Slip, Loop, Retreat:
On the Architectures
of Confinement

Slip, Loop, Retreat:
On the Architectures
of Confinement

Re’al Christian

Re’al Christian reflects on contemporary abolitionist art and its disruptive potential within carceral and political systems.

Gallery space with a bright blue sculpture in the foreground, and large-scale paintings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on one wall and illuminated text on another.

Installation view featuring works by Sable Elyse Smith, Russell Craig, and American Artist, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Cohen Gallery, Brown Arts Institute, Brown University, September 16 – December 18, 2022.

Photo credit to Mike Cohea.
There was a wall. It did not look important.  It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

The prison—in its wide range of figurative, philosophical, societal, and material configurations—exists in a state of ambiguity. In many ways, this condition is reflected in Jeremy Bentham’s vision of the Panopticon, a design conceived as a less expensive alternative to pre-existing prison structures. With its sweeping vantage points, the complex required fewer staff to surveil it, effectively removing the human component from the practice of carceral control—the individual who might bear witness to the conditions of the prison system, those interpolated within it, or the ghost in the machine. This removal is indicative of a larger, persistent issue that tends to curtail questions of abolition: many of us cannot imagine our lives, our society, without prisons—at the same time, we can’t quite conceive of their true nature.

Activist Angela Davis reflects on this duality:

On the whole, people tend to take prisons for granted. It is difficult to imagine life without them. At the same time, there is reluctance to face the realities hidden within them, a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings…Because it would be too agonizing to cope with the possibility that anyone, including ourselves, could become a prisoner, we tend to think of the prison as disconnected from our own lives. This is even true for some of us, women as well as men, who have already experienced imprisonment (Davis 2003, 15).

The perceived unreality of the carceral system—and by extension, our inability to move toward or imagine a world beyond it—is in many ways tied to the conscious repression of the incarcerated person, the living breathing human body that moves within prison walls. Mindful of this blind spot, one might ask how we envision prisons apart from the media, apart from cheat shots in television shows and movies that distort our perspective of their spatial constrictions. This essay is a means of working through the tension between the perceived and repressed realities of the prison system through a focus on artists with performance and movement-based practices. It is not meant to offer an exhaustive representation or imagining of these artists’ practices, but to showcase instances in which movement can be used to draw our attention to the physicality of confinement, and, moreover, the felt experience of carceral infrastructures. To consider an aesthetic of abolition, let us consider how spaces of confinement are built to both respond to and countervail an individual’s movement—how the imposition of physical and psychological limitations can be identified and rethought, and how abolition might be embodied through a multiplicity of experiences.

A growing body of scholarship demonstrates the lineage between the social, political, and economic conditions of the plantation and that of the prison system as we know it today. This connection permeates the ways in which each respective system is or has historically been perceived—as a condition without end—as well as how individual bodies are subsumed into these spaces through mandatory labor or regulated activities. Davis observes:

In the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for newly released slaves. Black people became the prime targets of a developing convict lease system, referred to by many as a reincarnation of slavery. The Mississippi Black Codes, for example, declared vagrant ‘anyone/who was guilty of theft, had run away [from a job, apparently], was drunk, was wanton in conduct or speech, had neglected job or family, handled money carelessly, and...all other idle and disorderly persons.’ Thus, vagrancy was coded as a black crime, one punishable by incarceration and forced labor, sometimes on the very plantations that previously had thrived on slave labor (Davis 2003, 29).

The notion of “vagrancy” used to describe enslaved people was similarly ascribed to the colonized body, which was often equated with immorality, disorder, corruption—a problem in need of “correction.” Colonial architectures addressed this perceived problem head on; pre-dating the Panopticon, colonial infrastructures, built on top of indigenous land, emphasized clear sightlines. This eliminated spaces in which the colonized could gather clandestinely or, in essence, move freely. 

The boundary between the colonizer and the colonized, the enslaver and the enslaved, the imprisoner and the imprisoned, is made more visible through the construction of otherness. The racialized conditions of chattel slavery in the United States developed long after the advent of slavery itself, though the entanglement between race and enslavement is continuously present in the false equivalency drawn between Blackness and criminality, as well as other forms of otherness, including sexuality, gender, disability, and neurodivergence. The tether between colonialism, the plantation, and the prison is made clear through the latter’s ostensible aim at “correcting” criminal bodies through segregative subjugation. “[W]ith the penitentiary,” Davis writes, “incarceration became the punishment itself. As is indicated in the designation ‘penitentiary,’ imprisonment was regarded as rehabilitative and the penitentiary prison was devised to provide convicts with the conditions for reflecting on their crimes and, through penitence, for reshaping their habits and even their souls” (Davis 2003, 26). 

Lu Lee, a former enslaved woman and midwife living in the eighteenth century, described how her owner would encourage the enslaved to have dance parties on Saturday nights, an “innocent” and regulated diversion from the realities of subjugation. 1 As Saidiya Hartman describes, “Generally, the response of the enslaved to the management and orchestration of ‘Negro enjoyment’ was more complex than a simple rejection of ‘innocent amusement.’ Rather, the sense of operating within and against these closures made the experience of pleasure decidedly ambivalent. If ‘good times’ were an index of the owner’s profit and dominion, what possibilities could pleasure yield?” (Hartman 1997, 49) Pushing back against such prescribed movements, enslaved people found other opportunities for amusement, pleasure, anger, and joy, finding spaces where they could gather, speak, and move with relative agency outside of the master’s gaze. Documented in (auto)biographies, diaries, and travel accounts, this negation took several forms, from slowing down work to destroying property. 2 “Within the confines of surveillance and nonautonomy,” Hartman writes, “the resistance to subjugation proceeded by stealth: one acted furtively, secretly, and imperceptibly, and the enslaved seized any and every opportunity to slip off the yoke” (Hartman 2003, 49).

Consider Harriet Jacobs’ “loophole of retreat”—her seven-year confinement in a crawl space in her grandmother’s home, as documented in her novel Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. From here, she peered out onto the world in fragments—a passerby, a sliver of sunlight, her children playing, unaware of her presence. These fleeting moments of reprieve did not offer her a means of spatial escape from the plantation, but an alternative means of navigating its confinement; her escape was psychological rather than physical, a chosen path for living within the boundaries that were imposed on her. In undermining permissible actions, moving beyond and around prescribed boundaries has long been an everyday form of abolitionist practice.

Using Lee’s and Jacobs’ examples, imagine what forms of movement and embodiment might similarly enact these loopholes.

How can we understand abolition from a spatial perspective?

Artist Anna Martine Whitehead’s installation and dance lecture Notes on Territory: Meditation 1 replicates the dimensions of Jacobs' crawl space (7 x 9 x 3 feet). In this space, as Whitehead observes, Jacobs was effectively no longer a slave but in a liminal state between enslavement, fugitivity, and freedom. Staged in Chicago’s Roman Susan gallery, Whitehead’s crawl space oscillated between a library, an interactive installation, and a place for durational performance and rest (Whitehead 2022). Through “somatic solidarity,” Whitehead considers how we define freedom in its most intrinsic form—how feelings of hope, progress, excitement, and change render a confined environment inhabitable (Whitehead 2023). 3

How does the incarcerated body similarly find moments of reprieve? Historian Dianne Harris recounts an experience visiting a group of incarcerated students enrolled in the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where one of the students recalled the impact of reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave during his sentence (Harris 2021, 112). Plato’s story describes a group of people who have been chained to the wall of a cave. They lived their entire lives here; their only portal to a life beyond the cave stems from observing their shadows dancing across the wall, projected from a fire burning behind them. They attribute names to these shadows, a type of world-building born out of confinement. The student at Sing Sing, as told by Harris, used the story as a framework to imagine a world outside of his cell, using his own shadow as an avatar, one that could move freely while his physical body could not (Harris 2021). As in Plato’s allegory, the shadows become a portal, representing not the world itself, but an alternate, perhaps parallel, version of it; a loophole.

Since 2016, choreographer and educator Suchi Branfman has directed “Dancing Through Prison Walls,” a project that brings together incarcerated and formerly incarcerated dancers, choreographers, artists, and performers into critical dialogue on the ways dance offers a means of surviving the restriction of freedom, movement, and liberty. The project started during a five-year choreographic residency at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security state prison in Norco, California. It came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 in the wake of COVID-19, when California state prisons closed. As a response, the project changed course—the incarcerated dancers began writing choreographic scores to send to dancers on the outside, creating a collaboration that traverses architectures of confinement and restriction. 4

Two figures against a black background. One figure performs a handstand in the foreground while another person holding a clipboard oversees the performance.

Internal Battle: Negative and Positive. Choreographer/Author: Brandon Alexander, inside CRC Prison, 2020. Choreographic Interpreter/Performer: Tom Tsai. Narrator: Ernst Fenelon Jr. Artistic Facilitator: Suchi Branfman.

Courtesy of Dancing Through Prison Walls.

One of the choreographed dances, a duet written by Brandon Alexander, draws upon the dancer’s reflection, casting it as an antagonist partner:

Scene: Inside a dance studio. Two walls have full length mirrors covering the entire wall. There are no doors and no roof. The floor is a smooth wood floor. I am alone in the studio meditating on the turmoil within, trying to find peace as the rage is trying to surge forth. Just like on a cloudy day, the sun is covered then revealed over and over throughout the day. The light tries to break through as the darkness tries to consume. No one to hear. No one to see. No one aware. In secret I wage my Internal Battle. What will prevail? Negative or Positive?

Response: My eyes open full of rage. I shoot to my feet ready for war. My only opponent is myself in the mirror. The eyes looking back are full of peace and calm. This angers me so I do what I know when enraged. Battle!... That the Internal Battle is mine alone, and my choice alone determines my future. Embracing the hug and myself, I choose to love myself. I open my eyes and realize I’m still sitting in the same pose as when I began to meditate. I realize that the entire exchange was all my own Internal Battle. (Harris 2021, 12-13)

In this routine, the reflection, another guise of the shadow, offers a means of working through conflict, while other dances in the project allow for moments of joy, frustration, pleasure, ritual, meditation, each written for a counterpart in the outside world. (Yet here, inside-outside no longer functions as a binary.)

Contemporary artist Torkwase Dyson’s practice concerns the lived implications of brute infrastructures. Her large-scale sculptures reference the restrictive, imposing nature of modernist aesthetics, revealing the antagonistic relationship of these forms with the body and the structural, environmental violence they engender. Dyson refers to this work as Black Compositional Thought, “a working term that considers how paths, throughways, waterways, architecture, objects, and geographies are composed by [B]lack bodies, and then how additional properties of energy, space, scale, and sound all work together in networks of liberation.” 5 For her project I Can Drink the Distance: Plantationocene in 2 Acts, Dyson considers the Anthropocene’s connection to racism, the plantation, white supremacy, and their manifestations in industrialization—an intersection referred to as the “Plantationocene.” With her signature black, monolithic-like forms, Dyson staged a series of performances with the sculpture and fellow artists over two evenings at New York’s Pace Gallery, activating the sculptures’ spatial dimensions and unfixing their geographical imposition through the poetic movement and presence of Black bodies. In doing so, Dyson sought to restructure the equivalency between Blackness and freedom: “To image and imagine movements and geographies of freedom, known and unknown, is to regard this space as irreducible, or to regard black spatial movement as irreducible.” 6

A gallery space with gray raised steps and large red and black gauzy fabric hanging down onto the steps. The fabric has some darkened silhouettes and gaps.

Sara Jimenez, Hardness Is Not the Absence of Emotion, 2022. Textiles, 20 x 20 x 30 feet.

Photo by Marcie Revens, courtesy the artist.

There are many ways of capturing the spatial relationship between the body and the carceral structures, which manifests in not only physical, but mental, audial, ephemeral, and environmental dimensions. Color, for instance, can be situated at the heart of a matter, bringing the question of carcerality to the very real, readily felt place of the body. Artist Sable Elyse Smith, for instance, uses the color blue to denote police presence and the use of (thin) blue lines to demarcate spaces of restricted movement, an observation that stemmed from visiting her father in prison for two decades. 7 I have had conversations with artist Sara Jimenez about the topic of carceral aesthetics. Much of her work incorporates a signature reddish-pink hue inspired by “prison pink,” a particular pigment that was developed in the late 1960s following research on psychological and physiological responses to the color pink. The color was observed to temporarily reduce aggressive behavior and became popular in correctional facilities. This notion demonstrates just one of the ways in which architectures of confinement go beyond the physical walls themselves to permeate psychological spaces, creating an unreality.

Imagine the space of confinement as an echo of the human form—how the walls might breathe, shudder, contract, expand, whether through bars, bricks, glass, gates, or borders. This focus on the entwined relationship between the bodily, the spatial, and the built environment is necessary in making space for abolition, for imagining a world beyond prisons, where rehabilitation replaces psychosocial punishment. The question I have posed, “How can we understand abolition through a spatial perspective?” might be better formulated “How can we imagine an abolitionist aesthetics without fugitive understanding?”

Let’s end where Jacobs ends:

[L]et me say that the experience of the past, the present feeling, and above all this, the promise of God, assure me that the oppressor’s rod shall be broken. But how it is to be done has been the question among our friends for years. After the prayers of twenty-five years, the slaves’ chains are tighter than they were before, their escape more dangerous, and their cup of misery filled nearer its brim. Since I cannot forget that I was a slave, I will not forget those that are slaves. What I would have done for my liberty I am willing to do for theirs, whenever I can see them ready to fill a freeman’s grave, rather than wear a tyrant’s chain. The day must come; it will come. 8

  1. Described by Saidiya Hartman in “Redressing the Pained Body: Toward a Theory of Practice,” Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Lee’s account and recollections also appear in I Was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas, ed. Andrew Waters (Durham, NC: Blair, 2003).
  2. See Raymond A. Bauer, Alice H. Bauer, “Day to Day Resistance to Slavery” The Journal of Negro History 27, no. 4 (October 1942), 388–419.
  3. Anna Martine Whitehead is a 2022–2024 Fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, where I work as Assistant Director of Editorial Initiatives. Similar to Notes on Territory, her fellowship project FORCE! an opera in three acts explores relationships within carceral contexts. Taking place in a prison waiting room, the opera centers on, in the artist’s words, “femme containment,” and the abolitionist world-building that can grow through feminist art-making, particularly body-based (dance, theater, performance) practices.
  4. These choreographic pieces, written between March and May 2020, are collected and published in Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic, ed. Suchi Branfman (Los Angeles: Sming Sming Books, 2021). Further information on the project can be found here:
  5. “Black Compositional Thought: Torkwase Dyson in conversation with Mabel Wilson,” in 1919: Black Water, ed. Irene Sunwoo (New York: Columbia GSAPP), 15. Also quoted in Christina Sharpe, “Black Gathering: An Assembly in Three Parts,” Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, ed. Sean Anderson and Mabel O. Wilson (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2021), 25.
  6. Dyson quoted November 2019.
  7. See Sable Elyse Smith: And Blue in a Decade Where It Finally Means Sky (Los Angeles: TT, NEW YORK/REGEN PROJECTS, 2022); “Carceral Aesthetic:  Sable Elyse Smith, Nicole R. Fleetwood,” ICA London, November 2019; and Smith’s work in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, curated by Nicole R. Fleetwood. 
  8. From the concluding paragraph of Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (published 1861, repub. New York: Penguin Books, 2001, ed. Nell Irvin Painter), 258–59. Citation refers to Penguin Books edition.


Branfman, Suchi, ed. Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic. Los Angeles, California: Sming Sming Books, 2021.
Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Harris, Dianne. “Entanglements of Slavery, Segregation, and Mass Incarceration in the United States.” Essay. In Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, edited by Sean Anderson and Mabel Olivia Wilson. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2021.
Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Whitehead, Anna Martine. “Notes on Territory: Meditation.” Roman Susan, October 29, 2022.

Whitehead, Anna Martine “Gale Memorial Lecture Series 2022–2023: F.O.A. (Future-Oriented Archives),” University of New Mexico Art Department, March 22, 2023.

“Black Compositional Thought: Torkwase Dyson in conversation with Mabel Wilson,” in 1919: Black Water, ed. Irene Sunwoo (New York: Columbia GSAPP), 15.

Sharpe, Christina. “Black Gathering: An Assembly in Three Parts,” Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, ed. Sean Anderson and Mabel O. Wilson (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2021), 25.

Re'al Christian is a writer, editor, and art historian based in Queens, NY. Her work explores issues related to identity, diasporas, ecology, media, and materiality. She received her MA in Art History with a focus on twentieth-century Latin American art from Hunter College and a bachelor’s degree from New York University, where she double majored in Art History and Media, Culture, and Communication. Her essays, interviews, and criticism have appeared in Art in America, Artforum, BOMB Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and ART PAPERS, where she is a Contributing Editor. Christian is also the Assistant Director of Editorial Initiatives at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School.

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