic episode using elements of a Greek tragedy linking themes of high culture and base killing. A lot of the narratives and the themes around Greek tragedy and myth are relevant to understanding human actions and the human condition through representation or imitation of life and notions of catharsis.

EW

Sure, I bet they are. ‘Tales as old as time’, right?

EC

I’m also using a stabilised camera system similar to Steadicam to create long films about repetitive journeys and circles around the prison. A lot of those will have to be censored as well because of security cameras and lights and other orientation points. So we’re back at that idea of the ‘seeable’, and the partially seen.

EW

It’s a really interesting problem, the seeing and the not seeing. When you were speaking before about how society views prisoners, I was thinking how the function of prison means that we don’t have to see these people any more. They’ve had a box ticked, in our heads, you know – you’re dangerous, you can’t live with us. It goes back to the initial question about who gets to make art. The men in Grendon are operating in an interesting theoretical space. You, when you’re there and when you leave, too, are the Artist with a capital A, and I wonder if the prisoners are ‘artists’?

EC

I think you would have to talk to them, and see if they called themselves artists. Maybe not with ‘capital As’, but they’re making, they’re creating. And as with a lot of people who do creative things, you don’t really know what it means while you do it, or even why you’re doing it. Having the chance to talk about it is an interesting experience. Having to talk about work, having to find the words is a way of understanding what it may be about. The words sometimes come as a surprise. I think it’s really important that if they want to make art that they get a chance to talk about being artists rather than being prisoners. I hope it gives the artists a chance to find or develop new insights into what they are doing. Or making. Organisations such as the Koestler Trust, which have shown the men’s work before are great and do amazing things, but the work comes out of prison and is contextualised as art by prisoners. And what’s missing is the people talking about why they do it.

EW

I was wondering about the prison, and you, whether you would encourage people looking at the work to remember where it comes from – provenance, author – or whether you ask people to forget all of that, forget where it comes from.

EC

That’s a very hard question to answer. The only time that’s ever been an issue was when I was asked by an organisation called ‘Friends of Grendon’ to put on a small exhibition of the prisoner’s work, the men’s work, in the local town. It was interesting, the reaction of people who came to the exhibition. Someone who bought a piece really wanted to know - what had the painter done? And I just don’t think it’s relevant. This is part of how people think of prisoners, all we want to know is what they’ve done. It’s this kind of prurient fascination.

I expect my work will be quite problematic. Some people will find the images uncomfortable, and so I suppose there is a risk of perpetuating the myth on that level. At the same time, it’s an environment where they’re addressing the same thing within themselves.

Edmund Clark
EW

A sort of fantasy of deviance?

EC

Yes. Something one would never do, but here’s someone who has done it. What are they like? It’s all part of the mythology and mediation of prisoners.

EW

I suppose that mythology is kind of necessary – to justify incarcerating people for entire lifetimes, you have to spin this idea that they’re almost a whole different species.

EC

Yes. And my work is not going to set all that to rights. I expect my work will be quite problematic. Some people will find the images uncomfortable, and so I suppose there is a risk of perpetuating the myth on that level. At the same time, it’s an environment where they’re addressing the same thing within themselves.

EW

And the environment’s set up for that narrative.

EC

Yes. On some level what I’m doing is exploitative. I mean, everyone is volunteering to work with me, but going in and making work in that environment risks being interpreted as exploitative. I am going in and making people reflect on trauma and on what they’ve done or gone through… and I have the privilege of walking out.

EW

Sure. And I know that organising photography in prisons is a really difficult thing, and of course the prisoners aren’t allowed cameras. This dynamic, though, where you’re making art, they’re making art, but you’re using a camera and your medium is photography which they don’t have access to… What’s that like?

EC

It’s ok. It did occur to me, should I try to organise a scenario where they have access to cameras? I could probably push for them to have photography in controlled environment. But what’s that saying about the importance of photography?

EW

So now that you’re two thirds of the way through the residency, how has the experience effected your own creative process?

EC

I was very clear to myself that I was going to do something new, that I hadn’t done before, that I would work in a new way. I mean, the place is very effecting – but I’m not sure how it affects me. The pressure of having to carry keys, and having to open and shut doors and gates and having to do it hundreds of times a day is quite oppressive. It’s physical, it’s inconvenient, it’s uncomfortable. Again, I’ve made a choice to put myself into some of the community settings, into some of the meetings, so I do hear stuff sometimes which is very out of the ordinary and difficult. That’s what people have done, and when they talk about their lives and the mistakes they’ve made, you see a human being in front of you who has made a terrible mistake and is living with it for the rest of their life.

It’s democratic and very bureaucratic, but it is kind of utopian. At the same time, obviously, it’s dystopian because of why they’re there.

Edmund Clark
EW

I can imagine. Do you feel that these men are being helped by the processes there?

EC

I’ve said it before, but I think in some ways it’s one of the most positive places I’ve ever been. My work is not here as a work of advocacy, but I do think the place works for a lot of people. And while I talk about it being sad to stand in front of a human being who has made a mistake, there are some people there who have made a lot of mistakes, over and over again, people who have done very dangerous things. They are people who society needs protecting from, but they are also people who should have the possibility of changing the way they behave, and that’s what this place does. It gives people the opportunity to understand what they’ve done and why they’ve done it, and how things like that happen. It gives them the opportunity to live with other people, which is often something they’ve not really done – to have relationships based on trust and tolerance.

EW

Which is key to the way the place runs itself.

EC

It’s key to the way society runs itself. Prison does have a role, and there are people who deserve to be there. As I understand it, and as far as it can be measured, people who go through Grendon have the lowest re-offence rate of all prisoners in the UK. It has a very low instance of violence, so I think it does work. In some ways it is almost utopian, when you think about it. I think all prisons are distillations of the societies in which they function. This place has communities where everybody agrees to work together, to abide by certain rules, to hold each other’s behaviour to account and deal with it on a communal basis, and to vote on what each other can and can’t do. It’s democratic and very bureaucratic, but it is kind of utopian. At the same time, obviously, it’s dystopian because of why they’re there. And the experience of being there and learning to talk about things is very traumatic. Coming to terms with what they’ve done and what has happened to them is often very painful.

EW

And this residency will culminate with an exhibition of the prisoner’s work?

EC

Yes, at the prison. And there will be an exhibition of my work at Ikon Gallery, with a couple of publications to go with it. And I will try to put on a version of that exhibition in the prison’s conference centre, or at least installations shots – some way to replicate what I’ve done. And that will take us up to the end of the year. And then I don’t know what happens to Grendon, in relation to me and Grendon.

EW

Your project within Grendon uses photography, and it strikes me as an interesting choice considering the constraints we’ve talked about. Is there something about photography which makes it especially suited to what you’ve been doing there?

EC

Well, as I say, there will be video and performance too. There will be an installational piece – I am collecting plants that grow in the prison. But photography… As with a lot of my work, it’s actually probably a really unsuitable medium because I’m working with things I can’t see, or processes that I can’t see. But then, a lot of my work is about censorship and dealing with censorship, trying to find ways to visually represent the unseen or the unseeable. And in some ways, photography is absolutely the best way to do that because the difficulty throws up all these interesting possibilities which become implicit in shaping the narrative or structure. At the same time, considering what photography is supposed to be and its tradition, notions of the seeable and indexicality, it’s crazy to use it.

EW

Would you be able to paint one of the prisoners?

EC

I don’t think so. I don’t think they can paint each other.

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