Over 2.3 million people are currently held in American prisons, jails, and detention facilities. Many of them will be there for years, even for life. In most states, even juveniles can be put in solitary confinement, and visitation is becoming more difficult and expensive. It’s another world, largely cut off from the rest of us. A recent series from Know Hope aims to take one small step at bridging that gap.
Vicariously Speaking stems from letters that Know Hope has been receiving from inmates on death row in Nashville, TN. He used snippets of their words, re-wrote them in his own distinctive handwriting, and had the messages installed as a series of eight billboards as part of Nashville’s Oz Art Fest. It’s a beautiful series.
The question of power comes up though. The title of the project acknowledges its own possible imperfections. Does Vicariously Speaking give voice to people who are incarcerated, or does it exploit them as Know Hope takes their words and puts them in his voice? Power relationships between artists and their collaborators and subjects are always complicated, but it’s not like Know Hope surprised the letter writers with the billboards. Know Hope is a poet, and the people writing to him agreed to have their words re-framed as poetry and visual art, something that arts festivals are more used to providing funding for than some variation on the project where the speaking isn’t so secondhand.
Presumably, due to Oz Arts’ marketing efforts, at least some of the people who saw the billboards knew the story behind them. But of course most people didn’t. And there’s a beauty in that ambiguity. Maybe one of these mysterious billboards particularly touches you, so you want to find out more about it, and it’s only later that you hear the backstory, if you hear about it at all.
We are fundamentally and intentionally disconnected from the incarcerated population, so these billboards are a little bit magical. As Know Hope puts it, the billboards are a link “between two separate realities.”
In you’re in Nashville, photos of the billboards are on display alongside the original letters at Oz Arts‘ space through the end of August.
Photos courtesy of Know Hope