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Open Access Publications from the University of California

In the System: Art, Prison, and the Performance of Social Welfare

  • Author(s): Prieur, Nina Billone
  • Advisor(s): Jackson, Shannon
  • et al.

Over the past three decades, the state of California has launched the largest prison construction project in history. The United States has followed California's lead by massively expanding its penal system and radically dismantling its welfare system. The country currently incarcerates not only more people, but also a greater percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. During this same period, increasing numbers of artists have intervened in the spaces between the U.S. prison and welfare systems. San Francisco has served as a crucible for these endeavors, which constitute a defining feature of the emerging field of community-based performance. This dissertation responds to this political and cultural conjunction by considering how and to what effect artists in San Francisco and across California have engaged the shifting penal-welfare nexus throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

From between the fields of theater and performance studies and critical prison studies, I develop the concept of penal-welfare performance. The penal-welfare lens reveals how the prison and welfare systems constitute interconnecting forces within the bureaucratic field. These mechanisms lock large sections of the population out of stabilizing social institutions, a dynamic that geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore aptly describes as mass infrastructural abandonment. This fracturing of communities both effects and is effected by racialized, classed, gendered, and sexualized operations of dehumanization, operations that threaten survival on symbolic and material registers. I demonstrate how penal-welfare performance--as an object of study and a conceptual framework--may redirect the discourses and bureaucratic structures buttressing the prison industrial complex.

Moving from community-based theaters that aim to rehabilitate the incarcerated to activist performances that aim to mobilize the public, I examine the limitations and the possibilities of performance's transformative promise. I argue that by staging their negotiations within networks of power, artists in and around the penal system advance an ethic and aesthetic of interdependency that unsettles the boundaries between prison and society, aesthetics and politics, subject and world. From different locations within and around the prison system, the arts practices in this dissertation highlight how power saturates every aspect of the social world. From the Arts-in-Corrections program (which is fully institutionalized within the California Department of Corrections), to the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women (which occupies a liminal space both within and beyond the county jail system), to the Prison Project at Intersection for the Arts (which operates outside of criminal justice bureaucracies), each of the arts practices I study imagines and re-imagines creative ways of speaking to, against, and through power.

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