Analogy between the body and building or “body-as-house” has long prevailed in mainstream architecture, comparing skins to walls, veins to conduits, windpipes to vent pipes, orifices to doors, and with today’s smart home technologies, brain to hardwired systems. However, this human-machine-architecture configuration continues to speak from a rather modernist functionalism and discards what this technosomatic translation begets. Today the romantic “body-as-home” discourse is proved partial, as the privileged experience of “feeling at home in one’s skin” is contingent upon this body’s legitimacy and acceptance by society and law – thereby upon its gender, sexuality, race, class and other traits. In this regard, the body can be instead considered a site of confinement and punishment, akin less to homes but more to physical spaces of imprisonment (a.k.a. prisons). Drawing a parallelism between the materiality of the social body and of incarceration – both as governed and designed, this talk offers a reflection on the intricate relationship between identity, justice, criminalisation and design/architecture industry, and envisions abolitionist futures as a way of dismantling the existing punitive material practices or, in feminist scholar Sara Ahmed’s words, the “brick walls”.
In 1986, Norwegian prison abolitionist Thomas Mathiesen said: ‘There is a clear and strong tendency towards the expansion of the prison system throughout the Western world. Even in Holland, traditionally the country with the lowest prison rate in Europe, the flagship telling the world that it is possible to have a complex industrialized society with very few prisoners, there is now a noticeable expansion in the making.’
That same year, renowned architect Carel Weeber drew up his design for a prison complex in Rotterdam, one of the many Dutch prisons built in the 1980s, in use to this day. As part of his design process Weeber had a 1:1 scale test built of a single prison cell. While there are conflicting accounts on how his test went about, one thing is certain: such a test demands the imagination of how the space will be used, by whom, and in what condition this person is.
For the film '1986 Or A Sphinx's Interior' (38 min.), Robert Glas rebuilt Weeber’s test set up. Working with actor Ali-Ben Horsting, Carel Weeber himself, and a former detainee of the prison, various versions of Weeber’s visit to the test setup are constructed and reconstructed. The result orbits around imagining how a life and a body are affected by confinement, this sentence we talk about so often and know so little about.
For his artistic practice Robert Glas (1986) uses cinematography, photography, scientific literature and fiction to investigate technologies nation-states deploy to enforce the law.