This month, we’ve seen Creative Time and The Fortune Society strike diverse success with its “Bring Down The Walls” public art project. In collaboration with Phil Collins and over 100 other organizations, the no-cost, open-to-the-public event at Firehouse in New York was held each weekend this month, shining light on the faults of the incarceration system in the U.S. Inside the historic fire station, individuals who have experienced incarceration—like criminal justice reform experts, community activists, educators, and more—joined dancers, singers, and other performers to address today’s social and political issues related to mass incarceration.
For daytime programming, the space acted as a classroom for visitors to learn more about mass incarceration, while participating in discussions about policy reform, life in prison, parole challenges, and life after release. And at night, the firehouse turned into a performance venue, welcoming dancers, producers, DJs, and musicians to express themselves—even welcoming a cameo from FKA Twigs.
Before its last installment this weekend, Whitewall spoke with Creative Time’s acting director, Alyssa Nitchun.
WHITEWALL: Tell us a bit about “Bring Down the Walls.”
ALYSSA NITCHUN: “Bring Down The Walls” is a multifaceted public art project, commissioned by Creative Time, which uses the unconventional lens of house music and nightlife to talk about the prison industrial complex in the United States and beyond. The project is the collective vision of the artist Phil Collins and over a hundred collaborators. It takes the form of a communal civic space, located at NYC’s historic Firehouse Engine Company 31, that functions as a school for radical thought and political exchange by day and dance club by night. It is also a benefit album of 8 classic house tracks re-recorded by formerly incarcerated vocalists and electronic musicians. More on that later.
“Bring Down The Walls” pulls into focus the dichotomy between the sense of freedom, unity, and joy ingrained in house music and the punitive control and violence—physical, mental, and emotional—perpetuated by the U.S. prison system. Set up as a deeply collaborative framework defined by the impulse to meet, listen, and cultivate more comprehensive knowledge about mass incarceration, the project is inspired by the ethos of early house music venues, which often functioned as hubs of political engagement as much as spaces of personal liberation and collective transcendence.
WW: With Creative Time, the project is presented by The Fortune Society and artist Phil Collins. Tell us a bit about working collaboratively with them.
AN: Creative Time—a public art organization that works with artists to contribute to the dialogues, debates, and dreams of our time—first began working with Phil Collins nearly seven years ago. Phil is an artist whom we deeply admire for his unerring sensibilities mixing pop, politics, and aesthetics. There is no one else making work like Phil’s, and we had long wanted to commission him. Phil has worked in many different countries with vulnerable and marginalized communities, addressing some of the most complex issues of our time. We began our conversations by diving deep into the dissonance of the U.S.—a country that bills itself as the freest on earth; one that nevertheless maintains the highest rates of incarceration in the world. This undertaking required years of research, learning, and conversation. Along the way Phil spent nearly three years in Sing Sing correctional facility working with a group of men creating original music together. During that process they played a lot of their favorite music for each other, bonding over a shared love of house music and time spent at the same clubs in NYC in the late 80s and early 90’s. And thus the seeds of “Bring Down The Walls” were planted. In fact, several of those men are out now and have played an active role in our advisory board and even singing on the album.
We knew that in order to get “Bring Down The Walls” right it had to be a truly collective creation, forefronting the lived knowledge and expertise of those most severely affected by the prison industrial complex. At this point there are several hundred different collaborators, collectives, and presenters who have helped us put on this project, not to mention our invaluable advisory board. Early on we found a strong partner in The Fortune Society, who are leading the way in supporting successful re-entry following incarceration, helping to break the prison-back-into-prison pipeline. The organization was founded by an artist 50 years ago and they were incredibly supportive of the ethos of the project. They were excited to, as they put it, “Dance down the yellow brick road with us.” One of their offerings is the weekly music cafe, from which we cast several of the album’s vocalists.
WW: Tell us about art’s inclusion in the incarceration system, and what more can be done art-wise to help those imprisoned.
AN: Art holds tremendous power to change people’s hearts and minds. “Bring Down The Walls” is foremost about shifting perceptions around who is inside our prison systems, and exploring the sweeping breadth of how all of us are ultimately affected by the criminal “justice” system. Art, at its best, can help us understand what is hiding in plain sight. Recently we’ve seen the beginnings of a pronounced awakening by art organizations, and growing support for projects that are complex and subversive in the ways that work to reform or dismantle the prison industrial complex.
A few years ago, Creative Time awarded the artist Laurie Joe Reynolds a prize for her Tamms Year Ten Campaign, a coalition of prisoners, ex-prisoners, families, artists, and other concerned citizens who came together and successfully shut down a supermax prison in Illinois. The Ford Foundation, with the leadership of philanthropist Agnes Gund, has started The Art for Justice Fund providing vital new resources to help solve the crisis of mass incarceration. The Rauschenberg Foundation recently focused their Artist as Activist fellowship on racial justice and mass incarceration. These are just a few examples, and there’s much more to be done, but it’s encouraging to see intersectional momentum in support of real equity-building, justice-minded work. In fact, there’s been a big outpouring of interest in extending “Bring Down The Walls” to other cities. We’re excited to follow these conversations.
WW: This public art project gives voice to those formerly incarcerated through music and educational programming. Tell us a bit about this and why it’s so important.
AN: It’s pretty simple, really—people who have been inside or who have family members inside are the most qualified experts on how to bring the walls down. While an injustice to one is an injustice to all, too often there is a hierarchy of expertise that privileges the same voices and opinions over and over. “Bring Down The Walls” aims to pass the mic, to amplify a new crew of voices.
“Bring Down The Walls” intentionally forefronts a radical, grassroots, abolitionist perspective. There are many voices out there advocating for reform of the criminal justice system, but less airtime is being given to conversations around why we have prisons in the first place, how the global prison industrial complex serves to maintain racial and economic privilege, and how we might create lasting, effective alternatives to locking people up in cages.
WW: Tell us a bit about the album being produced, re-recorded hits by musicians and formerly incarcerated vocalists. Who is participating? Where can this be heard?
AN: In the 1980s the exponential rise of mass incarceration in the U.S. coincided with the emergence of a new dance sound, house music, which came out of the communities disproportionately targeted by regressive criminal justice policies. If you listen to house lyrics, so many of them give voice to a kind of political, desire-filled liberationist theology. It was incredibly important to us for the songs to be a living part of the project. We got together some of our favorite contemporary house-loving musicians, from Honey Dijon to Mike Q to L’Rain and Empress Of, and talented, non-professional vocalists who have experienced incarceration and asked them to rework some of the greatest house classics. It was a pretty major fangirl moment when Larry Heard and Robert Owens, the legends behind the original “Bring Down the Walls” track, agreed to reunite and create a new version with Cameron Holmes especially for the project.
Equally important, though, is that it’s a benefit compilation available as a pay-what-you-wish download on Bandcamp, with proceeds going to Critical Resistance, this brilliant organization working to abolish the prison industrial complex. So if you can’t make it to the Firehouse, you can have your own “Bring Down The Walls” party. Turn it up and tear ‘em down with:
Bring Down The Walls (2.0 Rework) by Larry Heard, Robert Owens and Cameron Holmes
You’re Gonna Miss Me by Empress Of and Michael Austin
Move Your Body by Figure Skater and King Tolen
Break 4 Love by Nguzunguzu and Cinthia Candelaria
Promised Land by Kyp Malone and Robert Pollock
Love Can’t Turn Around by MikeQ, Ian Isiah, and Amanda Cruz
That’s The Way Love Is by Honey Dijon, Seven Davis Jr., and Q Williams
Your Love by Morgan Wiley, L’Rain and Patrick Gordon
WW: Tell us a bit about the weekend programming at the old firehouse—with workshops during the day, and a nightclub by night.
AN: “Bring Down The Walls” takes place over four weekends. Each school day has a theme, from understanding the abolitionist perspective to how the violence of the prison industrial complex extends into our everyday lives to imagining a new future. There are simultaneous conversations, workshops, and roundtables, all with the aim of creating dialogue and community, so that what happens at the Firehouse continues to iterate out into the world beyond.
At night, our dance club goes till dawn (and beyond) with a different collective of DJs and performers taking over every week, from Soul Summit to Mike Q and House of Vogue to Brujas to Papi Juice. For months leading up to the opening, we’ve been channeling this picture of the Paradise Garage with Larry Levan and his mixed, down-for-anything dance floor as our inspiration. When we finally hit opening night and I looked out from the risers on to a sea of black and white and brown and yellow and every color bodies, from 21 to 75 years old, dressed up and dancing like there was no tomorrow, I got pretty emotional. I knew we’d done something right. (Thank you Tabu!) I’m super excited for our grand finale 24-hour weekend. Papi Juice is doing the nightlife takeover, and we’re having a 6:00 a.m. performance by Cakes Da Killa, among others!
WW: What can the average citizen, who isn’t entirely familiar with the broken incarcerated system in the U.S., do to help?
AN: I actually think it’s not the case that the average citizen isn’t familiar with the state of our incarceration system. There are now over 2.3 million people incarcerated, and over half a million in pre-trial detention. Each one of us is affected and implicated in some way. That being said, if you feel you don’t have an entry point to the conversation, spend a little time following the connections that are most compelling to you and then deepen your engagement from there. Some places to start include Ava Duvernay’s documentary The 13th, digging around on The Marshall Project’s website, which is a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, or, my personal favorite, read Angela Davis’ Freedom Is A Constant Struggle. Organizations and campaigns in NYC are incredibly friendly and open to inviting you in to their work; check out sites like incarcerationnation.org and survivedandpunished.org, specific campaigns like #closerikers, or give to one of the many cash bail funds like Bronx Freedom Fund.