Jonathan Borofsky

17 / 35
Prisoners, 1986

Co-directed and produced with Gary Glassman, Prisoners is a one hour documentary exploring the lives of thirty-two inmates in San Quentin and two California women's prisons. Based on 48 hours of interviews, the work incorporates dream imagery and music, facts and statistics, and focuses in great depth on the often terrifying personal lives of the prisoners. Screened at American Film Institute's National Video Festival and part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and Centre Georges Pompidou.

The following text was written by James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago...

"Why did I do this? Why did I got to talk to prisoners? Well, we are all learning to be free. But these are people who make our lives a lot less free. They make us lock our doors, put bars on our windows, and worry about our own safety as well as the safety of the people we love. They create fear. But I know these people are human beings - not that different from myself, and I feel for them. They have to live their lives locked up in cement boxes. What a waste! Could they have been born criminals? What can I learn from these people? What does it mean to be free?"

These are the words with which Borofsky begins the film he made with Gary Glassman in 1985 and 1986. The film is the result of 48 hours of interviews conducted by Borofsky with thirty-two male and female prisoners at San Quentin State Prison, the California Institution for Women, and the California Rehabilitation Center. It is a frank and highly emotional documentary, driven by the language and expressions of its subjects who, in the style of the filmmaker, are presented without sympathy or false respect. They are simply recorded on film, and all of their complex emotions, their posturing, their fears, their sense of humor, even their pride, are presented with little apparent cinematic manipulation.

Borofsky is the interviewer in the film and is often heard and seen on camera, sitting with the prisoners in the bleak surroundings of their social rooms, or driving to and from the prisons in his car, reflecting on what he has heard and expects to hear. In March 1988, a portion of Borofsky's interview with James Pettaway was reproduced in Artforum as part of the magazine's "artists' projects" series (AF, 1988, pp. 94-97). It represents well the character of the film: the banality of it, the way the prisoners seem so ordinary, so similar to people we all know, the way their stories are so unexceptional, their histories so common, the way they got through their days, the way they relate to each other, all so familiar to our own lives and our own conversations with our friends.

But these people are locked inside and are frequently kept separate from each other. They live in a structure that's made to inhibit and control their actions: the architecture is designed for that purpose, the daily routine reinforces it, and the authority of the system polices it. They are free only in their imagination, in the way they imagine themselves free to think. Their thoughts are their only real possessions, the things most personally theirs. And these are shared with others through the delicate and often highly nuanced medium of conversation. That the interviews on this film are so frank and honest is a testament to the trust that developed between artist and prisoner, one born from the artist's obvious sympathy with an understanding of the plights of the prisoners he interviewed.

But there is an aesthetic dimension to the film as well. It fits with Borofsky's ongoing meditation on the spirit and its relation to the material world which imprisons it. The "talking heads" nature of the film, in which we see nothing much but people's heads telling stories and contriving images in loose fitting patterns of associations, is quite like the artist's installation works. In the latter, as has been often said, one feels as if one has walked into the artist's head. And the seemingly random distribution of objects, images, and sound appear to relate to each other as they probably do in the artist's imagination: surprisingly and spontaneously, with more or less authority or presence. It is here, then, not only in the individual images that comprise the installations but in the installations themselves, that one engages the primary theme of Borofsky's art: the role of the spirit in our lives and what we do to control, imprison, and displace its positive and life-affirming effects.

These effects are expressed through alternatives. And, when it comes down to it, as James Pettaway says in the film, "Give me an alternative! That's the one message I would like to get across. Present some alternatives, because you're gonna pay either way it goes. You're gonna pay for either constructive things or you're gonna pay for the destructive acts - which may be directed at you." In this respect, Prisoners is a cinematic metaphor for the artist's larger aesthetic project, which explores and offers up alternatives for releasing into life the creative powers of the spirit.