Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison
On a bright morning at the beginning of September I joined members of the press on a visit to the former HM Prison Reading.
The Grade II-listed Victorian prison has stood empty for just under three years since its closure in November 2013. But it has just opened to the public as part of commissioning body Artangel’s newest project Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison. Artangel have secured permission to use the building – before its planned development into housing – from the Ministry of Justice who have yet to sell the site.
Just before entering the prison I had to take a moment to catch myself. I realised there was a possibility I was just going to cry the whole way round. I flashed back to another moment; the time when I was fourteen years old in a trench in Belgium that had been preserved for the best part of a century so that I could stand in it and battle an instructive panic attack.
Usually I have been encouraged to consider my propensity to empathy as a positive trait, but I’ve come to realise that there are in fact a good number of problems with this. Empathy can blind us to the violence of our own position, convince us that we have knowledge that we don’t and that it can be used to manipulate large numbers of people into believing in emotive narratives. In that field in the Somme you could also buy decorative mirrors framed with bullets from the First World War which were claimed to have been found in those same fields. I remember well my feeling of betrayal when I saw them. I had not thought of myself as a tourist, as I panicked in the tunnel, but I was one.
I had not thought of myself as a tourist, as I panicked in the tunnel, but I was one.
A week before Christmas 2013 Southwark council pulled the plug on Artangel’s proposed plans to have internationally renowned artist Mike Nelson create a ‘pyramid’ out of the debris produced by the demolition of Elephant and Castle’s Heygate Estate after a public outcry against what local residents and campaigners described as the insensitivity of the project.
I want very much now, to keep my wits about me.
In addition to its Grade II-listing Reading Prison is also a Scheduled Ancient Monument that stands on the site of the former Reading Abbey, and as such is protected at the highest level under planning law. The BBC reports that Reading Council have accused the Ministry of Justice of ‘dithering’ over its plans for the site. These were finally announced by George Osborne and Michael Gove in 2015 as part of flagship proposals for prison reform in the UK, proposals that just this week were put on indefinite hold by Liz Truss, the new Justice Secretary. Such governmental confusion aside, Reading Prison is set to be at the heart of the regeneration of Reading’s ‘Abbey Quarter’ and is expected to become the site of three hundred new homes as well as a permanent landmark ‘visitor attraction’.
Local press announced Artangel’s temporary planning application as recently as July, weeks after a workshop was held with local groups including Reading University to consider the development of the site. Artangel have moved quickly to put together Inside’s star-studded exhibition, performance programme and guided tours (run by the National Trust) which runs until the 30th October 2016.
Once inside, I realise I am reminded almost viscerally of school. Perhaps, it having been a detention centre, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is a shock. It might be the contrast between Victorian architecture and those abrasive nylon carpets over concrete, or the rubberised strips bordered by metal reinforcements on the edges of the stairs. Most evocative are the smell of damp paper towels and the feel of hand-rails painted and then pitted and then rubbed smooth from use in cycles over years and years, and the dark oak fittings.
We are ushered into a panelled room with large, barred windows – used recently as a chapel, as you can see from the cross-shaped pattern in the bars with shards of heart-breakingly home-made stained glass still holding on in one place – to find a complimentary coffee bar ready for us, and by then I am no longer so close to tears. I want to know what’s going on. I initially decide against the yuppie coffee but then, I remember the size of the building and the adrenalin race of feelings through my body and I change my mind. All of us in the queue look as embarrassed as I feel.
I am staring at a large dark stain in the bright blue carpet mentally calibrating what to expect. I take a picture to remind myself. It’s like school or like a hospital or, if you look at the state of it – all stained and worn not just from use but from disuse; outside the broken chain-link of the exercise yard sags above piles of dead leaves – it’s like a squat.
I spend so long looking at the graffiti it’s hard to concentrate on the artworks.
Not a squat; I have to correct myself. A squat does not have barista coffee. What this is more reminiscent of is the squat’s oh-so twenty-first-century successor: a site awaiting development which must be ‘protected by property guardians’ lest, heaven forbid, its owners should have to shoulder the cost of paying for it. In the 2014/15 financial year the BBC reports the cost to the government of security and utilities at the empty prison as £262 000.
Artangel’s tagline is ‘Extraordinary art in unexpected places’. But after thirty years of high profile art commissioning ‘unexpected’ feels rather disingenuous. What we have come, in fact, to expect of Artangel is that they will commission works in sites that have ceased their former functioning and often been subject to a period of disuse or dereliction. In this sense, Inside is business as usual. In almost all Artangel’s many previous works place functions as a starting point for detailed site-specific research by a single commissioned artist. This process has resulted in diverse and important works such as Jem Finer’s Long Player. Notably, however, Inside is the first time Artangel have ever put on a group exhibition.
Later on, at home I will look up Camelot Europe, the ‘vacant property specialists’ who popularised the idea of property guardianship. On Camelot’s website tenants are offered ‘affordable rooms’ in ‘inspiring locations’ while property owners are promised that value will be optimised and protected ‘creating long term value’. Property Guardians give up the scanty rights afforded to tenants under UK law – for example, the right to a month’s notice to vacate – in exchange for these affordable rooms in inspiring locations.
Most of the doors to the cells are closed when we arrive and there are many cells without art works in them. In each cell the sink and the toilet have been plugged with rubbish – old bin liners or plastic wrappers – disingenuous proof of how fastidiously little the curators have intervened in the space. Authenticity is scrupulously preserved.
The original door of Oscar Wilde’s cell C.2.2 is the centrepiece of the artwork in the chapel by Jean Michel Pancin. This will serve as a set from which many famous artists and writers will give full-length public readings of De Profundis – the long letter to Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas that was published after his death. There is of course another, more modern door fitted in that cell now and many others have inhabited that space since Wilde walked out of it.
During the press trip and, in the publicity for Inside, overwhelming emphasis is placed on the fact that Reading Prison housed Wilde while he wrote his Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis. But looking around at the rooms, at the paintwork, at the hand railings, that well-worn heritage magic trick – where you imagine the place untouched since the time of whoever – simply doesn’t kick in. I grew up only an hour’s drive from here and the aesthetic of this architecture is too familiar to ignore. I can’t stop thinking about the other inhabitants of this place.
On Artangel’s website is a quote from De Profundis:
In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery. One of a thousand lifeless numbers, as of a thousand lifeless lives.
At the end of a built-in and moulded bed unit made out of some kind of hard resin in one of the cells someone has written ‘I heart Stevie’ and then next to it, circled:
1 ov the 2
For Wilde the lesson of prison was to learn how to stop seeing himself as exceptional. It seems to me that this is one of the lessons of De Profundis but also that this is the challenge that Artangel’s handling of the project fails to meet.
I spend so long looking at the graffiti it’s hard to concentrate on the artworks.
In the two cells in which a Felix Gonzalez Torres piece Untitled (Water) has been installed there are no doors, or I remember there being no doors because they are at least held open. There are only bead curtains made of transparent multi-faceted blue beads. Torres’ art is so nimble and generous in its abstraction that both this piece and – an old favourite of mine – ‘an endless stack’ of prints of a grey sky in which soars a single bird, soothe me enormously.
There are works here by artists, of which Torres is one, that I have loved very much when I have seen them elsewhere, and here they seem to attain particular meanings. Roni Horn’s annotated pictures of the Thames surface, I have also seen before, at a retrospective at Tate Modern. Here they feel strong. The surface of the water, with its bubbles and eddies up against the cream painted and pockmarked walls, reminds the viewer that there is infinite variation to even the most uniform environment if you look at it long enough. They suggest the melancholic gaze that comes with submission to what is, and also the Thames itself, not far away, in Reading as in London, but achingly impossible to access from the cell. Certainly this resonates with Wilde’s De Profundis and Horn’s work proves expansive enough to make room for the environment in which the works are placed, despite the facts that these are pre-existing works, hardy site-specific at all.
To ignore Wilde’s shadow seems so much more faithful to the spirit of the writing he did here.
With most art works getting a whole cell to themselves the viewer can actually, in a quiet moment, sit with the work in rare intimacy. Though, I had to wait at times to read or listen to one of the ‘letters of separation’ by invited writers which are presented as single handwritten copies and accompanying sound-files accessed through provided headphones. Tahmima Anam’s letter to an unborn child, pregnant in prison, Anne Carson’s letter from Socrates to Krito, Ai Weiwei’s letter to his son: all do a better job of imagining or describing the experience of incarceration than those works which address Wilde directly like Nan Goldin’s The Boy or Deborah Levy’s letter addressed literally to him. To ignore Wilde’s shadow, which according to the programme ‘falls over the entire exhibition’, seems so much more faithful to the spirit of the writing he did here.
I try to remember when I have ever seen a space more weirdly suited to the contemplation of works of art or to reading. I try to imagine the cost of such a space, were it actually built for art’s sake. Who values it, and how, and in what different ways? I think of the incredible exhibitions put on yearly by the Koestler Trust of art made by prison inmates. I think of the value of that work to those who do it, and the precarity of access to such processes. I think of those who live, not in Reading with its easy access to London’s cultural scene, but further out, and what it might mean to young LGBT kids to see the work of Felix Gonzalez Torres up close. I think of how a normative idea of homosexuality can be used to generate tourist pounds and promote Reading as a cultural centre. I wonder how much it will cost to live in the houses they build here. I think of how Michael Gove stopped allowing books as gifts to prison inmates, of cuts to library services and reading projects. Gove, who just helped drive this country off a cliff. I think of how I hate the whole idea of carceral justice.
To be completely honest the whole thing is totally overwhelming. I fight back the tears that finally materialise as I hear the beginning of the heritage tour point out the execution rooms. I take my two copies of Felix Gonzalez Torres bird print, and head back out into the blue autumn air.
Go and visit Reading Prison, go and smell it for yourself and cry if you need to. Go and hear Patti Smith read De Profundis. But try, if you can bear it, to keep your wits about you, and remember what it cost for you to see this.
Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison has been extended until 4th December 2016.
Image credits (from top to bottom):
1. The entrance to the Victorian wing of HM Prison Reading, designed and completed in 1844 by George Gilbert Scott, June 2016. Photograph: Morley von Sternberg
2. Chapel window. Photo: Hestia Peppe
3. Writer and performer Neil Bartlett reads Wilde’s De Profundis – a 50,000-word letter to his lover and betrayer ‘Bosie’ – in its entirety, in the old chapel in Reading Prison. Originally filmed and broadcast live online 12:00 – 18:30 BST Sunday 4 September 2016 by Kinura.
4. Prison graffiti. Photo: Hestia Peppe