Stephen Wright: Reversed Fictioneering (2006)

“Le reel doit être fictionné pour être pensé.” – Jacques Rancière

If one wanted to make just one single gesture toward achieving social equality, there could be none more significant, nor more incisive, than to shut down all the prisons. It seems like a pretty jack-assed thing to say, but if such a radical gesture were accompanied by all the necessary associated measures, a huge step would be made toward equality. Of course, if such a suggestion seems preposterously counter-intuitive, flying in the face of all common sense, it is largely because a massive, insecurity-oriented media campaign has succeeded in convincing us that only prisons stand between us and anarchy. Yet fundamentally, as polls have consistently shown, the majority of people everywhere want prison reform. Indeed, only the owners, builders and operators of private incarceration facilities have a vested interest in more crime and more punishment… and more inmates and thus more privatised facilities to funnel them into. “Build and they will come” is the cynical motto of one of the all-too real American prison corporations in contact with the seriously fictional European Corrections Corporation, jointly managed by artists Martin Krenn and Oliver Ressler.

Private prison facilities are big business in the United States and Great Britain, where the state finds it both cost-efficient and ideologically congenial to outsource incarceration – like everything else – to the private sector, whose managers find ways to make the operation as profitable as possible, both by increasing the concentration of inmates, renting them entertainment devices (televisions with appropriately non-subversive content), and by requiring them to work for low wages, which in any case can only be spent in the prison store… which they also own. A cheap labour pool, monopolised market, ideological control, and great profitability, all away from the public eye – it is a perfect system in a diabolical sort of way, and one which has all the trimmings of an in vivo testing ground for full-control capitalism.

If this is beginning to sound like a rant, it’s supposed to. A rant, after all, is a form of fictionalising. Not in the sense that it is untrue, as opposed to some more truthful account, but insofar as it casts a situation in particularly emphatic terms. Let’s be clear: private prisons are not the outcome of some calculatedly devilish ruse, but rather the consequence of trying to accommodate over time the constraints and dynamics of shifts in capitalist economics and ideology. They are a piecemeal response to the slow-motion collapse of public spending, itself a consequence of the celebration of free-market thinking, and the cause of a commensurate rise in insecurity; they also stem from a need to accommodate public pressure for some sort of prison reform. But even in saying that, a narrative, fictionalising logic is being put forward. “The real,” writes French philosopher Jacques Rancière, “must be fictionalised if it is to be thought through.” Though Rancière is clearly not contrasting something called the “real” (accessible through documentary, for instance) with something called “fiction” (the stuff of novels and so on), nor is he claiming that everything is fiction, and thus real – in which case we lose both concepts. His insight opens a fissure, a crack, between the two mutually dependent terms – and it is in this crack that the work of Martin Krenn and Oliver Ressler is situated.

The two artists have developed an essentially Brechtian strategy of estrangement both to draw us in – hook, line and sinker, as it were – to the sort of market-based ethos we accept as natural, and then to violently undermine that ideological construct by at once revealing its fictional character and the fact that it is at odds with our ethical beliefs. The artists developed a mobile, site-specific project, whereby they place a walk-in container, which from the outside appears like the sort of information booth companies use to “inform” the public about their products. A large tarpaulin on the outside of the container is printed with an architectural representation of the proposed refurbishing, expansion and privatisation of a local correctional facility. Research on the local prison is combined with upbeat information about privatised facilities in the United States. The tarp is emblazoned with an appropriately stern-looking EUCC logo – the sort of graphic design certain to appeal to law-enforcement communities everywhere.

However, the inside of the container is entirely different. First of all, its bare walls, reminiscent of a prison cell, bring one down to earth right away. Something is amiss: where are the corporate spokespersons? The colourful leaflets? Projected on the far wall of the container is a video featuring British anti-prison activist, and former inmate, Mark Barnsley, who, with remarkable concision, talks about the realities of the prisons one sees over his shoulder, analysing their privatisation as well as proposing strategies of resistance. What makes the experience effective is the initially low coefficient of fictional visibility of the European Corrections Corporation. We see it; indeed it is highly visible, and has been situated in the much frequented public squares of such cities as Graz, Wels and Munich. But it is not immediately visible as fiction. This is why the estrangement effect is all the more abrupt when one discovers the analytical testimony of the superbly articulate Mark Barnsley that is screened on the inside.

Like many artists and art-related practitioners today – including The Yes Men, The Atlas Group, or from an older generation, someone like Peter Hill – Krenn and Ressler are using fiction as a heuristic tool, relying on a variable coefficient of fictional visibility to deploy its use-value. They are twiddling with the codes of documentary, producing fictional documents. To put it differently, they take up the Duchampian challenge to produce work that is not artwork. Given the work’s politically motivated character, one might refer to this use of fiction as “reverse fictioneering.” For it uses fiction to expose the real fictioneering engaged in by private interests, who use it to legitimatise such socially detrimental operations as making prisons into sites for capital accumulation. This reversal is brought about by concomitant reversal, which consists of breaking the illusion that their own fiction engendered, thus laying everything bare.

All too often, art’s engagement with the real is construed in terms exemplified by the fruitless efforts of Don Quixote to set the world aright: the cockeyed knight’s self-detrimental though quite sublime misapprehension of reality has led many to the melancholic conclusion that art is well advised to remain in its own sphere, rather than combating an order of reality entirely foreign to it. However, Krenn and Ressler – again, like The Yes Men and other such artists – take fiction by the horns, reversing the logic of Quixotic antics, thereby suggesting that today the conventional relationship between fiction and reality has itself been reversed. Rather than fighting a reality anachronistically misconstrued in terms of fiction, Krenn and Ressler install a public reality-check right in the midst of the straight-faced fictioneering devised to conceal big business interests, exposing the naked truth beneath the mantle of legitimacy that corporate consultants – the real fictioneers of today – spend their days carefully spinning.

in: catalogue of the exhibition “Crime and Punishment”, Kunstihoone, Tallinn, 2006