Cooking Grill No. 1
Cooking Grill No.2
Glass, plate, spoon
Weapons made with the border of windows
A few days ago we watched A Man Escaped, by Robert Bresson: a film–based on a true story– that recounts a man’s escape from prison by turning ordinary and seemingly innocent objects into his means to freedom: that turning something into something else.
As the movie ended, I remembered an incredible project by ToÃ±o Vega Macotela, wonderful Mexican artist. I also remembered the day I accompanied him to one of Mexico City’s largest prisons, to help him take the pictures you see above. Ah. SÃ. That turning something into something else. Not for escape: but for life inside jail. These objects you see in the images above where constructed (illegally of course) by the prisoners.
After the break you can read an interview that I did with ToÃ±o for Vice Magazine. where you will find a fuller description of his incredible project.
MACOTELA & LOS RASHES
Antonio Vega Macotela, as told to Gabriella GÃ³mez-Mont
(Vice Magazine. March 2008. Unedited version)
I have been going to jail for the past two years now, once a week. I stay for about seven hours each time. So by now I have actually spent more than 500Â hours in prison. The first time I went I was truly scared. And then, shit Gabriella, when the security guards stopped accompanying me inside: it was fucking frightening. There are more than 3,500 men in this jail and when they saw this unknown outsider coming into their world, well, let us say they were not happy at first. They would constantly jostle me while IÂ was walking; sometimes they would even start yelling from afar or up to my face that they were going to beat me up. Many times they tried to steal the bags I was carrying. I would go white and just keep on going, looking straight ahead, walking quickly down the long open-aired corridor, holding on tightly to my stuff and not knowing how to react.Â I mean, how the hell can you react? Common, it is their territory and you better abide by their rules. It was so horrible at first and I questioned many times my stupidity, putting myself at risk for an art project. I had a knot in my stomach every time I arrived at the gate. Fortunately I made some friends and these friends of mine now make sure that everyone behaves around me: itâ€™s only the prisoners themselves that can guarantee your safety in there, not the guards nor anybody else. It is the prisoners that rule the prison whether we like to admit it or not; just think, there is one guard for every 100 men. It is just their weird power structure made up of both dominant guards and dominant prisoners that keeps it all relatively calm.
I started going because I have been working with the concept of time for more than 6 years now. And one of the things that most impresses me is how time has been appropriated by institutions and rules outside of us. They have taken it away from us. In this somewhat Marxist mind-frame, I clearly saw that it has been transformed into production and this production into distribution. Our work-time is converted into salary, and our leisure-time into consumption. So we can actually represent and measure time with bills and coins nowadays. In the instant that time is transformed into hours, minutes and seconds, instead of experiences, well, then time has been taken from us. It has become objective instead of subjective. But time is not a representation. The only way one can feel time is through the free acts and personal moments that we create within it. And, following this train of thought, I came to the conclusion: a prison is a kind of physical representation of this idea of appropriated time, time that has been modified from without us and taken from within us, put into somebody elseâ€™s hands; hands that point to the place where we have to be and what we have to do as we stand there, waiting for instructions from the pointing finger which is in fact our jailer. That is what doing time means. Doing time for others, abiding other peopleâ€™s instructions. So I started visiting jail. To get a better understanding of this concept.
The jail I picked is in Santa Martha Acatitla. It started out as a â€œmodelâ€ prison 12 years ago and they only admitted people that were given less than 10 years of jail-time, first offenders, and supposedly had all sorts of progressive social programs. But things have changed a lot now; since jails all over Mexico are overflowing they now also send all the leftovers from the other jails here.Â So now you also find people that will be here for 20, 30, even 50 years. You can only imagine what it takes to get those type of sentences; though I try really hard not to when I am inside. In Santa Martha there is a womenâ€™s jail and a menâ€™s jail, side by side. The womenâ€™s has about 1,500 inmates and the menâ€™s has about 2,500. I have been to both. Both are over-populated and they many times cram in twelveâ€”or even more-â€”prisoners in a jail designed for eight. The systemâ€™s irregularities are almost surreal. So much for modernityâ€™s idea of progress and â€˜modelâ€™ anythingâ€™s. Overpopulation, as most things in this city, ends up deranging it all. Most jails in Mexico are 35% over their natural capacity. And it is getting worse day by day, especially because of this whole governmental campaign going on now trying to crack down the drug mafia, there is nowhere to hold them all.
Anyways. I went, and I met and talked to many of the prisoners. After creating an initial rapport, I cut them a deal: I would use a certain amount of my time to do things in their representation at a specific day and hour. At the same time they would do whatever I asked them to do as an artist. So none of us would be wasting time, we would be exchanging it. In other words, I would do whatever they wanted me to do and vice versa. And what they usually want me to do is to literally take their place in the outside world. To visit the tomb of their brother and say a few words; to ask their father for forgiveness; to go dancing with their mother; to go meet their son and act like the sonâ€™s father for a day; to read a letter out loud to a dying relative in the hospital. One even asked me to go to his girlfriendâ€™s house and watch her masturbate and then asked me to describe the scene for him, bit by bit.
Since the body is our only real, subjective way of measuring time, usually what I ask for in exchange is for measurements of time using their body. So I tell them â€œYou want me to go cook for your family, okay, then you will hold your hand to your neck for three hours and make a scribble on a paper for each heartbeat. You are going to give me all of your heartbeats for these three hours.â€ A register in the form of a drawing is usually the result. And since we realize our time exchange at the same time, meanwhile they do so, they know I am doing something on their behalf in the outside worldâ€”and a really weird and strong connection gets made. I usually do five of these exchanges per week nowadays. They become me and I become them, for a specific amount of hours and at the same moment in the day. Our wills get exchanged.
Sometimes I also have them teach me their particular â€œskillsâ€ in exchange for my time. One of them, in trade for teaching his daughter to read, showed me how to kill someone with a shoelace. Basically all you have to do is hold the shoelace in such a way that when you shake someoneâ€™s hand his index finger gets caught in a little noose, you pull sharply, he looses his balance, and then you twist the shoelace around his neck and pull hard. This really tiny guy showed me this technique, he can do it in one swift move, its crazy to watch, almost like a magic trick. That guy really intrigues me. He used to be a locksmith and he says he has invented a lock that not even he can break into. He asked me to help him patent it so I am researching patent laws for him next week. There are really talented cons in there. Some are really brilliant in fact, you have no idea all the things I have learnt in the past two years. The prison is a great school for all the people inside them: though probably not in the way that society would like them to be. Re-adaptation, certainly; for what exactly is the mystery.
Doing this project, I have been to some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Mexico City. Its weird but I believe that this thing of taking their place actually serves as some kind of strange protection from harm when I am on their errands. Even families composed solely ofÂ really dangerous thugs treat me with the utmost respect and warmth. It is really like if for a few hours I represented their son for them. It makes me think a lot of JodorowskiÂ´s psicomagicâ€”something happens between us, something strong that starts on a symbolic order but ends up affecting real life. For example, once a prisoner asked me to go see his sonâ€™s grades and ask him how he was doing in school; his family had stopped visiting him for quite a few years–he was a really tough characters and I couldnâ€™t completely blame them. So I went, I visited them, saw the kids grades, talked to them for a few hours, and my visit seems to have touched some type of fiber because the next week his family started visiting him again.
I am not allowed into the womenâ€™s jail anymore. I must say I was relieved when that happened. The womanâ€™s jail is even harder to take than the menâ€™s, believe it or not,Â so damn depressing. You know, by law all children under six must stay in jail with their mothers, so there are six year old kids that were born in jail and do not know the outside world. And of course this unnaturally strong bond forms between them because of the conditions, and then suddenly, also law takes them taken away from their mothers the day after they turn seven. Imagine what that is like for both of them. Then there are so many women that have not received visitors in the last ten years. I also read a statistic recently: from the 1,500 women in Santa Martha only 79 women have outside partners that signed up for conjugal visiting rights. Shit. You know, the thing is that when men get put into jail they become like children for their families; when women get put into jail they become phantoms: they are denied, and then forgotten. The social stigma is a lot worse for them. So they usually become really hard, aggressive and tough in jail. They have to. It must be hell to be forgotten by the outside world, it leaves you nothing to dream with.
That is probably why the men usually ask for favors related to their friends and family, whereas women usually ask for favors dealing with faith, like asking me to crawl on my knees inside the Basilica de Guadalupe to do penance on their behalf and pray for them, or to go leave flowers at the Santa MuerteÂ´s altar, things like that, mostly religious. It is as if they were looking for hope beyond the human realm, because the human realm is no longer felt within their reach.
So now I only work with the men. It has been fascinating I must say. The incredible thing for me is that they understood what contemporary art is all about right from the start. â€œMacotela, Macotela,â€ one of them started yelling one day while I was leaving. â€œI have a proposal for you,â€ he said. â€œLook. I was thinking and I have an art project that we can do together. Do you see that building in front? How about if we get us some naked girls on that rooftop there, some nice bare-assed women with nice tits, and let the prisoners gawk at them but not reach them. Itâ€™s like creating a fuckinÂ´ desire that can never be fuckinÂ´ fulfilled.â€ I was impressed. â€œSon of a bitch,â€ I told him, â€œdonâ€™t you know that was the same idea Duchamp had in mind when he did a piece called the Bride stripped naked by her bachelors, even. â€œWhoâ€™s fuckin Duchamp man and who fuckin cares. Just tell me, do you like the idea or not Macotela?â€ That was Chucho. He was great. One of the first friends that I made. I started taking to him about art, bringing him art and philosophy books, Duchamp, Foucault, Deleuze, you named it. He was 23 and crazy smart and devoured everything I gave him. Chucho is already out, and I kinda regret the fact. He was so damn good to talk to and work with, so damn smart. They had put him in jail because he stole cars to race them; he got caught with a stolen Audi before he could abandon it somewhere and thatâ€™s why he was doing time when we met. He loved cars and speed. I sometimes wonder what and how he is doing now â€¦
It was also the prisoners themselves who came up with the idea for the object series. One day they came up to me and said â€œOK Macotela. Look. If art is, as you say it is, the modification of daily life, or the modification of objects and acts to give them new meanings, then we have a question for you: donâ€™t you think that survival inÂ here can be art too? Because here we take normal objects and give them new meaning,â€ he told me. And he was right. In jail the handle of a bucket stops being the handle of a bucket and becomes a weapon, which becomes power. A brick plus a few loose wires become an electric stove, a piece ofÂ a windowsill gets turned into a knife. All of these objects are obviously forbidden, so they become ingenious and resignify things. And basically they proposed that these survival technologies become their art, and that one of the things that I would do for them would be sell these art pieces on their behalf on the outside world. That is what we are starting to do now, and they recently even formed an art collective: they call themselves the â€œRashesâ€â€”from rash, the English word, saying that they are like the tiny skin-colored bugs on cows that create huge rashes all over and are also very hard to kill. So they are both really visible and terribly invisible, at once. I laughed so much when they told me that was what they would call themselves.
In fact, its really strange this empathic, bonding thing that happens with the prisoners. Specially do to the nature of my project. It scares the hell out of me sometimes. Being this intimate with them really affects me, you start realizing how easy it is to create co-dependent relationships with them. Itâ€™s really strong. Weird solidarity shit. And you start identifying with them because you notice that even if we like to believe that prisoners are the scum of the earth they are really not that different from you and I. Itâ€™s a bad-ass place, and some of them have done terrible things, yes, but they are not that different from us and they can be really nice and generous and even look out for you. And so I also realized, god damn it, I am not that comfortably faraway from there, from jail. It is a thinner wall than we like to pretend, just an extra step in the wrong direction, maybe even by mistake or bad luckâ€¦ it frightens me to think of this. Sometimes I will be driving my car and get all paranoid and shit that I might run somebody over by accident, kill them, and end up there too. Sometimes I literally start shaking while Iâ€™m driving, thinking this. At other times I start feeling so damn comfortable in there, with them, more comfortable than I usually feel outside, that it also scares me, I really scare myself sometimes. In fact, I started going to a psychologist because of all of this. I had to learn how to deal with all these rampant and contradictory emotions. My psychologist is an expert in codependent relationships.
You know Gabriella, when I was preparing for that day when you and I went to take the pictures of the self-made illegal objectsâ€”such as the electric stove and knives and suchâ€”I did not sleep for two days. I was saying to myself Macotela, you could end up in there you know. And besides I really felt responsible for taking you and Lourdes, two women, into a jail with all these men who have been locked up for who knows how long. What we did was quite risky for everybody involved. Especially the pictures. Now that it is over and done with I can tell you this. For the eight prisoners that helped us it would have easily meant another extra seven years in jail, and for us instant lock-up until they set bail. Especially because of having in our possessionâ€”or even presence–those knives made from the metallic edges of the windows!Â In there, they menace and kill people with those, we would all gotten into so much trouble if we had been caught with them. I donâ€™t even know if those particular knives that we photographed that day had already been used for some sort of bloody business or not, I preferred not to ask; but it would have been even worse. (Interviewerâ€™s note: Macotela, how could you not have told us this when you asked us to help out. SFX: Nervous wild Macotella laughter.)
But I did try to take every precaution though, I promise, donâ€™t worry, that is why we had a few lookouts in front of the building and also by the door of the office we closed-off while we took the pictures. (Interviewerâ€™s note: Golly thanks Macotela, so thoughtful of you. Just like you had prepared for the guards to escort us down that 10-minute walkway amongst the prisoners, right? Those same guards that never arrived.) Ha-ha. Anyway, you see, it all turned out OK. And other than having more than a hundred men wolf whistling at the same time and making lurid comments, well, Lourdes and you were fine, ha-ha. Just fine. And I must say that he prisonerâ€™s who helped us were damn brave when they decided to do this project with me: besides the extra sentenceâ€”and one of them is only a month away from getting outâ€”they would have locked them up in â€˜Punishmentâ€™ for this. And Punishment is as horrible as it gets. They cannot leave the cell for most of the day, and when they do, it is only to the corridor outside their cells. They donâ€™t have proper bathrooms or anything. And they have to go through certain power-rituals: on the first day they better have payment for the â€˜Mothersâ€™ ready. Payment consists in certain amount of weed, crack and money. Motherâ€™s are the men that have been there the longestâ€”the oneâ€™s locked up there for more than a year and you have to pay them tribute. You also get humiliated and beat up at the beginning so you know who is boss, until the next new man comes along and you get to beat himÂ up with the others. On that day you will be safer, but not much, not until you become a Mother yourself. And you still never know. Not is prison. Especially not in Punishment.
So yeah. This project makes me feel so many contradictory feelings. On one hand, I have healed so many things while healing things for others. I also lost 17 kilos and feel a lot better about myself. At the same time it is harder for me to trust people nowadays. I have also become more reserved; but paradoxically now I feel more comfortable with people too, less awkward than I used to be. Notions of good and evil have become more complex in my mind as well.
And artâ€”as the modification of life through acts and symbols–can change things, it can. I have seen it. Acts can change one. One can change oneâ€™s world. And others worldâ€™s too if even just one tiny bit.Â And we can steal back our own time in small ways, and make it subjective again. Sometimes. But one must occasionally think like a thief.