In print: a prison cell is the mother of invention | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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In print: a prison cell is the mother of invention

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Tape two paper clips to the tail of an old disposable razor. Straighten two more and hang them perpendicular to the middle of the handle. String a bit of wire between one straightened clip and one of the clips at the end. Rest the razor atop a cup of salt water so that the straightened clips are immersed, and plug the two at the end into an electrical outlet. Voila--you've got a light for your smoke.

The Water Cigarette Lighter is just one of 78 devices and skills detailed in Prisoners' Inventions, a book written and illustrated by a California inmate who calls himself Angelo. It's set to be published this month by the Chicago-based art journalWhiteWalls in conjunction with Temporary Services, a local art collective.

Marc Fischer--one of Temporary Services' three current members--has known Angelo since 1991, when he was studying at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Angelo's cell mate had shown him a copy of Fischer's fanzine, Primary Concern, about art, punk, and politics, which Fischer had made available for free to prisoners. Angelo, then in his late 40s, sent the young man a letter and an intricate ballpoint-pen drawing of Roman soldiers torturing and killing Christian prisoners. Impressed, Fischer wrote back.

The two have corresponded steadily ever since, and Angelo, who produces at least one drawing a day, has sent Fischer several boxes of his art for safekeeping. "I'm the only person he communicates with outside of prison," says Fischer. "I think he's much better educated than most of the people he's incarcerated with. I often get the impression that he's kind of filled with as much wonder and confusion about these people as I am. Like, 'What the hell am I doing here with these people?'"

Angelo's been drawing most of his life, says Fischer--"he probably found a crayon within a minute of being born." He's learned other things about Angelo over the years: that he was drafted in 1965 and served two years in Vietnam, that he's fanatically interested in silent films and history, that his mother is dead and he hasn't seen his father since he was a year old. He also knows Angelo's real name, though he won't reveal it or the name of the facility where he's locked up. But he doesn't know why Angelo's in prison, and he doesn't want to know.

In "bits and pieces," says another Temporary Services member, Brett Bloom, Angelo had mentioned "all these inventions that people had made to make life easier on the inside--for the most part replicating simple pleasures and comforts from the outside that they're no longer allowed to have."

Temporary Services specializes in conceptual art projects with a participatory activist bent. Two years ago they got about 60 people together to create or donate books, which they then covertly installed in the stacks of the Harold Washington Library. When they had a space of their own in the Loop, they opened it up as a winter warming center, and once they staged a bike rally in Logan Square whose course was demarcated by signs labeled with the names of Illinois state correctional facilities.

In 2000 they mounted an exhibition of Angelo's drawings. Shortly after that, they asked him to create a small zine about the inventions of prisoners for a 2001 project at the Hyde Park Art Center that explored "how people find a little bit of autonomy in repressive situations."

Angelo missed the deadline for the HPAC show, but eventually sent Temporary Services more than 100 pages of text and drawings. Among them were designs for a tattoo gun made from a Walkman motor, a rubber band, pen parts, and paper clips; a sex doll made using trash-can liners filled with hot water; and a chess set made of sugar water and toilet paper. There are multiple designs for cigarette lighters, immersion heaters, and salt-and-pepper shakers. There are instructions on how to grill a sandwich on a cell's built-in stainless steel furniture and for how to prepare a hot bath in the toilet.

Fischer, Bloom, and their other partner, Salem Collo-Julin, were so excited by the quantity and quality of the material that they decided to publish it in book form. They initially approached Anthony Elms, editor of WhiteWalls, for help finding a printer, but Elms liked the project so much he volunteered to publish the book himself. The resulting 128-page paperback retails for $12.

Meanwhile Temporary Services gathered artists to build about 35 of the inventions, and in March installed them as part of an exhibit, "Fantastic," that's up at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art through next spring. At Angelo's suggestion they also built a replica of his cell in the gallery so that, says Bloom, "people would get a psychological context."

Most of the inventions are "this really banal stuff," Bloom says. But some--a condom made from Saran wrap and rubber bands, for example--serve as graphic illustrations of the hypocrisies of the penal system. Condoms are forbidden in California state prisons, and "that kind of puritanical denial is rather frightening and upsetting. It's hard to talk about except as institutional murder.

"The book didn't set out to be political," Bloom adds. "We were just interested in the creativeness of it. But in a cumulative fashion it speaks really eloquently to how messed up these built environments are."

Temporary Services and WhiteWalls will host a release party for Prisoners' Inventions at 8 PM on Friday, June 20, at Quimby's, 1854 W. North. Fischer will discuss the project and he and his collaborators will demonstrate some of the inventions. The book will be available at a discounted price of $10. Call 773-342-0910 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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