We started writing this essay after a program session at Recess that asked a group of young people convicted of misdemeanor crimes in Brooklyn to imagine a different future. More specifically, an artist asked participants to introduce a yet-to-be-invented object from the future into a narrative from their past, which might change the outcome of the story. The program participants not only found this exercise absurd, but they also made it clear that the prompt was insulting. “There’s no object that’s going to change my future;” said one young man laughing, shaking his head. “No matter what, I’m going to live in the ghetto and I’m going to hustle.” The astute and unspoken question was: who are you to even propose that I imagine myself or my life outside of my current situation?
Certainly, factors such as poverty, lack of resources, access to education and health care foreclose possibilities. That story is not new. It’s less common to consider the ways in which these factors limit subjectivity, and thus the willingness and capacity to imagine. Futurity, a language artists speak fluently, is not always accessible.
The bullet ricochets off a metal railing causing one young women—your friend—to hit the ground in fear.
Part and parcel with limited access comes an overabundance of generalized assumptions always already placed on the body; limited definition of self is controlled by prefabricated narratives. Identities that are marginalized through stereotypes that are ascribed to categories of race, class, gender are simplified with sweeping popular narratives: a 19-year-old black man who gets arrested is flattened into a “criminal.” This default is so pervasive that it may replace a more nuanced identity even for that 19-year-old himself. As such, the individual does not describe himself in terms of his emotions or his choices. When he does not tell his own story independently from a false and dangerous narrative, he is robbed of his subjectivity.
Subjectivity is a precursor to imagination. If one cannot or does not describe themself as individual, one can’t change that nuanced description into something else, something imagined. But artists live by engaging a process of creative review. They are constantly inventing images and languages to reframe their surroundings to offer new meanings. If artists move through the world by stretching their own subjectivity and projecting it onto imagined possibilities, they are also uniquely suited to communicate this strength where it has been systemically removed.
These questions of subjectivity of course reflect back on the reasons our participants found themselves in the room with us and the other teaching artists. At the core of this questioning is the participants’ articulation of their persistent relationship with and continuous existence within the justice system. The law and policing pervades their every day experiences. Our young people have been stopped and frisked on the way to the artist diversion program that serves an an alternative to incarceration. Diversion programs exist in part because legal professionals believe in an alternative treatment for youth (only recently has New York State passed legislation that will raise the age of criminal responsibility, placing 16-17 year olds in family court for accusations of misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges). Diversion as an institutional strategy, however, is also in place to divert bodies away from overcrowded jails. While there are many bold advocates for change in the legal field, the language shared around diversion initiatives does not always place humanity at its center and our participants understand that they are most often perceived as guilty before innocent. Choice for these young people, within this arrangement, is in and of itself limited. So when artists and cultural producers ask specific community members—in this case court-involved youth—to join their creative pursuit to imagine a different future, we reveal a lack of sensitivity to the (false) generalized assumptions that may affect the subjectivity of those individuals. These generalizations dehumanize the individuals they describe, and when we ignore them or gloss over them, we corroborate the harmful narrative.
The bullet falls to the ground, rolls several inches, and comes to a stop.
What is our role, then, as artists and cultural producers to mitigate the refusal or obstruction of subjectivity and thus imagination? Artists deal in a kind of alternative currency of the imagined; their ability to suspend our disbelief is a form of power. If art and its implicit futurity is to be truly accessible to a variety of publics, we must think critically and creatively about the ways in which the imagined is articulated, presented, and consumed.
Often, we task “social practice” with the labor of enacting “real” change because it connotes public participation and involvement. But too often an artist or organization invites a community to sit at a table, and what’s being offered at the table is of no interest or is inaccessible to the invited guests. Often social practice utilizes the imaginary for its political potential; it operates on the premise that the poetics of a human, intimate exchange can lead to social change via the opening of imagination. While we believe this to be true in part, it does not speak to the necessary mechanics of an exchange: tools, oftentimes language, must be learned and shared as a precursor to the imaginary. This sentiment lauding art as social practice, shared by many artists who play within symbolic value, falls short in that it assumes everyone is on the same page in their willingness and interest in the conversation and has the same access to the modes of communication employed therein. Resting on an implicit shared point of departure, social practice runs the risk of creating an exchange with and for a self-selecting audience.
We must therefore ask if, without the imposed framework of imagination, there is still potential in thinking of a possibility that exists alongside reality, without the intent of replacing it? Can the idea of futurity be proposed as a mode meant not to think outside of a current situation or into an impractical future, but rather as a mechanism for looking into one’s life in such a way that they can no longer think about or narrate the present in the same manner? In other words, can imagination be introduced as a means to navigate a current predicament with choice, if not hope? If it is indeed possible to teach the notion of possibility within a given reality, then agency in the retelling of one’s story, and thus introspection, may lead to an acquisition of power.
But even after the bullet stops, the sound of it striking the metal handrail and your friend’s screams echo in your ears when you think back to the event. These sounds define the memory.
The story of the intercepted bullet was not the story originally told in the workshop. Instead, a young man told a story about shots fired from a rival group into the courtyard of the housing development where he lived; luckily no one was hurt, but the incident lead to a series of arrests. The original story was told in a matter of fact tone, recounting only certain logistics with little room for the depiction of any emotional content. Furthermore, there was no woman who screamed in the original narration, nor did the bullet strike metal. But after several exercises he could no longer imagine it without these details. As part of the workshop’s efforts to do add subjective, emotional content, the group worked through exercises to retell the story within the same reality, but introducing new possibilities.
To revisit the memory and the telling of this story, we offered a framework that decenters the shooting and displaces the narrator as the potential victim. We asked the narrator to tell the same story, but to shift the telling so that something then happens to the bullet, with the goal being to add meaning to a story in such a way that the narrator can no longer think about or retell it in the same manner.
Here the idea of futurity is not out of reach. Instead, this reframing in which the bullet is intercepted by the handrail adds a poetry that triggers a different kind of remembering, creating space in the memory that invites a contemplation, which does not necessarily move away from the truth. After the collective revision process, the narrator noted, for example, that a young female friend of his did indeed shout and hit the ground in the original incident. Through the process of collective revision, he could also access the chaos of the sounds around him in the moment of the actual event—car windows exploding, bricks crumbling, and metal ringing as bullets made contact. These details add subjectivity to the story. By relating the sounds, space, and emotive qualities, the individual gains agency in the telling of his narrative, subsequently stealing some power from the shooter.
If the narrator were to re-inhabit the courtyard, could he also psychically reclaim this space? Although connected to a memory of fear, could he still occupy the courtyard and thus his own memory of this place? Reality has not shifted. The projects are still the projects and the shooting has still occurred. No outcome has been altered. But could it be possible for him to embody the memory of this place and internalize it differently?
The possibility for imagination connects directly to how one self-defines in the face of how one is perceived. Our goal is to facilitate participants’ agency to tell their own stories so that we may reframe existing narratives defining the “criminal.” The reimagining of language leads to a reimagining of subjectivity.
Ultimately, each individual who has been “criminalized” by prevailing narratives still has a choice to define oneself as a criminal or as someone who has registered specific emotions during an isolated incident and responded by making choices. While this may not change reality, it may give a person the strength and ability to navigate their own situation. By gaining awareness of how one is perceived, an individual is left to develop a subjectivity that both negates and co-opts narratives that have been forced onto them. But those prescribed definitions do not cease to exist. The agency in telling one’s own story only allows an individual to work with and against those pre-existing narratives while holding a certain knowledge. But this knowledge can manifest as a mode of resistance—self-defining in the face of oppression whether it be through quiet maneuvering or outright protest. As artists and institutions invested in creative resistance, maybe social practice as we know it isn’t the only inroad. Perhaps simply doing what we do best, constantly reframing our subjectivity and projecting it into an unknown future, is enough if done in a way that acknowledges and rejects false narratives that render imagination a thing of privilege.