EM: I suspect that all whom have had the opportunity of watching the films made during this project would agree that they are powerful pieces of digital art work, both as a collective, and individually. Some may be reminded, as I was, of scholarship that has aimed to make sense of the difference between the politicization of art and the aestheticization of politics – or indeed that art and politics can never be separated. I suggest this project occupies, and actually disrupts, three distinct ‘political concerns’ for the prison environment in the 21st century – that of veteran’s criminality, technology as a threat to security and gaming as a privilege. Considering these reflections, I’d like to start with the equipment that was required for this project if I may – and to ask you to address those who may be concerned – commenting particularly on how this project can transcend the popular imagination about place of technology in the prison setting.
EG: I’ll start answering this question by running briefly through how we produced the film. FFGaiden: Control was created through a collaborative process working with two incredible artists, Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, veterans at HMP Altcourse and HMP Liverpool and family members. Through weekly workshops the film was developed using PlayStation4 consoles and the game Grand Theft Auto V as an alternative platform for filmmaking. In real terms this meant arriving at the prison every week with a car full of digital tech – PS4 consoles, TV screens, speakers, microphones, plus copies of GTA V – along with the perhaps more traditional, and less problematic, materials that the prisons were used to seeing in art sessions. This of course is not without its difficulties.
This was our pilot project for our work within the criminal justice system and we were mindful of the restrictions and constraints of working within such an environment and we knew that this would be a process of negotiation in order to remain ambitious in what we could achieve with the project. As you point out, the use of gaming consoles within the prison context has a political history, with numerous news reports throughout the last decade criticising prison service expenditure on consoles and attacking the absurdity of ‘luxury cell conditions’, often quoting Conservative MP Nigel Evans - "Does being sent down for five years of hard PlayStation serve as rehabilitation or punishment? People will be outraged” - and leading then Justice Secretary Jack Straw in 2008 to announce that no public spending would be made on consoles for prisoners. Since then prisoners have still been able to buy consoles themselves (through earned prison wages and only consoles which cannot be connected to the internet – so, for example, PS1 or 2 - and only games certified suitable for under-18s) depending upon their level on the Incentives and Earned Privileges system. And so, as a privilege, gaming within prison is also very closely related to compliance and control. GTA has an equally complex history, known for its violent content which saw it pulled from the shelves of some stores upon its release, the game portrays key characters with a particularly overtly stereotyped and violent version of masculinity and debate continues around the effects of playing such games upon behaviour in real life. These histories and associations with the materials that we were intending to use within the project are then compounded with a general understanding of the veteran offender as inherently violent.
What the project proposed however was to produce an artwork through a collaborative methodology which would communicate the experiences of the veterans and family members and in the process would also subvert these very concerns and assumptions; around gaming as an ultimately unproductive activity, technology operating only as a threat to security and veterans as a characteristically violent group of people.
EM: At a time when art is more frequently used as therapy, I’d like us to move our conversation to socially engaged arts practice as a method for engaging differently with prison programmes. I was captivated by many things when viewing the work, but above all, I was left contemplating notions of empowerment and of space - and I’ll take each in turn. By empowerment, I am referring to what I believe is brilliant here, a space of exploration that render veterans the editors of their own work – in doing so they are also the analysts of their own ontological projection. And, secondly space. The space(s) in which the art can occupy is also something I am keen to speak with you about and how this type of work, can by its very nature, be viewed internationally, whilst its artist is in prison. Which I’m inclined to interrelate with empowerment in many ways.
EG: Emerging from FACT’s Veterans in Practice programme, which employs a particular understanding of socially engaged practice, our work within the criminal justice system aims to approach the context of the prison system from a critically engaged position, and in doing so seeks to shift the role of art within prisons from a traditional time-passing activity or therapeutic intervention to one of active reflection and experimentation for participants, artists and staff. This ethos of collaborative art production, centered around a process of exchange and mutual learning – whether that’s exploring new uses of technology together or developing the conceptual framework for the artwork – is, I think, empowering for everyone involved in the project. It is always empowering to create something, to produce meaning and to communicate with others, and both the process of producing FFGaiden: Control and the actions of the artwork upon the world foster this sense of affect. Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explains this operation of art in his essay Art Today:
Every work of art therefore enables us (the artist, and we who see the work) to feel a certain formation of the contemporary world, a certain perception of self in the world. It does so not in the form of an ideological statement (“the meaning of the world is this”) but more as a kind of suggestive shaping of possibilities, one that allows for a circulation of recognitions, identifications, feelings, but without fixing them in a final signification.
EM: My next question is one of identity and the messages this project can offer on identity. Specifically, the power to identify and the power to resist externally imposed identities. I know that you were aware of the rather unique identity that this project would work with – what you refer to as the ‘dual identity’ of the ‘veteran’ and ‘criminal’. It struck me, when watching the films created by veterans themselves in the prison, that whilst each artist embodies this paradoxical political subjectivity – when given the opportunity to narrate and project their agency beyond the prison walls, these dominant frames of reference were almost marginal. Instead of a mimicry of how others view their situation, we are confronted with the poetics of hope and reflexivity, and an almost transformative process. In contrast, the films produced by veteran’s families and loved ones invite the viewer into a different narrative – here we are confronted with military and its affects more forcefully. Again, this is very powerful and I wondered if you could comment on that?
EG: Again, you point to something very important here about the production of art and the ability, as Nancy explains, for art to create worlds, what is crucial to working collaboratively with people is the creation of space to explore the potential for that world. Whilst FACT have worked with veterans for over 4 years to collaboratively produce creative projects, and as a team we research and try as much as possible to embed and learn about the contexts in which we work, assumptions cannot be made about what an individual wishes to communicate or how they might want to explore or represent themselves. Whilst we have the framework of the game and the limitations of what it is able to do, within this game space there is a lot of flexibility and so we have individual vignettes which are very personal to the individual who has produced them, from the beautifully poetic to the efficiently honest. And of course, through this process you do not receive the images that match the images that we usually consume when we encounter the nouns ‘veteran’ and ‘offender’ and which create that particular identity for us. The pieces made by family members punctuate these reflective narratives with observations which have much more of a sense of urgency, they come from a different space and seek to question systems and processes that don’t make sense, that have affected the people that they love and that have very real day to day impact. I think the coming together of these two forms of testimony are incredibly powerful and create a much more complex and multi-layered understanding of experience in contrast to the reductive ‘veteran/offender’ narrative.
EM: The content of the film is particularly striking. Each unique experience draws upon the tools of the technology which encourages the viewer to negotiate the visual and the audio – which often disrupt our sensibilities – as the voice over is one of confinement and the visual predominantly of wide-open space. As we meet each art work a series of emotions are experienced and offered – from despair to hope we share in artist’s feelings which are further reinforced by the tireless uphill struggle that we’re invited to watch. I hope we can speak about the individual avatars in a short while but I wondered if you could say something about how graphics were chosen and the opportunity to provide a voiceover was experienced.
EG: The game space of GTA V exists around an island, with urban and rural landscapes, vast mountains, docklands, airstrips and lakes. As we began to explore the map and start to plot where we might shoot the stories, many of the artists were drawn to the rural spaces within the game, the idea of being outside of the city, at an elevated position from which they could view the landscape. What is perhaps unexpected about filmmaking within a digital space is that in terms of duration of movement it matches the real world, if we wanted to travel to the highest point on the map we would have to devise a route to get there, drive up the mountain, walk the final 20 metres and so there was a sense of the act of making a very purposeful journey to arrive at the sites for filming. This act of travelling through space, is a common thread throughout, significantly punctuated with moments of pause and the narrative, I think, is paced very sensitively, allowing time and space for messages to unfold and to be received. Most of the narratives are delivered by their authors, and this choice to be identified (along with full names in the credits) was a choice made by each individual, which again is an important directorial decision – the decision to be fully present, to identify, or if not, who do you choose to speak your words?
EM: I have mentioned ‘projections’, ‘identity’, ‘narratives’ and ‘agency’ – all on some ways point us to the ‘self’, or at least ask us to have a conversation of the ‘self’. The use of avatars is of real interest to me and how they allow artists to stand outside the self. I was also affected by the suggestion in the first film that there is no such thing as self just a series of fragmented identities for us to learn and at times choose from. In the films, we meet a series of different avatars and I was affected by the choice of clothing – some in civilian dress, others choosing some military styled clothing – and of course the astronaut, as another uniform that is cumbersome in civilian society. As a viewer, I began to think of how society represent veterans and how that is usually through some sort of military clothing or recognisable dress and how problematic this is. Could you comment on how artists reflected upon this and what key messages they might like society to glean from their selections.
EG: Within Larry and David’s practice, both as individual artists and a collaborative duo, they are working with themes of identity, representation and the interplay of digital culture within the construction and re-presentation of these identities. The artists explored these ideas in their co-produced piece Finding Fanon(a trilogy inspired by the lost plays of Frantz Fanon) in the second part of which they produced avatar versions of themselves, exploring their own cultural identities and heritages. Both artists have been working to unpick identity and representation and so we were keen to work with them on this project and knew that they would bring this experience with them. Developing their avatars, each of the participating artists worked through the idea of representation of identity through a very emergent process – the way that their avatar looked came through the story they were developing and the space they would occupy, they were constructing the identities through the message they wanted to communicate. So, for example, the astronaut character came out of a curiosity about the avatar, we found that this aspirational figure, this individual who can go higher than anyone else in the world, who can look back at the tiny earth below, actually within the game was impeded by their own uniform and their identity – they couldn’t access or drive a car, they couldn’t move around the game in the same way – and the artist used this restriction in their film, the astronaut has an impossible slog, a Sisyphean task to attempt to reach the highest point on the map, the observatory where we first meet the character.
EM: Finally, I hoped we could talk about the effect that this work had upon the veterans involved. At a time when veterans in prison are often only identified for the purposes of research or interventions, I wondered if you could say something about this space as not therapy per se but therapeutic?
EG: You make an important distinction here and it is a common conversation, particularly in any collaborative practice. I think that the distinction is a clear one – aside from the very particular set of skills and qualifications required for therapy – and it is around the difference in intention. The intention of art is not to make people well, it can in fact be challenging and uncomfortable, but I think that the nature of producing and experiencing art has the potential to be therapeutic for everyone, whether that’s through the impact of a transient experience with art – going to Tate and seeing Yves Klein’s IKB 79 ‘blue’ for example – or through a longer term and more involved engagement in the production of an artwork. In the latter there are many elements which can prove to be of what can be understood to be a ‘therapeutic’ benefit, whether making new social connections, having an honest or different conversation in a safe space, the affirmative feeling that comes from the act of creating, and seeing the world from a new perspective. I would never understand this work as therapy, the intention is to create art and so we participate together as artists, as collaborators in the production of a new artwork and as such there is an impact not only on the veterans involved but equally on the project artists, prison staff and project staff.
EM: The film is an artwork and a product of many artists. The messages ask us to think differently about engaging with people in prison and indeed the temporal and spatial place of digital art in that environment. The project, it seemed to me, took all involved to new places, especially the viewer. As I gazed at the screen I was consumed by yet another project whereby FACT do more than give a voice from the margins, rather they afford the veterans involved the position of director in their own contemporary and sensual history of themselves.