“Memories Live in Our Bodies:” Review of Well Contested Sites at Columbia University

Well Contested Sites was part of a three-day symposium at Columbia University, “Art and Mass Incarceration,” Feb. 27th – March 1st

by Irini Zervas

“Over-incarceration is not just a black or racial issue, it’s an issue for all Americans who care about democracy and equity and fair play and decency. We are killing our own country’s future. And we’re killing genius in jail cells that does not have a chance to blossom and to flower. “ – Randall Robinson, lawyer, author and activist


Walking into the auditorium at Columbia’s Barnard College, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was walking into. It turns out that Columbia’s screening of Well Contested Sites (see link here), a 12-minute film produced in 2012, brought a diverse mix of public policy and art students, lawyers and human rights activists, dance professors and ex-convicts into the same room. The screening was followed by a few audience ice-breakers and a Q-and-A with some of the individuals mentioned above.

The film is a collaboration between a group of previously incarcerated men, Bay Area performing artists, choreographer Amie Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord. With Alcatraz as its backdrop, the dancers move about the decaying space in movements that are at times symbolic, cathartic and utterly quotidian. Well Contested Sites’ actors are both its performers and the subjects of the piece. It is these dualisms of subject and object, confined and freed, that play out in the piece, challenging the viewer’s conception of the complex site that is the modern-day justice system.

ImageThe film opens with shots that focus on the former inmates’ bare backs, at once anonymous and highly personal in wrinkles and inscribed ink. The individuals are naked, either their purest versions of themselves or having been stripped bare. After dressing in spare garments, they empty the contents of their pockets on small white napkins. The film presents gestures of realism – giving up one’s wallet photos and keys, eschewing one’s typical choice of clothing. At the same time, these gestures are imbued with a far greater significance, and a narrative of dislocation, dehumanization and societal neglect.

ImageIn perhaps a greater symbolic action, the next shots pan over the individual’ bodies. They lay face down on the ground outside Alcatraz and each grasp each other’s ankles, linking their figures together. The men have formed a human chain gang, suggesting the stripping away of identity, mass incarceration as a form of modern-day slavery, and the harsh racial realities of imprisonment.

Moving inside the facility, the main halls in Alcatraz shine with a luminous natural light not characteristic of typical exhibition spaces. Men crawl and pound of the floor, undulate their naked torsos against the walls, and suspend their bodies from the walls of the solitary confinement chambers.


As Amie Dowling suggested in the Q-and-A, “memories live in our bodies. ” The experience of penal confinement doesn’t start once one enters of the space of the prison and stop when finally released. The treatment individuals receive while incarcerated and the societal narratives relating to detainment will follow them for the rest of their lives. The dancers’ interactions with the space of the storied prison calls attention to how common dialogues surrounding US prisons have become mapped onto the bodies of the inmates themselves. Power relations within the space become contested in a play that pits individual subjectivity against the larger structural forces that work against it.

Well Contested Sites’ gorgeous shots showcase a decaying architectural structure that has been reborn as a symbol of a powerful institutional structure. But, hauntingly, here the men emerge as the true ‘sites’ of contest.

Irini Zervas is an MA student in Hunter College’s Art History program. Her research interests include depictions of gender and the body, performance studies, and the highly-charged exhibition space, such as the prison.

More Information:

Well Contested Sites on Vimeo

Well Contested Sites Facebook page

@WCSColumbia on Twitter

Resources and Links on Art and the Politics of Mass Incarceration, local initiatives, from Columbia University






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