Trailer: The Lives of Hamilton Fish a rock opera
by Rachel Mason
Inspired by Rand Paul, Rachel Mason peforms FutureClown
Portrait of the artist by Kerwin Williamson
My Sing Sing Song
March 1, 2016
by Rachel Mason
I recently learned about a new art project by the British artist, Phil Collins (no relation to the singer), about Sing Sing Prison. Hearing about this film-in-progress reminded me of my own experience as a volunteer at Sing Sing Prison and a project I had planned to make about my time there. It also reminded me of the reasons that I never carried out that project.
Sing Sing Prison, or Sing Sing Correctional Facility as it is now known, is one of the most well known prisons in the country — and I had always been deeply fascinated by it. For five years, I volunteered once a week with a program called Rehabilitation For The Arts (RTA) inside this maximum-security penitentiary on the Hudson River, site of a notorious electric chair that took the lives of 614 people, including Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg, famously accused of espionage for the Soviet Union.
RTA afforded me great freedom in what I would teach and so I decided to bring the thing that I am most passionate about — performance art and experimental approaches to storytelling through art. I brought in books by artists whom I admired and who have influenced me. I tried to flood my classroom with ideas about how to create stories. I hoped that the class would be a place where the artists participating could present anything that was interesting in whatever form the work demanded.
I brought in in a book with images of feminist performance from the 70’s, including works by Carolee Schneeman and Yoko Ono. One of the men created a piece in response to this work in which he enacted a series of gestures about the events in his life that led to his confinement at Sing Sing. He did these gestures by folding white paper into symbolic objects, such as a house and a gun, all the while wearing a circle on his face in homage to a John Baldessari photo-collage. I was honored that this class created an environment that made them feel comfortable enough with me and with each other to make work like this. They even felt comfortable enough to tease me about my LA accent and my total ignorance of some of the prison terms they used constantly.
Over the next few years, the idea of my own personal Sing Sing Song project began to dissolve. It had to do with the fact that, during my time as a volunteer, I was invited to attend the plays that RTA presented at Sing Sing prison. They were incredibly well-executed, considering the obvious constraints. One play was written by an inmate and, in another, the men were choreographed into a massive slow-motion fight scene.
But when the invited audience came in from the outside, what jumped out at me was that the inmates on the stage were mostly black and hispanic and the audience was mostly white. I felt a sense that much of the audience were well-intentioned folk — art patrons, supporters of progressive causes, and ex-hippies — and that, although I do believe this work is important, there was a self-importance to the audience, and that the relative privilege of those that got to watch this performance was going unmentioned. I sensed a troubling do-gooder feeling amongst the viewers that made me uncomfortable and caused me to question my role and my own perceived “do-gooder-ness.” One thing I often told my class, which is exactly how I feel, is that I had entered into this experience in order to learn and to become inspired for my own work. I never aimed to go there to bring something to the men; if anything, I wanted to gain from this experience.
I imagined a sense of the “artist-as-hero” that would pervade an art context if I, or anyone else who wasn’t a true insider, someone who had served time in a real way, were to do a project about Sing Sing. This led me to feel that I would not want to present my “findings” to the world in an art context, or perhaps any context, other than a personal essay like this one. On the flipside, I saw and felt the real interest and excitement from my students when I came in to teach and I deeply believe in the importance of artists and art in prisons. Anyone who claims to go into a prison to teach something, or to bring religion or anything else, is going to learn quickly that the real learning happens in reverse. I saw and met men that were brilliant, curious, mavericks who had way more to teach me than I had to teach them. They were there because of terrible situations that they found themselves in at an age and in situations, from poverty to abuse, when people make bad choices. Most of their bad, life-altering decisions were made at about age 16.
Though I would love to have more people know about what happens inside a prison, I feel that the best thing that can possibly happen is for more people to volunteer and experience prisons for themselves—and I don't have any good ideas for how to do that because, in my experience, it seemed that most volunteer organizations were religious.
As much as I wanted a larger audience for prisoners, and for their voices to be heard, I felt very nervous when I heard about Mr. Sing Sing being made by a Turner-nominated British artist creating a piece with inmates; it just made me cringe. I want to believe that everyone’s intentions are pure; as its very eloquent press release states, “the film offers a shift in the vantage point from which we think through issues around the criminal justice system.” I still cringe because there is clearly a blatant power imbalance in the situation, an imbalance I myself had felt each time I crossed over to teach and was locked inside by the heavy gates. I think it is something that should weigh heavily on anyone who engages in any sort of “presentation” of work by inmates no matter how sensitive anyone is to the people inside, that dynamic is problematic.
I know that we are all just a breath away from serving time in prison. My own parents almost went to jail on obscenity-related charges, when I was in junior high school. But race and economic status are undeniable factors in America’s incarceration disaster. I live with a drawing on my wall that one of the men in the class made and every day I remind myself of the people on the inside. I want to encourage people to volunteer like I did and, if you are reading this, I want to encourage you to volunteer at some point, with whatever skills you have, so that you may learn from the experience and be able to be a voice for prisoners on the outside through sharing your experience.
As far as my Sing Sing art project, I happened to look up one notorious execution of a man at Sing Sing, one Hamilton “Albert” Fish who was executed in the chair on January 16, 1936 and I discovered an incredible coincidence: a politician, who shared the same name, Hamilton Fish, also died on that day. I eventually made a feature film and rock opera called The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Its been shown at museums and film festivals on multiple continents and I hope to show it someday at Sing Sing.
Rachel Mason is a sculptor, songwriter and performer. She has recorded 10 full length albums, toured, exhibited sculpture, video and performance at galleries and museums internationally including most recently a rock opera film called "The Lives of Hamilton Fish." She has exhibited and performed at the Whitney Museum, Queens Museum, Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art, School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Henry Gallery in Seattle, James Gallery at CUNY, University Art Museum in Buffalo, Sculpture Center, Hessel Museum of Art at Bard and Occidental College, Kunsthalle Zurich, The New Museum, Park Avenue Armory, Art in General, La Mama, Galapagos, Dixon Place, and Empac Center for Performance in Troy among other venues. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Flash Art, Art in America, Art News, and Artforum.