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Well Contested Sites: Amie Dowling on Choreographing Ex-Prisoners Inside Alcatraz

Filmed in the infamous Alcatraz coumpound and performed by 12 previously incarcerated dancers, "Well Contested Sites" captures the difficult transition into a life outside prison. In the work, the dancers take the viewer through the halls and the walls of this historic structure, pressing their flesh against cold concrete, and leaving their worldly goods and identity behind. Their movements are symbolic, sometimes cathartic and repetitive -- their repetition leads the viewer too into the sort of desperate rituals of incarceration, the endless moebius strip of existence within prison industrial complex. With a hypnotic score by musician Eli Nelson,  the film conveys a sense of claustrophobia, but also shows that music can free the mind, even in the most dire of situations. 

Works of art can make people look at mass-incarceration through a different lens, a lens that encompasses heart and mind.  Art tenderizes and touches the heart in ways that trump politics.
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When emphasizing the condition of the prisoner's body, choreographer Amie Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord reflect on the incarceration in the U.S. “Dance, of all the performing art forms, foregrounds the self-expression, self-representation and liberation of the body,” Dowling says, “while prisons are the institution in today’s society that exists to confine, constrict and control the body.”

The film is visually-driven but also politically-engaged. It challenges the power relationship among space, body and surveillance. The work itself illuminates how dance performers, filmmakers and choreographers can address social issues with powerful images and movements. “The arts can and should play a role in that public discourse,” Dowling says, “because works of art can make people look at mass-incarceration through a different lens, a lens that encompasses heart and mind.  Art tenderizes and touches the heart in ways that trump politics.”

Well Contested Sites

Here, dance is a powerful weapon in examining the criminal justice. The piece leads viewers to reflect on personal and collective identity, power, masculinity, race, justice and violence.  

Well Contested Sites
Still from "Well Contested Sites"

The following is an interview with choreographer Amie Dowling:

How does the theme of incarceration in Well Contested Sites relate to our current incarceration complex? 

The impact of mass incarceration is not just about individual acts of criminality or individual responsibility. Rather, it confirms that the United States’ punishment system is a much larger problem, at the root of which is institutional and racial inequity.  The title of the film, "Well Contested Sites," stems from the idea that a prisoner’s body is a 'contested site,’ its presence or absence, its power and its vulnerability are all intensely realized in jails and prisons - institutions that emphasize control, segregation, solitude, and physical containment.  When the formerly incarcerated men in "Well Contested Sites" dance at Alcatraz, they make their bodies the site of art rather than the site of disposability.

The statistics are well known: 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., 6.2 million on parole and probations, 64 million people who have criminal records affecting their ability to find housing, receive food stamps, get jobs and vote. The Bureau of Justice recently reported that it is predicting 1 out of every 4 African American male child born in 2015 will, at some point in his life, serve time in jail or prison.  The problems that have led to mass incarceration are so complex that the solutions must be equally complex, and thus we must start having complex conversations. The arts can and should play a role in that public discourse, because works of art can make people look at mass-incarceration through a different lens, a lens that encompasses heart and mind.  Art tenderizes and touches the heart in ways that trump politics.

Well Contested Sites

How does your background as a dancer influence your videos?

When I tell people I am a choreographer and I work in prisons they are, more often than not, confused.  They cannot imagine the world of dance and the world of a prison coming together.  Yet to me, it makes perfect sense.  Dance, of all the performing art forms, foregrounds the self-expression, self-representation and liberation of the body, while prisons are the institution in today’s society that exists to confine, constrict and control the body.  By merging these two, seemingly disparate worlds together, by bringing those most affected by mass incarceration into the center of the creative process, performance work in prisons can reconfigure and re-function the punitive space into a theatrical space - one in which the performers make self-determined decisions and have input about ‘narrative’ - developing a potent physical aesthetic and political ‘language.’ 

Movement-based practices like dance are the most direct expression of embodied engagement: we watch dance, at some level, to feel moved. Dance scholar Susan Foster has argued in her book, "Choreographing Empathy," that the kinesthetic power of dance can “invite [e] viewers into a specific experience of what the body is,” thereby “enabl[ing] us to contemplate how the body is grounded, its function in remembering, its affinity with cultural values, its participation in the construction of gender and sexuality,” etc. As Foster’s conclusion implies, this ‘feeling moved’ is both somatic and political; it is recognition of the shared conditions of embodiment: vulnerability, physiological difference, the capacity to be touched, and the potential for movement alone and together. When dance becomes political, in other words, it brings both the dancers and the spectators into embodied politics together. 

Ultimately, we hope that it is the film’s artistry that is the primary vehicle through which viewers are impacted. Well Contested Sites has reached multiple audiences:  for people who seldom think about incarceration, the aesthetics of the film provide a window into the issue; for those who think about the issue often, the film provides the opportunity to experience the impact of incarceration in a different way, divergent from a discussion that implies the capacity of logic and argument to contain, resolve or manage the issue.

Still from Well Contested Sites
Still from "Well Contested Sites"

How much of the film reflects the performer's personal experience with incarceration?

Memories live in our bodies.  The experience of penal confinement doesn’t start once one enters of the space of the prison and stop when finally released. The treatment individuals receive while incarcerated and the societal narratives relating to detainment will follow them for the rest of their lives. The dancers’ interactions with the space of the storied prison calls attention to how common dialogues surrounding U.S. prisons have become mapped onto the bodies of those who experience incarceration. Power relations within the space become contested in a play that pits individual subjectivity against the larger structural forces that work against it. 

The collaborative creative process used in "Well Contested Sites" asked the performers to go deeply into the physicality of their personal world. This movement-based process invited previously incarcerated individuals into the center of meaning making, and an aesthetic language opened up.  This new language, a product of direct group participation in generating performance material, grew out of personal history and memory – and in this particular circumstance, much of the concrete content (e.g., the jail site, official prison rules and regulations, the culture of incarceration, etc.) are shared by the cast members.  

Well Contested Sites

The film has been used in conjunction with its curriculum guide in high school classrooms throughout the U.S. to initiate dialogue about the school to prison pipeline. What are the reactions and concerns of students after watching the film?

Since the premiere at the University of San Francisco, in 2013, the film has been screened in jails, prisons, film festivals and community centers, throughout the U.S. and internationally.  The screenings are often accompanied by workshops and panel discussions with the cast members and restorative justice practitioners. A curriculum resource guide for the film developed by the “Well Contested Sites” Think Tank - a group of artists, scholars, formerly incarcerated men and their families, and community activists - is being used in high school and college classrooms to initiate dialogue about mass incarceration. 

For some students and members of the general public, it is the first time they have ever met anyone who had been incarcerated. Suddenly, not only are the cast of the film the object of analysis, but they are sitting next to them, telling them about their families, about their experiences inside, about their social justice and restorative justice work. One student wrote: “Thus we as viewers,” she wrote, “are able to see the way that the prisoners, while still experiencing physical constraints placed on them by mass incarceration, are able to emotionally overcome their pasts and enter into new, more fulfilling lives.” Another student wrote: “As I sat next to a cast member and he spoke about his life inside and outside prison, I wondered what it would mean for him to fully recover dignity, for the men in the film, to restore a capacity for movement, to re-choreograph agency in their lives.”

Interview by Isabel Ochoa-Gold

Well Contested Sites
Still from "Well Contested Sites" 

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