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Why working on « Art & Prison » ? As a journey to freedom. And a path to AutonoRmy.

mai 31, 2018

Currently, I have two major exhibitions going on about the theme « Art & Prison » : in Geneva, at Château de Penthes, an exhibition entitled « LA PRISON EXPOSÉE, Champ-Dollon à Penthes » ; and in Hobart, Tasmania, at TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery), another exhibition entitled «  A JOURNEY TO FREEDOM » 

In my work, I understand “Prison” not only as physical jails, but as imprisonment in general. And imprisonment is everywhere: it is physical, bodily, mental, social, cultural, virtual; imprisonment behind borders, borders from the other, the other humans, the other countries; imprisonment inside social norms, stereotypes and taboos; imprisonment in ourselves, in our bodies and our fears. And we humans imagine and create jails with similar passion as we thrive for freedom. In particular, in these times of political fear, rapid changes and sometimes convulsive chaos, the temptation of jailing anybody who diverges, from subversive teens to migrants, from political dissidents to journalists, seems to raise every day. Jails are proliferating everywhere in the world; we construct them and we let them proliferate; we let them being overcrowded, and too often we let them transform petty criminals in real criminals. Discipline and Punish (Foucault, 1975) is not over and the penal evolution away from corporal and capital punishment to the penitentiary system that began in Europe and the United States around the end of the 18th century is still ongoing. Inhuman – and so human.

Human history, worldwide, is characterized by an unending duality between imprisonment and freedom, and our search for freedom is far from an end and the attempts to conduct our lives as Journeys to Freedom are endless, whether we consider our freedom as a way to live our lives or whether we consider it as a virtual expression of an ideal. Sometimes, even prisons may host such journeys to freedom from within.

Art is one essential freedom, even though it can sometimes end up to be itself a constraint – a voluntary one. Jhafis Quintero, who became an artist while in jail for ten years, states that: “Creation is indispensable to the inmates’ survival”. Creating – no matters what – is indispensable to survive incarceration in the most constrained conditions: this is also what Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige tell us in their film Khiam 2000-2007 (which is shown both in Geneva and in Hobart). May be creating is indispensable for everybody’s survival. Indeed, “ART IS A FREEDOM” (Tracey Emin, personal correspondence): a freedom that starts in our brains. Think freely, imagine freely, create freely, write freely. Imprisonment and freedom are the two faces of a double sword. Any exploration of imprisonment is therefore by itself a journey to freedom and exhibitions on “art & prison” are one possible way to promote freedom, inasmuch such exhibitions always lead us to reflect on the binomial freedom/imprisonment. Freedom however is never attained: it is and always remains an every moment discipline and a constant effort. It is a journey, till the end.

Next year, I am planning to work more on the links that exist between constraints and creativity, to deepen my insight by listening to people who suffer constraints in their bodies — by handicap for example, by disease, or by walls — or their mind or their everyday life. In my own everyday life, I try to take each day one more step towards freedom — or, at least, towards what I call « autonoRmy ». My latest book with Odile Jacob, Femmes hors normes, is about the type of freedom being outside of norms provides us.

Being “outside the norm” does not mean being an “outlaw.” Autonormy is a discreet, almost invisible individual attitude. It is essentially a matter of resisting and eluding the insidious power of the morally normative environment, be it family, society or religion, or some other form. A matter of being oneself. Autonormy presupposes the individual’s resistance to the norm (and not the law) within society itself, and the creation of new norms (or their absence). But it is not a matter of challenging the law, and that is why I use the term “autonormy” and not autonomy. In seeking to exist “outside the norms,” an individual is not trying to instate their own laws. The point, rather, is to resist – for grounded, individual reasons – all forms of social prescription and stereotyping; to choose one’s own norms. The point is to be close to oneself, with the conviction, or at least the hope, that the process of individuation (become our own self) will lead to better social integration. The closer we come to ourselves as individuals, the more we know ourselves and live in harmony with what we really are, the more open we can be to others, to all others, and the better able to be interested in the other, to understand and love them.

The term autonormy is enlightening in this respect and norms should be irreducibly individual and complex, never unequivocal, but open, and evolving. Autonormy is not about being “exceptional.” On the contrary, autonormy is within reach of us all; it is a harmonious way of living, for the individual and for the group. Indeed, in these times of all-pervasive media, invisibility can be a more much more real and effective way of being outside the norm than the hypervisiblity commonly associated with the exceptional, the extravagant and the eccentric. In a society with simple, powerful laws that are validated and respected by citizens, the “extra-normal” aims to strengthen the individual, and this will in turn lead to a strengthening of society, rather than destabilising it. Individuals who are in harmony with themselves, close to themselves, create an empathetic and strong society in which each individual is, thanks to his or her autonormy, better prepared to respect others. All others, including inmates.

Autonormy, as such, is a simple, intimate journey to freedom we should take and share every single day.

Jhafis Quintero, here in Panama in 2017, spent 10 years in jail. He became an artist while in jail. He represented Panama at the Venice Biennial in 2013. His works are in Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris. He recently published La casa de los geckos, an intimate testimonial of his years in jail. Art is a freedom.

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