On ViewArtist Space
Janury 17– March 13, 2016
Walking through Cameron Rowland’s solo exhibition, 91020000, is a sobering experience. Here, the Philadelphia-born artist, who has been exhibiting in galleries for only a few years now, presents a body of work that is as disquieting as it is inspiring. The artist, known for displaying ready-made objects that are obtained through abstruse economic exchanges, showcases work that transcends its own objecthood as commodity, revealing a language (and history) of social and racial hierarchies.
This is the case in 91020000, its title derived from Artists Space’s customer account number with Corcraft, a company that manufactures affordable commodities to sell to government agencies, schools, and non-profit organizations (i.e. Artists Space). Mr. Rowland, through his partnership with Artists Space, purchased four courtroom benches made of oak, a particleboard office desk, and seven cast aluminum manhole rings.1 All are carefully strewn about the SoHo loft space, leaving the viewer to observe in silence these everyday, recondite objects. It is not until one picks up the accompanying leaflet, which includes a short essay by the artist along with captions for each piece in the exhibition, that we learn the aforementioned objects were made by the cheap labor of New York State’s prison inmates.
Corcraft is the market name for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Division of Industries, that, according to its mission statement, “employ[s] inmates in substantive jobs that help teach a good work ethic and valuable work skills, to help offset the cost of incarceration, to help reduce disruption in the prison environment and to meet expectations of New York State’s citizens.”2 Rowland interprets today’s prison labor force, which is made up of about half a million black people (one-third of the entire prison population), as a practiced form of neo-slavery that not only has historical precedence in this country, but continues to thrive in our present economy.
Rowland’s essay takes the 13th Amendment as its springboard, tracing the history of convict leasing labor and the chain gang system—which restricted prison labor to government use—to the present condition of the U.S. prison industry. Rowland carefully explicates how the 13th Amendment made it possible to incarcerate ex-slaves for vagrancy, allowing private companies and later state governments to exploit prisoners’ free labor. He later goes on to show how a similar tactic was used to a greater extent during the war on drugs, beginning in 1970. Since then the country has seen a massive rise in the rate of incarceration, especially among African Americans, as well as a tremendous growth in the construction of prisons nationwide. The result is a corrupt correctional system that piggybacks on the legacy of slavery, paying inmates $0.10 to $1.14 an hour (a wage that clearly does not offset the cost of incarceration3).
In displaying his Corcraft purchases outside of their original context (i.e. the classroom, the courtroom, the city street), Rowland unpacks the social and racial injustices that these objects inherit. His role is that of the artist as investigative reporter, seeking out intellectual, factual, and material evidence to support his written claims. Not unlike his predecessor Fred Wilson, who unearthed artifacts from Maryland’s Historical Society that told a violent history of slavery that was otherwise kept silent, here Rowland reveals present-day artifacts that expose a reality of modern capitalism obscured.
More importantly however, Rowland also assumes the role of active consumer, taking ownership of these objects as a form of antagonism.4 Furthermore his selections of mundane objects are not void of formalist interpretation: the austereness of the desk, the solidity of the wood benches, the strength of the lashing bars, and the durability of the firefighter suits, all connote a strong sense of power—a power which mirrors that of property.
This idea is best understood through the annals of slavery, where the possession of black bodies supports an economic structure of racial dominance that unfortunately continues to this day. Rowland reclaims these markers of a corrupt industry, stripping the objects of their use-value, and positioning them as relics of structural racism.
One of the more optimistic works in the show is Disgorgement (2016), not an object, but rather, a contractual agreement. In it, Rowland frames the pages of a trust agreement, aptly titled “Reparations Purpose Trust,” whose sole purpose is to acquire shares of the insurance company Aetna (which held slave insurance policies for slave owners prior to the abolition of slavery) and to hold those shares until the US government makes financial reparations for slavery, at which time the shares will be liquidated toward the payment of reparations. The act is undeniably bold. Again in partnership with Artists Space, Rowland purchased approximately $10,000 worth of Aetna shares. The partnership is a priori long lasting, an economic relationship that mediates great attention, and one that seeks sustained conflict with the capitalist agenda.