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Kevin O'Neill, The Milieu Will Kill You

an interview by Robert Williams

Artist, poet and filmmaker Kevin O’Neill has spent the past 20 years working in mental institutions, psychiatric crisis centers, head injury facilities and a maximum security prison to examine and chronicle what altered states of consciousness, extreme social oppression and incarceration tell us about ourselves.

The outcome is an evolving multi-media work in progress he has titled Alien Nation. The most recent phase of this artistic odyssey is an artist-in-residence project O’Neill has been conducting at a maximum-security state prison since 1997. A video documentary he produced and directed on-site at the prison, Red Clay Country, was aired this year on PBS. A mid-career survey of his work, along with the works of inmates from his visual arts workshop was held at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia in September, 1999. He is a recent recipient of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation Artist-as-Catalyst award.

Following are excerpts from a recent conversation with the artist.

Q. Is there a historical context in this country for what it is you as an artist are doing in prison?

A. Well, in the first half of the 19th century Charles Dickens, whose own father was in prison for debt in 1824, decided he would travel from England to the United States. He expressed a profound interest in visiting two of the most barbaric institutions in America at that time, a slave plantation and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. I’m convinced Dickens understood instinctively that in probing the darkest recesses of a society’s status quo, how it regards and treats, in biblical terms, "the least of its brethren," he would uncover its true human character, not to mention the merits of its constitutional pronouncements. Dickens was appalled by what he found at Eastern State Prison. It was then heralded as a world paradigm of penal correctness, and long since recognized as a vile monument to abject cruelty and abomination. He wrote eloquently about all this in his American Notes of 1842. These bold investigations by Dickens and the subsequent social criticism were seminal events in the consciousness and movement, however small, of arts for social change.

Q. I am assuming conditions in prison have changed since Dickens day?

A. Today, make no mistake about it, these two cornerstones - fulcrums - of American society, slavery and prison, have converged in a fusion of Orwellian proportions. When one enters the sprawling grounds of the prison I visit 3 evenings a week and travels the long road approaching its entrance, one often sees a startling sight - groups of black males toiling in the fields under the scrutiny and guard of white overlords. These men, state prisoners, are dressed in prison gray with the letters DOC (Dept. of Corrections) emblazoned on their backs. These letters inverted are the chilling initials and dark initiative of how it all began 400 years ago. The script has been flipped. This is even more chilling when one considers that prisons are now becoming privatized, which means commerce - the commodification of human beings and the labor they produce has officially returned. The enslavement of peoples of African decent really only ended on paper in America. Its etiology is unchanged hatred and fear. Its impetus as a moral institution was merely downsized. Like most social malignancies given political remedies, its continuity was merely modified, meliorated at best. Over the course of time it slowly and covertly metastasized into what has now become the prison industrial complex. The physical manifestations are strikingly similar - vast rural plantations, or if you prefer, feudal racism. The radius of this complex far exceeds prison walls or even police blotters. Its induction center is largely the urban ghetto and all that that implies. The criterion or semantics for induction has accordingly been modified from three fifths’ of a human being to "criminal". Since the ghetto, which is institutional oppression, is the most efficacious crime factory ever devised, propagating "criminals" is a done deal. The American shibboleth of "get darky" has been constitutionally reinvented as "war on drugs/tough on crime".

Q. Just what is the racial make-up of the prison you visit?

A. At a given time the prison population can be as many as four thousand inmates. Of this number, approximately 88% are black, and roughly 8% Latino. As an inmate colleague of mine has stated so unceremoniously in our video documentary, Red Clay Country. "There’s about four or five white guys here." He also correctly points out that poverty begets crime. Since America currently has incarcerated a larger number of its citizens than any country on earth, with the possible odious exception of Russia, that’s a lot of procreation. The racial breakdown othe population I mention is a fair extrapolation nationally. Chomsky has talked about a manufactured consent in the United States. I am speaking about the institutional manufacturing of a palpable dissent, a dissent in the form of crimes against the state, a state which itself continues from pre-emancipation to be corrupt. I am merely reiterating what artists like Auden have already asserted: "Those to whom evil is done, in turn do evil." In fact, emancipation in the United States is the perfect example of political reform in this nation - slavery in America has been politically and exponentially re-formed.

Q. What is it like entering a maximum security prison as an artist, an outsider?

A. To walk into a prison is to bear witness to the alimentary epicenter of the body politic. To again quote my colleague, who’s name is Muhammed. "Where are all the white people, they don’t commit crimes anymore?" As an artist, which really means to be a catalyst, to bring positive energy into a prison or psychiatric facility and is not at all about "teaching", conducting workshops or some form of pedagogy, but about community. It’s about the abandoned capacity of art and artists to transcend bondage and triumph over inhumanity. It’s about filling voids and exploding myths, crushing the stereotypes and taking these god-forsaken places back from the politicians and into the fold of community. It’s about recognizing that what exists on the bottom was created at the top. In reality prison isn’t a cure for anything, it is in itself a syndrome indicative of the escalating racial crisis in America. Its pathology is as definitive as any clinical disease - the most elevated cell count in the history of this or any other continent, and its not a white cell count!

Q. Do you have murderers and rapists in your workshops?

A. Prison is comprised largely of a population whose entire middle passage ancestry was raped and murdered for centuries. The descendants of these criminals are nowhere to be found. I don’t ask people about their specific crimes, that’s not my role. A significant number of inmates I work with are serving life, so one can assume homicide or heinous crime is involved. One lifer I’ve come to know has been in prison for 28 years. Muhkam has been in my poetry workshop since ’97. He’s a marvelous poet and an extraordinary individual - reminiscent of Nelson Mandella. Despite the chaotic milieu, he exudes a great calm and serenity. The untold crucible of 3 decades of perseverance in an apparatus designed to destroy a human being from the inside out has apparently transformed him in quite a profound, perhaps Zen-like way. It is my sense that this man has been killed many times over for his transgressions. Muhkam’s wife died suddenly two years ago. It was quite tragic, she was his last link to the life he lost, to anything un-prison. Since the social and humanitarian gains of the ‘60s and ‘70s have been politically reversed domestically, lifers in states like Pennsylvania can no longer attend, in shackles or course, the funerals of designated loved-ones. Same thing with the possibility of parole after 20 years for lifers-out the window. It was plain to see the loss of his wife coupled with being denied the benediction of a final earthly communion had killed this man yet one more time. In the present political climate, it’s all about a pound of flesh. Until one actually enters a prison and sees first-hand what is going on there, one cannot fathom that "punishment" can be a far greater crime than crime itself.

Q. How has all this - 20 years spent with the occupants of societies fringe institutions - impacted you as an artist?

A. Throughout history artists, poets and writers have taken pilgrimages of one sort or another to clarify, define or edify something within or without. Let’s say this has been my pilgrimage to the proverbial "belly of the beast". There I have meditated upon what Dickens wrote in American Notes and what Bob Dylan meant when he wrote," live outside the law, you must be honest". Freedom can only be defined through its negation. I have come to realize that art is nothing other than horticulture. If the seed is good something good will grow, no matter how barren the soil.

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