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Seeing comes before words.1

Cameron Rowland
South London Gallery

The four oak benches, unadorned, almost crudely functional,

shrug off sight. Banality is a means towards invisibility: the benches seem to
elude perception, might not be noticed, were it not for their incongruous
placement, compactly arranged in two rows, oriented towards no one object
in the sparsely appointed space of the gallery.
The benches dodge questions of origin, shirk interrogation as to
their purpose. Some visitors thought they might be pews, plundered from a
local church; a small number presumed they were for their use and took a
seat. It was only upon picking up the exhibition handout and locating
themselves in relation to the floor-plan that, alongside the title, material,
dimensions, and cost of this work, they would have come across two short

New York State Unified Court System, 2016

Oak wood, distributed by Corcraft
165 x 57.5 x 36 inches
Rental at cost

Attica Series Desk, 2016

Steel, powder coating, laminated particleboard, distributed by Corcraft
60 x 71.5 x 28.75 inches
Rental at cost

Courtrooms throughout New York State use benches built by prisoners in

Green Haven Correctional Facility. The court reproduces itself materially
through the labor of those it sentences.

The Attica Series Desk is manufactured by prisoners in Attica Correctional

Facility. Prisoners seized control of the D-Yard in Attica from September 9th
to 13th 1971. Following the inmates' immediate demands for amnesty, the
first in their list of practical proposals was to extend the enforcement of "the
New York State minimum wage law to prison industries." Inmates working in
New York State prisons are currently paid $0.10 to $1.14 an hour. Inmates in
Attica produce furniture for government offices throughout the state. This
component of government administration depends on inmate labor.

The first sentence supplies a whence and a for whom: the

courtrooms of New York State use benches (like these, we are left to assume)
built by prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility. The second, with a
syllogistic elegance, infers from this: the court reproduces itself materially
through the labor of those it sentences. With this the title, New York Unified
Court System, unlocks. The inmates make the benches from which those who
follow them will be judged. There is a frictionless ease to the operation of
Cameron Rowlands work often requires this move from object
to text, then attempting to hold both in view. Take Attica Series Desk: a black
corner desk so unremarkable, so unassuming, that one critic thought it might
be confused for the institutions,2 a staff desk inexplicably hauled into the
middle of the exhibition space.
The text linked to this begins similarly, informing us by whom
and where the desk is manufactured: the prisoners in Attica Correctional
Facility. It ends by telling us its usual destination: government offices
throughout the state. As with New York Unified Court System it derives from
this a conclusion casually delivered, uncomfortable to receive that this
component of government administration depends on inmate labor.
In between these details, mention of Attica Correctional Facility
wrenches us back 45 years, resurfacing the story of a five-day insurrection in
1971 when inmates took control of part of the prison. The text presents the
voice of the prisoners, quoting their demand to extend the New York State
minimum wage law to prison industries. The very next sentence Inmates
working in New York State prisons are currently paid $0.10 to $1.14 an hour
coolly announces their failure; but its simple relation of fact, its abstinence
from emotive language, leaves us, the viewer, to extract the continued
injustice. The text tries to tint the desk with this history, to make it a vessel for
these voices; but any feeling it might provoke wells up in the gap between
the object and the text, and in the cracks between the words.

Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole Openings, 2016

Cast aluminum, pallet, distributed by Corcraft
118 x 127 x 11 inches
Rental at cost
Manhole leveler rings are cast by prisoners in Elmira Correctional Facility.
When roads are repaved, they are used to adjust the height of manhole
openings and maintain the smooth surface of the road. Work on public roads,
which was central to the transition from convict leasing to the chain gang,
continues within many prison labor programs. The road is a public asset,
instrumental to commercial development.

A third example. A set of six cast aluminum rings, two on a

wooden pallet, four scattered across the floor of the gallery. The
arrangement, the unfamiliarity of these industrial objects; this looks closer to
sculpture, until the listed materials inform us they were not fabricated by
Rowland but distributed by Corcraft. Corcraft is the market name for the
New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Division of
Industries. In other words, a branch of the carceral system responsible for the
manufacture and sale of industrial commodities produced by inmates.
As Corcraft only sells to government agencies, schools and
universities, courts and police departments, and certain nonprofit
organizations, for Rowlands solo exhibition at Artists Space, New York, he
instigated a relationship with Corcraft through the nonprofit gallery, and then
purchased these aluminum rings, the Attica desk and the court benches.
The gallerys customer registration with Corcraft was framed and
hung on the wall (titled Partnership), and the account number designated
Artists Space provided the exhibition with its title: 91020000. An echo of the
numbers inmates trade for names.
(Rowland wasnt looking to simply soil Artists Space with the
products of convict labour. At least in part he seems to have been trying to
show how the means offered nonprofits just to stay afloat often implicate
them in systems they may otherwise oppose.)
The text that accompanies Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole
Openings again begins with the what, the who, the where and the why. This
time, the prisoners in Elmira Correctional Facility making leveler rings to raise
manhole openings and maintain the smooth surface of the road. It is the
third sentence which explodes outwards. The main clause, another simple
proposition, is the fuse; the nested subordinate clause, the charge:
Work on public roads, which was central to the transition from
convict leasing to the chain gang, continues within many
prison labor programs.
150 years of almost-slavery, all the laws, policies, and programmes that
criminalised black men to exploit them for unpaid labour, spring into view.

The rings, designed to raise the manhole to the new level of the road, help
us to excavate each layer of history, to dig down, past the macadam, the
gravel and the stone, all the way to the unpaved dirt roads of the rural south
at the end of the Civil War, and to the chain gangs who were first coerced to
work them.
The rings become a portal out to the long history, surveyed in
detail by Rowland in the essay with which he introduced 9102000, of the
ways in which the U.S. government has directly and indirectly made use of
unpaid inmate labour since the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was
passed in 1865; in one sentence abolishing slavery at the same time as
sanctioning involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.
From object to text to essay, and out further (if we follow
Rowlands footnotes), to academic texts, legal cases, census data and state
correctional codes. Rowlands objects are made to speak of their
genealogies, and to the networks in which they are produced and
exchanged, so that witnessing the exhibition could not involve simply
glancing over them. If seeing comes before words, the words subsequently
alter (and potentially discredit entirely) that first perception.
The abruptness of Rowlands texts, the way he fires a series of
propositions at the reader for them to string together, the vaults he makes
between sentences; these can dazzle, disorient. Understanding comes like a
bright light shone in eyes used to darkness. Lurid blotches of colour wash
across the field of vision.
The effect of this glare, this flash, the searchlight that is
Rowlands prose, targeted at the opacities of power, its absences, its abysses:
a moment of not seeing.
It is a temporary blindness, a hiatus in perception, prefacing illumination.
After we see more, and more clearly.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding

world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the
fact we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and
what we know is never settled.3

At the opticians I sit down, take off my glasses, and put my eyes
to the phoropter. Looking through the lenses I see only a blank white wall.
The optician begins her work, and the machine flutters in response. Each
time it pauses, she asks. Which is clearer? this, or this? Almost immediately I
can begin to discern on that blank white wall black marks trembling indistinct
blurred. Is your vision better or worse? with this lens, or this lens? Soon
those black marks take on the form of letters, become legible; the
constituents of words, sentences, stories. How about now?
Hanging on the wall of the gallery are two Nomex fire suits, one
orange, one yellow, as if left behind by two careless visitors. These have been
purchased from CALPIA, the Californian equivalent to Corcraft, and produced
by inmates at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione or at the California Institution
for Women in Chino.

every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by

the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections. California Penal
Code 2700
CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization
California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market
name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison
Industry Authority.
Inmates working for CALPIA produce orange Nomex fire suits for the state's
4300 inmate wildland firefighters.

1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011, 2016

Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA
50 x 13 x 8 inches
Rental at cost
The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner
imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and
every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by
the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections." California Penal
Code 2700

1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011, 2016

Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA
50 x 13 x 8 inches
Rental at cost

CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization

California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market
name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison
Industry Authority.
Inmates working for CALPIA produce yellow Nomex fire suits for the state's
non-inmate wildland firefighters.

The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner

imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and

Both suits are given a text explaining this, the first two
paragraphs of which are identical. Skimming my eyes between page and
image I initially presumed the third paragraphs, which both begin Inmates
working for CALPIA produce, were also the same. It was with a jolt that
reading the texts for what was perhaps the fifth time that I noticed the
difference. Yellow suits are produced for the states non-inmate wildland
firefighters; orange for the states 4,300 inmate wildland firefighters.
Not just produced by prisoners, but for prisoners. The orange
and the yellow signal not rank or specialism, but whether the man or woman
is free and working for at least the minimum wage (even civilian volunteers
receive $9 an hour), or a prisoner working for $1 an hour.
You take in things you don't want all the time. The second you
hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all
the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are
able to see, come into focus.4
So the poet Claudia Rankine describes the everyday interactions and
conversations that structure her book, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). Like
Rowlands her work is alert to the way in which violence towards black bodies
is structured in and yet obscured by the quotidian. This passage could
describe the combined effect of Rowlands objects and texts; the moment in
which long, wide histories snap into focus.
Here are three more quotations.
The first is from Amanda Hunt, assistant curator at The Studio Museum in
Harlem, who selected Rowlands Pass-Thru for a group show in 2015:
[Rowland] creates in order to reveal common truths. Interaction
with his work entails learning something that from that
moment forward will be impossible to overlook.5

And the third is from an interview with Claudia Rankine in which she
describes seeing Kara Walkers A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Factory in
Williamsburg, Brooklyn:
[I] was surrounded by people saying things like, I am not into
the slavery thing right now and taking selfies in front of the
sculpture of the black Mammy sphinx, posing in ways to
appear to be touching her breasts or cupping her buttocks.7
I am not convinced that Rowland would completely agree with Hunt or with
Kitnick. It was the ease with which my eyes could trip over the texts on the
fire suits, and fail to acknowledge the difference between them, that made
me think that Rowlands works are aware of, perhaps even prompt or stage
their mis-reception as Rankine also wondered whether Walkers intention
might be to redirect the black gaze away from the pieces themselves and
onto their white consumption.8
Theres always the risk Rowlands objects unmoor from the texts,
floating loose of the context that grounded them, becoming familiar, and
through familiarity, invisible once again. Whether circulating on Instagram or
without texts in art magazines,9 the works can drift out of focus, their
connections to the systems they dwell in can blur; the truths once revealed
lose their sharpness, dissipate, fade from view.
The relation between what we see and what we know doesnt
settle or fix; the force of words always threatens to be undone by what we
think we see around us.
Rowland seems to anticipate, provoke even, lapses of attention,
carelessness; myopia, scotomata: the elision of those black marks on that
blank white wall;
a reversion to not seeing.

The second is from Alex Kitnicks profile on Rowland for Artforum:

For Rowland, then, objects are inseparable from the systems
they dwell in[.]6

Four Instagram posts in which Cameron Rowlands work slides out of focus




stringgirl. The leveler rings, produced by inmates at Elmira Correctional

Facility, are lost to the dance of light spilling through the windows of Artist
Spaces SoHo loft.

strangeteachingart. One attendee of the 91020000 private view decides to

take a seat on one of the courtroom benches built by inmates. I wonder if
hes reading about the Attica Prison riot.

olive247. Admittedly dogs are more appealing than the products of

exploitative convict labour.

whos___who. Identifying the superficial similarities of Rowlands work to other

pieces of contemporary art hardly seems to function even as an art-world
joke. These are found or (perhaps better) procured objects that are supposed
to be ubiquitous. Significantly this example asks us to ignore the inmate suit.

We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.10

Early in Citizen Claudia Rankine thinks about the difference

between the sellable or commodified anger often expected of black artists
and an actual anger built up through experience and the quotidian
struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives. She
begins to consider, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really
a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints.11
In the gallery Disgorgement manifests as 26 sheets of paper
pasted within two frames. But this piece is less about the object displayed
than the entity it represents, these sheets of paper being the legal
documentation that establishes the Reparations Purpose Trust.
Rowland has established this Trust with the backing of Artists
Space and the help of an attorney in Delaware. Its purpose: to acquire shares
in Aetna, a U.S. insurance company that issued policies on the lives of slaves,
and which still trades today, the profits it incurred by those policies still intact.
The Trust will liquidate only when the United States government makes
financial reparations for slavery, at which point it will grant its funds to the
government agency charged with distributing payments.

receive them. Conyers has reintroduced the bill to every session of congress
since then. This bill acquired 48 cosponsors in 1999-2000. Currently it has no
In 2000 the state of California passed the bill SB 2199, which required all
insurance companies conducting business in the state of California to publish
documentation of slave insurance policies that they or their parent
companies had issued previously. In 2002 a lawyer named Deadria FarmerPaellmann filed the first corporate reparations class-action lawsuit seeking
disgorgement from 17 contemporary financial institutions including Aetna,
Inc., which had profited from slavery. Farmer-Paellmann pursued property law
claims on the basis that these institutions had been enriched unjustly by
slaves who were neither compensated nor agreed to be uncompensated.
Farmer-Paellman called for these profits and gains to be disgorged from
these institutions to descendants of slaves.

Disgorgement, 2016
Reparations Purpose Trust, Aetna Shares
Aetna, amongst other insurance companies, issued slave insurance policies,
which combined property and life insurance. These policies were taken out
by slave masters on the lives of slaves, and provided partial payments for
damage to the slave and full payment for the death of the slave. Death or
damage inflicted by the master could not be claimed. The profits incurred by
these policies are still intact within Aetna.
In 1989 Congressman John Conyers of Michigan first introduced
Congressional Bill H.R. 40, which would "Establish the Commission to Study
Reparation Proposals for African Americans to examine slavery and
discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present
and recommend appropriate remedies." The bill would convene a research
commission, that would, among other responsibilities, make a
recommendation as to whether a formal apology for slavery is owed, whether
reparations are owed, what form reparations would then take and who would

The Reparations Purpose Trust forms a conditionality between the time of

deferral and continued corporate growth. The general purpose of this trust is
to acquire and administer shares in Aetna, Inc. and to hold such shares until
the effective date of any official action by any branch of the United States
government to make financial reparations for slavery, including but not
limited to the enactment and subsequent adoption of any recommendations
pursuant to H.R. 40 Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for AfricanAmericans Act. As a purpose trust registered in the state of Delaware this
trust can last indefinitely and has no named beneficiaries.
The initial holdings of Reparations Purpose Trust consists of 90 Aetna shares.
In the event that federal financial reparations are paid, the trust will terminate
and its shares will be liquidated and granted to the federal agency charged
with distributions as a corporate addendum to these payments. The grantor
of the Reparations Purpose Trust is Artists Space, its trustee is Michael M.
Gordon, and its enforcer is Cameron Rowland. The Reparations Purpose Trust
gains tax-exemption from its grantors nonprofit status.

Does this work demonstrate the kind of knowledge, or anger,

which clarifies? which reacts to attempted erasure, a willed forgetting, by
asserting presence both the humanity of those Aetna once regarded as
property, and of their descendants still working through their legacy?
If so, Rowland knows, as Rankine, that this assertion, this
clarification, is always accompanied by disappointment. In Disgorgements
text Rowland refers to a suit filed against Aetna in 2002, calling for its profits
and gains to be disgorged to the descendants of slaves. Its failure is
assumed: the text is silent on the fact that in 2005 a federal judge tossed the
case out of court. Rowland describes Congressman John Conyerss attempts
to establish a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals: introduced to
every session of congress since 1989, currently it has no cosponsors.
Rowlands work, for all its flashes of utopianism12, despite its bid
to illuminate the obscured and render powers opacities transparent,
anticipates its own disappointment, a disappointment in the sense that no
amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.13
Rowland, in discussing his practice, has referred to the
philosopher Linda Martn Alcoff, drawing from her argument that to change
our habits of perception we would need
to make visible the practices of visibility itself, to outline the
background from which our knowledge of others and of
ourselves appears in relief.14
Demanding that we both look and read, qualifying our first impression with a
text that animates the object, only begins this work; and Rowlands practice
challenges us to question further how we arrive at knowing what we see.
One of Rowland's sparest works, 7.5, places a height strip by
the gallerys street-facing doorframe. The text tells us such height strips are
typically used at the exits of gas stations and convenience stores. It doesnt
tell us its purpose is to assist with the identification of thieves. Usually the
strip would have a camera trained upon it to capture all those who pass
through, a rehearsal for the identity parade. Placed in this unusual setting the

viewer might notice how it frames all those who use the door, gifting them
the status of the potential criminal.
But Rowlands work is also a surreal prank (a clue: it was shown at
a group show dedicated to Raymond Roussels influence in 201515). Every
height strip I have been able to find combing the internet extends from 4.5
to 6.5; Rowlands up to 7.5. Its placement by the door at the standard strips
height adds a foot to every person who passes by it. This seems to mimic the
way in which a witness might exaggerate the size of someone they felt
threatened by. The background from which our knowledge of others
appears is compromised by the prejudices that come before perception.
Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition
between viewing and acting. Rowland draws a link from his practice to
Jacques Rancires argument in The Emancipated Spectator (2008).
Rowlands work asks for an active viewing, a looking that observes, selects,
compares, interprets, that links what we see to what has been seen on other
stages, in other kinds of place.16 It believes in viewings power to produce
and transform our environment.
I dont want to be nurse or a doctor, I just want to be an
observer. So Rankine quotes from an interview with filmmaker Claire Denis.
Being able to draw this distinction, to think you can simply watch, and that
your watching neither confirms nor transforms anything; that how we look
and what we look at arent a choice; this Rankine disparages with sadness
and with anger: so soon we are willing to coexist with dust in our eyes.17
This dust in our eyes, this grit, this rheum, this sleep; these
floaters, debris that skips across the line of sight;
this attempt at not seeing; to not look, to refuse visions work,
falters. In the light of Rowlands art, the dust, the grit, the sleep; we can start
to wash them clear of the eyes.

1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972: 7.
2. Alex Kitnick, Openings: Cameron Rowland, Artforum Interntional 54.7,
March 2016.
3. Berger, Ways of Seeing: 7.
4. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric. London: Penguin, 2015: 55.
5. Artsy Editorial, 16 Emerging Artists to Watch in 2016, Artsy, Dec 16
6. Kitnick, Openings: Cameron Rowland.
7. Lauren Berlant, Claudia Rankine, BOMB 129 (Fall 2014).
8. Ibid.
9. Calling out Mousse for their omission: Giampaolo Bianconi, Agenda:
Cameron Rowland: 91020000, Mousse 53 (April 2016), 208, 210-1.
10. Berger, Ways of Seeing: 8.
11. Rankine, Citizen: 24.
12. Linda Mai Green, First Look: Cameron Rowland, Art in America, Sept
2015, 53-5.
13. Rankine, Citizen: 24.
14. Cameron Rowland quoted these words in a talk, Evaluation, given for
Pavilion Journal, 6 June 2013: https://vimeo.com/68547947
They are drawn from Linda Martn Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender,
and the Self (Oxford: OUP, 2000): 194.
15. Raymond Roussel, Galerie Buchholz, New York, July 2 Aug 29 2015.
16. Jacques Rancire, The Emancipated Spectator (2008), trans. Gregory
Elliott. London: Verso, 2009: 13.
17. Rankine, Citizen: 155.

7.5, 2015
Exit height strip
36 x 1 inches (91.44 x 2.54 cm)
The height strip allows for identification. Typically it is used at the door of gas
stations and convenience stores.

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