On a chilly and wet lockdown Saturday evening in January, it was great to book into the special screening of the Phil Collins film, Bring Down The Walls (2020), which promised a fascinating correlation on mass incarceration and dance music – underground house meets the American criminal justice system – from an artist with an incredible talent for navigating the difficult social, political and cultural situations of his chosen subjects.
We have all had to get used to events migrating online during the pandemic, and screenings with a limited online presence are one way of recreating the buzz of something you once left the house to do. It’s almost like going out. The video was hosted for only a few hours on the Void Gallery website and was presented as part of the Derry Radical Bookfair. There were no book stalls this year; instead, a series of online launches and discussions, which probably brought the fair to a wider virtual audience1. Derry has a proud radical left, a tradition of activism, workers’ rights, and social justice tangled within the politics of the Troubles, as explored recently in projects for EVA International by Sara Greavu, who also programmed this screening2.
The buzz of this event and film are important. It is not so much a documentary about mass incarceration but rather it documents a participatory public art project that took place in 2018. Commissioned by that behemoth of socially engaged practice, Creative Time, it involved over 100 collaborators during the month of May and was held in a decommissioned fire station that became a “school by day and nightclub by night”3. The school part explained the vast reading lists that accompanied the socials for this screening4. These lists relate to the original project, which had a curriculum but also many other scheduled events and activities, grounding the film in a wide array of contemporary scholarship around mass incarceration in the US, but also providing legal services, walking tours, meals, critical resistance sessions and so much more.
This helps eliminate any confusion there may be that the topic is being treated lightly by connecting to dance music and club life. What was fascinating was the interconnection, not just the way music brought life to the grim reality of incarceration but how there is a “chronological overlap between the advent of the prison industrial complex around that time and the emergence of a new dance music coming out of Chicago, Detroit and New York, from the very same disenfranchised communities targeted by regressive policies like the war on drugs and three-strikes laws”, as Collins told Taylor Dafoe of ArtNet5.
The film itself alternates between various sessions in the school and previous discussions with prisoners at Sing Sing Correctional Facility – a maximum-security prison located in Ossining, New York – which are intercut with dance and music sections. To maintain a film flow, none of the participants or speakers are named until the closing credits. This is often frustrating, as we only see fragments of the conversations and events that occurred. Like most socially engaged participatory projects, there was so much going on that it was impossible to capture. However, the musical interludes offered more than just respite from some really harrowing personal stories. A number of classic tracks were re-recorded for a special album with musicians and vocalists, who have themselves previously been incarcerated. Proceeds from this feed back into support organisations and offer a real legacy for the project6.
The music also gave a different historical context for more recent ventures into the mass incarceration issue in pop music and popular culture. House music came long before Black Lives Matter had found its anthem with Kendrick Lamar’s Alright in 20157 and he was already building on earlier work by NWA and Public Enemy from decades previous with biting lyrics and outrageous visuals. Other more mainstream entertainers have also brought the topic to a wider public.
2020 saw the release of another documentary about the US prison system inequalities. With Kim Kardashian West ‘rebranded’ as an activist via The Justice Project, her film also used personal testimonies to provide backbone. And while the project did achieve some real results, they are now blighted by a change in President and a raft of unrealised pardons that instead favoured white collar criminals. Kim was always going to be the main subject anyway – it was all about her journey, her narrative, her rehab from vacuous selfie-star8. Collins, by contrast, only appears fleetingly in his film, dancing in the background for a few seconds, never as the central character, certainly a provocateur and some kind of an auteur. He never attempts to be a saviour, but instead creates multiple discursive and useful spaces that the film tries to document.
If it seems like I have avoided detailing the content of Bring Down The Walls, I am. There is a lot of information about the project, if you follow the links below. In my other life online as webinar attendee, over the past few weeks, I have come across more and more brilliant work on mass incarceration, the reinvention of abolition, and some incredible grassroots projects archiving the horrific spectre of the social destruction caused by the Prison Industrial Complex9. If anything, the film opened my eyes and ears to some of this work.
I’d love to end with some uplifting lyrics from the house tracks in the film, but they offer so much more than mere transcription here. The chaotic ballroom vogueing section presented the best counter to cultural appropriation that a project like this can too easily fall on. The sweaty, ultra-camp, sloganeering competition gave a kind of raw realness that is only mimicked in television’s Drag Race or Pose10, giving the documentary a sense of reality, despite being such a heavily scheduled construct – so busy and yet never enough.
Alan Phelan is an artist who lives and works in Dublin.
¹Follow the links at the end of each event (derryradicalbookfair.wordpress.com) to view the video recordings of the talks hosted on Facebook.
²The online platform, Little Did They Know (eva.ie/littledidtheyknow), developed for the guest programme in late 2020, was curated by Merve Eleven and included several interviews by Sara Greavu working with Ciara Philips, Jim ‘Hawks’ Collins, Margo Harkin, and Mitchel McLaughlin about many initiatives and projects in Derry from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. It’s not for you we did it maps various networks of relationships that were formed by individuals and groups that shared common concerns of self-representation and resistance.
³The Bring Down the Walls project pages on creativetime.org document the extensive schedules week by week of the school and nightclub, but also the other supports offered, like the temporary Legal Action Center and information about other collaborating organisations, such as The Fortune Society – a New York City-based non-profit organisation that provides essential support to the formerly incarcerated creativetime.org/projects/bring-down-the-walls
⁴The event page for the Bring Down the Walls screening had specific reading lists from curators and the filmmakers. There are over 50 books and articles recommended derryvoid.com/event/special-preview-screening-of-bring-down-the-walls
⁵Taylor Dafoe, ‘What Links House Music with Mass Incarceration? Creative Time’s New Spring Project Investigates’, 2 March 2018, news.artnet.com/exhibitions/creative-time-spring-exhibition-1234973
⁶On bringdownthewalls.bandcamp.com you can listen to the re-recorded House classics and buy the album on a variety of formats for the listed price or a price of your choice.
⁷Andrew Limbong, ‘Both Party and Protest, ‘Alright’ Is The Sound Of Black Life’s Duality’, 26 August 2019, npr.org/2019/08/26/753511135/kendrick-lamar-alright-american-anthem-party-protest
⁸Daniel D’Addario, ‘‘Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project’: TV Review’, 3 April 2020, variety.com/2020/tv/reviews/kim-kardashian-west-prison-reform-documentary-review-1203551572
⁹Million Dollar Hoods is a university-based, community-driven, mixed-methods research project that deploys not only data mapping, but also rapid-response reports, oral histories, archives, and policy/movement work to document and map how much mass incarceration has extracted from largely Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and working-class communities since the 1970s. milliondollarhoods.pre.ss.ucla.edu
¹⁰Alternates can be easily found on social media (eg instagram.com/explore/tags/qwerkkout)