The (He)art of Resistance

confronting state violence through the arts

From the six by nine foot cell, smaller than the average parking space, where he is confined 22 to 24 hours a day, A.H. writes, “I would add a scream. A soul-searching, gut-wrenching, and purifying cry.” The letter’s stamp reads, “Forever USA,” where, according to the Prison Policy Institute, approximately 1 in 100 adults are incarcerated.

The scream is an addition to the list of movements that my pen pal received from Dances for Solidarity-Denver. I host meetings for the local chapter of Dances for Solidarity, a national initiative sharing dance through letter writing with people in solitary confinement. The written list, which begins by inviting the recipient to close their eyes, is comprised of a ten-step movement sequence open to interpretation. The collaborative project invites pen pals to expand upon, and share their reactions to, the dance list. A.H. writes that, after the scream he adds between steps 9 and 10, “The entire unit goes silent.”

For those of us on the outside receiving A.H.’s letter, the addition of the scream to the list is a cathartic response to the national temperature: ever warming and ready to combust. In the collective flailing post-election, an increasing number of people concerned with human dignity want to do something; resistance is trending. A buzzword in headlines, anything (allegedly) from bookstores, to nonprofits, to the runway can be a potential site of resistance. Meanwhile, longstanding initiatives navigate the simultaneous opportunity and challenge of incorporating new allies and accomplices.

Within stories of social movements are the artivists. Those who utilize the arts to challenge the status quo, to stand up for human rights, and to reimagine the world at the personal, interpersonal, and institutional level.

Historian and activist Howard Zinn wrote, “Whenever I become discouraged, I lift my spirits by remembering: The artists are on our side! . . . They wage the battle for justice in a sphere . . . unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.”

Words will likely fail us, but solidarity can be expressed, too, in movement. The body is a site for inquiry and resistance. Multimedia dance artist and educator Sarah Dahnke started Dances for Solidarity in New York with the intention of raising awareness about the inhumane conditions inside our nation’s prison system while also creating collaborative performance work with those who have been placed out of sight and out of mind. Sarah has put on several shows co-choreographed in collaboration with pen pals in New York; our Denver chapter is working on our first collaborative performance project with pen pals for winter 2017/18.

Across intersecting struggles for justice, artivists reclaim personal narratives and assert that the personal is political (Audre Lorde, one of my favorite artivists, was one of many to elucidate and add nuance to this). The Tamms Year Ten legislative art project, which successfully shut down a supermax prison in Illinois in 2013, was rooted in the arts-based collaboration, “Photo Requests from Solitary,” providing a window into the hopes and memories of people experiencing solitary confinement.

Resistance that strives to get at internalized, interpersonal, and institutional oppression seeks to affect minds, laws, and hearts. The current administration’s use of Nixonian “law and order” rhetoric is a red flag for those who resist — an administration that seeks also to legitimize torture in the name of safety and security. That this rhetoric has traction today indicates that the work ahead is not just legislative.

Increasingly, the data reveals the inefficacy of prisons, their high cost, and the inhumane practices inside. How do we explain the persistent reliance on a system designed to fail? A 2016 study published by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice asserts that there is no empirical evidence of the efficacy of solitary confinement. Coupled with narratives of safety and security (for who?), it is fear, racism, and classism, rather than evidence, that sustain solitary confinement, the prison-industrial complex more broadly, and other practices of state violence.

Creative initiatives affirm that resistance is at once personal, relational, and systemic. Artists ask themselves, and all of us, to face both the intractable conflicts of our time and the tyranny of our minds — our shortsightedness, and the walls we have built around our empathy. Artists seek to stretch the borders of our willingness, to confront the parts of us that fear growth. We ask you to start by screaming with us. Let the sound of your voice, for a moment, shake the walls around you. Go ahead, give it a try.

a note from one of our pen pals, Patrice, who was convicted for life, is diagnosed with mental illness, and regularly sends us inspiring essays, poems, and eloquent accounts of his experience

Patrycja Humienik is a first generation Polish-American interdisciplinary artist and educator, organizing the Denver chapter of Dances for Solidarity.

Local (Denver area) note: Dances for Solidarity is one of many initiatives nationwide seeking to address human rights violations and state violence by inviting people into action through the arts. The Denver chapter draws inspiration from local initiatives like NOENEMIES, the Romero Troupe, and Creative Strategies for Change, among other arts-based efforts. For three years, NoEnemies has been gathering people to sing in solidarity to make music for protests (experience their upcoming performance collaboration). The Romero Theatre Troupe invites all into their collective process of telling the stories of marginalized people in Colorado (the next show, centering the role of women in the struggle for immigrant rights in the U.S., is April 21st). Creative Strategies for Change continues to mobilize arts-based education for social justice by bringing artists into schools to facilitate restorative practices for conflict transformation (CSC Program Coordinator, arts educator, and Aurora Poet Laureate Assetou Xango is performing next on April 21st). You can join Dances for Solidarity-Denver at our next letter writing meeting on April 23rd, or contribute to support our efforts.