Fall 2008

13 Isolations: An Experimental Art Nightmare

By Nikkitha Bakashani

Art experiments, be they noble or clever in concept, do not always advance as planned. Sanyu Nagenda ‘09 studied abroad at the University of Amsterdam this past spring and found a link on Holland’s Craig’s List for the art experiment 13 Isolations. The program aimed to put thirteen artists in solitary confinement in a prison in the Netherlands with personal and social objectives in mind. Nagenda, along with twelve other artists, signed up this past August to discover what art twenty-nine days of solitary confinement would bring out of them.

According to the 13 Isolations website, the objective of the experiment wanted to test the consequences of solitude on creativity and to seek answers to questions posed about the nature of art: What artwork can one produce without external influence? Does solitude summon someone closer to the meaning of art? The social objective was to raise awareness: “Their imprisonment will be a metaphor for the discrimination, exploitation and stigmatization in Europe and the world, of millions of asylum seekers, racial, ethnic and religious minorities and women confined in ‘spaces to a-void’ such as ghettos, refugee camps, housing projects and prostitution.”

Sanyu Nagenda admits that the project the organization had in mind was never carried out. Episodes failed to provide commodities they promised upon the artists’ arrival: drinking and running water, art supplies, food, beds, chairs, and tables. Consequently, seven of the artists dropped out in the first week. Nagenda stayed. In the middle of the experiment, the organization started to receive bad press because it was discovered that the head of Episodes, Anthony Murrell, did not sign the contract that allowed him to conduct 13 Isolations, yet the local government still gave the organization the keys to the prison. Since the organization took no responsibility, the artists had to fend for themselves.

The artwork produced dealt not only with the concepts of isolation, but also with capitalism and authoritarian responsibility. One artist tried to figure out how many people would fit in the floor space of the prison, relating it back to the space in slave ships. He left the outlines of the other artists’ figures on the prison floor. Similarly, Nagenda wrote her thoughts on the walls of the prison, as pictured. The walls say, “(YOU) can no longer afford the luxury of being ignorant.” Nagenda’s account of her experience, “The Oostereiland Journals: An Artist Resistancy”challenges capitalism and old school thought. It was a shame her emotions were interrupted by the disillusion the program instilled.

The act of isolation yet togetherness did fuel great artistic products dealing with communication. In her journals, Nagenda asserts how shocking it is to still have arguments based on archaic concepts, and how important it is to recognize this—hence, “Human beings can no longer afford the luxury of being ignorant.” The words are magnified and dominate the whole wall, alluding to the passion and uncontrollable emotion that results from the early onset of isolation, that is before isolation sucks out passion in small doses and de-humanizes the individual. The magnitude of the letters also acts as an antithesis of ignorant—ignorant is bleak and calm, but the huge message on the wall breaks the peace of ignorance by first glance.

The italics in ‘Resistancy” demonstrates the cooperation of the artists that remained after the organizations left. “It wouldn’t be art if it wasn’t for the interactions with artists from around the world. It wasn’t really isolation (after the first week), but living in prison with no guarantee of what will happen.” I asked Nagenda if it was like torture, and she replied that it was a form of psychological torture. Nagenda and the remaining artists did not have to stay, but they nevertheless did so to uphold the integrity of the project’s idea.

Torture in its many forms has bled through news stories and is touching art. For example, Costa Rican artist Guilermo Vargas Habacuc confined a dog to no food or water and the slow death of the dog was his art exhibition. “The other artists and I talked about this,” said Nagenda, “and torture may be considered a form of art, but not a form of art I respect. What angered me was that for all the outrage, nobody gave the dog food or water.”

Does torture make good art? Does putting thirteen people in isolation for twenty-nine days in a prison with no running or drinking water, make any thing worth respecting? “It was a humanitarian effort that backfired,” says Nagenda.

Had Episodes provided all the essentials for the artists to survive, sorted out legal issues, and not backed down due to negative press, 13 Isolations could have been a more successful art experiment that deals with these very sensitive and salient issues like torture and isolation. In the end beautiful art did result, but that’s because of the talent and cooperation of the artists’ involved, not the inventiveness of the organization.