Four years in the making, “Visualizing Abolition” is bringing prominent academics from across the U.S. to discuss the mistreatment of prisoners and issues in policing across the country. The UCSC Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS) originally planned the event to be a two-day symposium, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event grew into a yearlong speaker series and will continue through May 2021. 

“We’ve had to be flexible. But, while this was challenging, the opportunity to reach broad audiences through online programming is also exciting,” said Rachel Nelson, the director of the UCSC Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS), in an email. 

The most recent event from Nov. 17 in the “Visualizing Abolition” series allowed viewers to connect with visual and cultural theorists Herman Gray, Nicole Fleetwood, and Nicholas Mirzoeff through a lecture. Together, they had a conversation about the role of visual media in normalizing mass incarceration and racist perpetuation of police brutality in the U.S.

“Visualizing abolition is, in the language of social movements, an impossible demand,” visual culture theorist and professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, Mirzoeff said. “And impossible demands are the ones we need to make the most important ones.” 

Pairing Art to Dialogue: “Barring Freedom” 

In conjunction with the speaker series, the national art initiative “Barring Freedom” aims to expand on these discussions through art. 

The “Solitary Garden,” located atop a hill at the UC Santa Cruz Baskin Art Studio, was installed on campus in Nov. 2019 and is a part of a larger exhibition at the San José Museum of Art, which premiered the “Barring Freedom” exhibition on Oct. 30 of this year.

Read a previous CHP article about “Solitary Garden” here.

Unlike a real prison cell, when the “Solitary Garden” closed its door, no prisoner was trapped inside. Instead, flowers and vegetables grow around the cell, encouraging visitors to imagine a justice system in the United States that encourages hope, rather than hopelessness.

“The transition to freedom through abolition requires imagination, and the means to reach for repair, restoration, and reparation are part of a transition to a sustained mode of freedom,” said UCSC sociology professor and event speaker Herman Gray. “This transition involves making the victim of state violence responsible for their own restoration, and not the broader society in a relationship.”

According to IAS director Rachel Nelson, one of the central ideas of “Barring Freedom” is that prisons and policing are part of a vision for the U.S. In her view, the U.S. is a nation that criminalizes and punishes individuals instead of looking at the failings of its society — a society where poverty, violence, mental illness, racism, misogyny, and other social illnesses thrive. Abolition offers another vision, she said — one where punishment is replaced with care.

A Collaborative Endeavor 

Nelson curated “Barring Freedom” in collaboration with Alexandra Moore, an IAS curatorial fellow, and Ph.D. Candidate in Visual Studies, and organized “Visualizing Abolition” with Feminist Studies Professor Gina Dent.

According to Nelson, at UCSC research and creative focus on the prison industrial complex have been central issues with professors such as Angela Davis and Gina Dent in the humanities, Craig Haney, Anjuli Verma, and Savannah Shange in the social sciences, Dee Hibbert-Jones and Sharon Daniel in the arts, as well as others. 

“I realized that this is a core area of research at UCSC,” Nelson wrote via email. “I was excited to grapple with the ways that arts can coalesce the conversations that are happening.” 

Nelson started this project around four years ago in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the work of activists at the time. She began brainstorming a project responding to the central problems of mass incarceration, prisons, policing, racism, and inequality in the U.S. She also credits the research and concerns of our campus community as one of the motivators behind this project. 

“This is the first initiative we’ve done that includes exhibitions and public art, a yearlong speaking series, [and] music videos,” Nelson said. “It is a testament to how deeply people care about abolition and justice.”

Attendance at these events is being offered as a for-credit assignment, or for extra credit, by all College Ten core class instructors, including community studies professor Rachel Goodman. 

“The topics of the plenaries, including the one with Angela Davis, fit our theme for week 8, exploring racism and mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex,” Goodman said.

Upcoming Events and Reimagining the Future

The next “Visualizing Abolition” speaker event on Dec. 1 will focus on the past and present of abolition with Isaac Julien, a British installation artist and filmmaker, and Robin D.G. Kelley, an American historian and academic. Nelson hopes people can build a community around their shared concerns and is excited to be a part of the momentum towards systemic change. 

Registration for future “Visualizing Abolition” events and recordings of past events can be found here.

The importance of art and culture in society is something Nelson hopes people acknowledge more after participating in the speaker series. Through installations like “Solitary Garden,” she plans for people to begin examining the institutions surrounding criminal justice closer and more creatively. A virtual tour of “Solitary Garden” is available here.

“When it comes to policing and prisons, for instance, art can help us question why these systems of punishment have become central to U.S. society,” Nelson said. “It can help us imagine alternatives.”