California’s Arts-In-Corrections program offers new meaning to modes and methodologies of institutional critique, bringing the relationship between art and morality into focus, both inside prison walls and beyond.
Ronnie Goodman, a fair-skinned African-American man with deep-set eyes and a wide smile, began, “The program saved my life.” Ronnie, who was convicted of first-degree burglary in 1986, could neither read nor write when he began working in the California Arts-In-Corrections (AIC) program some twenty-five years ago. “When I arrived at Folsom [State Prison],” he said, “I felt like a broken toy. I needed to help myself before helping others.”
Ronnie started AIC drafting comic strips and later began reading about Fine Art, and learning to paint and carve. Now out of prison and homeless, he lives at a shelter in San Francisco and spends his days making and selling intricate linocuts and teaching art to the underserved at Central City Hospitality House. A better citizen? It would seem so.
Erika Chong Shuch has a lot of feelings. Tess Thackara joins the artist in a circle sit-down to see how her new work takes therapy off the couch and into the crowd.
Erika Chong Shuch and her performance troupe would like to know how you feel. Think about it. How do you feel? Why have you come here? Can you let go? What does it mean to let go? These are some of the questions unassuming audience-turned-participants are asked during Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project’s (ESP) latest multidisciplinary work, Sitting in a Circle, staged at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. The questions are intoned with such authority and depth, it’s hard to resist them. Why have I come here, I wonder, reduced to a quaking existential question mark within moments of my arrival. The premise of this evening chez Chong Shuch was just too seductive, too latent with possibility: a group of individuals have been mysteriously summoned to grapple with what it means to sit amongst strangers—and connect. Join the group, and be guided through an interactive journey incorporating movement, installation and theater.
The night was billed to sound like an anthropological petri dish: What safety does the circle offer? Who is excluded? And why? The form-bending work, a dance-cum-performance art piece-cum-group therapy session, didn’t disappoint. Performers sit in a circle among audience members and assume the roles of emotionally damaged characters. Their interactions with one another—through dance, role-play, performance and song—cut to the core of what it means to negotiate our own emotions in a world where we are constantly negotiating the emotions of others. Do we hunger for the expression of emotion, or do we hide from it? When is emotion performed, and when genuine? Which emotions do we value, which are taboo? I struck up a conversation with Erika Chong Shuch to help unpack the baggage.
Tess Thackara In Sitting in a Circle, audience members are asked to consider an emotion that has dominated their lives and draw it onto a blank paper mask. What do you see as having been the dominant emotion in your lifetime?
Erika Chong Shuch I should’ve known that would come back and bite me! I don’t know if I can say that one specific emotion has dominated my life. I can say that my life has been dominated by emotion. My way of navigating through the world is pretty intuitive; I tend to make choices based on what I am feeling about things. And if I do have a dominant emotion, I think I’d rather draw it on a mask than put it into words!