Columbia Collective artists take on juvenile incarceration

Opening Saturday September 3rd at Foreland Contemporary Arts Campus (111 Water Street, Catskill, NY), the Juvenile Justice Arts & Media Network presents “Talking Back: Artists of the Columbia Collective,” a group exhibition channeling creativity as a form of agency, humor as insurgence, and joy as resistance within the juvenile justice system. Curated by Sofia Thieu, “Talking Back” features new site-specific works from Columbia Collective artists: a multimedia group of young female and trans artists named after their previous facility, the New York Department of Corrections’ Columbia Secure Center for Girls in Claverack, New York.

The Collective is now based at the Brookwood Secure Center for Youth down the street, constructed in 1983 as one of eleven state juvenile facilities operated by the Office of Children and Family Services, and where individuals under 16 have been sentenced in adult criminal court.

Under the arts programming and mentorship of artist Maggie Hazen, the Columbia Collective was founded in 2019. Since then, the Columbia Collective artists have turned to dynamic artistic practices to navigate their circumstances. These artists are Jay, Marshmallow, and Juste-A, who take on chosen pen names to subvert legal confidentiality.

Taking its title from bell hooks’ 1989 novel, “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black,” the exhibition explores defiant speech and the gallery space as a platform to “talk back” against a carceral system that silences these artists’ voices.

As hooks writes: “True speaking is not solely an expression of creative power; it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless. As such, it is a courageous act—as such, it represents a threat. To those who wield oppressive power, that which is threatening must necessarily be wiped out, annihilated, silenced.”

Despite the advocacy and care of current facility staff, each artist—having spent formative early years in various youth facilities, detention centers, and difficult home situations—lives with a deep sense that no one is listening; thus, the Columbia Collective artists produce new work in the hopes that someone will hear.

The Columbia Collective artists works on display—ranging in personal style as well as media from paper mache, to wood panel collage, to works on paper—project the artists’ individual inner worlds, physical environments, and living conditions into free space. “Talking Back” also features a new major video installation by Maggie Hazen, in which Marshmallow, Juste-A, and Jay take up the gallery space and confront the viewer, bypassing legal confidentiality through the use of Snapchat filters, creating a soundscape of rebellion and play.

Original research and accompanying texts for the exhibition frame the Columbia Collective artists within a centuries-old exploitive history of New York’s juvenile justice system, while interrogating the biopolitical construction of the “juvenile offender” as an fear-mongering instrument of mass criminalization.

An examination of carceral aesthetics is an exploration of the impact of the U.S. prison system on contemporary visual art. “Talking Back” endeavors to center carceral aesthetics and art made in prisons as crucial to contemporary culture, and its artists’ commentary as essential to understanding our carcero-police state.

The state of our juvenile justice system and the cycles of harm that it perpetuates are commonplace today; punishment and isolation as a means to address harm are distressingly normalized. Juvenile detention and its moral abdications do not shock us. Yet, juxtaposing cultural and carceral space—considering the gallery together with the prison facility—poses a disruption of our distance from carcerality while highlighting the urgency of abolition. Listening for love, humor, resurgence and revolt, how do these artists help us imagine an alternative togetherness and decarcerated future?

The Columbia Collective artists exhibition will be on view through September 25, 2022.

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