A Critical Lens on A Tender Subject

by Dr. R.M. Sánchez-Camus
30 November 2012

a tender subject was the final presentation of a 3-year research programme completed in the UK prison system by artist Mark Storor together with Artangel collaborative projects producer Rachel Anderson. The workshops focused on identifying and working with gay male prisoners and female and male prison officers. This article offers the reader a method to critically analyse the work, taking into consideration all of the various factors that are incorporated into the piece but may not be immediately visible or apparent. The work instigated a strong emotional response in many viewers, leaving some perplexed about their own role in the experience and others questioning how the actions and images that they witnessed reflected that larger body of research. In offering this lens with which to explore the work critically it is important to look at how the work was arranged theoretically, and I rely on Michel Foucault and Jacques Ranciere to weave these theories into the practice. And in order to appreciate the work aesthetically, I refer to David Davies and Shannon Jackson, to develop a language around the interrogation of socially engaged works. A list of cited texts is below.

This article should also to help the viewer (or reader) look critically at the arrangement of actions in this serialised performance-installation, where the public was guided from cell to cell to experience a series of poetic moments or gestures. Jackson offers the useful term ‘infrastructural aesthetic’ to understand the importance of a socially engaged approach. According to Jackson, works such as this aim ‘not only to take a community stance on the arts but also to take an aesthetic stance on community engagement (212)’. For Jackson the importance of socially engaged work is that it instigates a ‘reflection of the supporting infrastructures of both aesthetic objects and living beings (39)’. In the work there were two sets of performers present, ex-prisoners who had come to perform in the work as prisoners, and prison guards who had taken annual leave from work to play their role of guards in a new context. Taking actual and acted roles into consideration we can recognise the tension between performing prison officer and performed prisoner and their apparent dislocation. Yet it was precisely this presence of the guards, as Storor explained in his public talks at the Free Word Centre, that allowed the performers ‘an inside into the situation’ and thus Storor a method with which to create a tension in the performance world reflexive of the prison experience.

a tender subject combined its research findings within a powerful site beneath Smithfield Market. Personal narratives that had been collected in the prison workshops were fused into singular ritualistic actions. The context of the work expanded beyond the physical structure of the enormous meat lockers, to incorporate a larger view on violence in society. Anderson offered an open question during the public talks: what does institutional violence do to prisoners and officers and how does it reflect a larger structural violence in society? David Davies explores this power of context as generative material when he proposes the art of making as a performance itself. What was viewed when walking through a tender subject was only the result of the artwork, much as when appreciating a Jackson Pollock we recognise the gestural performance of Pollock, archived on canvas. According to Davies the generative process in that gesture of Pollock is just as valuable as the final output. We appreciate the work critically because we are aware of the generative process. Though there may be an emotional reaction to the work, my aim here is to establish a mode of discourse, not only around a tender subject, but for all socially engaged works that deal with the raw material of people and then are limited to present only a fraction of that experience for wider cultural consumption.

The viewer (and reader), perhaps accustomed to critiquing surfaces and textures, was invited to integrate this dialogue of process into their accounting in order to explore a larger agency in their encounter with a tender subject. How did the work actually reflect the larger scope of the prison industry? This was less about bars and inmates than it was about distribution of tasks and individualisation. The artist, in taking the research material and integrating it into the site, circulated the narratives of prison life as poetic gestures. This was reflexive of what Foucault terms ‘the art of distribution’ within which we find the hierarchy that establishes discipline. Foucault defines discipline as ‘a technique for the transformation of arrangements. It individualizes bodies by a location that does not give them a fixed position, but distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations’ (146). The poly-cellular structure of a tender subject was exactly this distribution by a singular author, whose language can only be heard through the voices of others. This is the nature of co-authorship and collaboration, allowing others to create the work, while guiding and honing. This is how the work can successfully reflect what Storor termed ‘a landscape of people in despair’. And if we consider Storor as the head of discipline in this distribution of the sensible, then we further confirm Foucault’s proposition that ‘the first of the great operations of discipline is, therefore, the constitution of ‘tableaux vivants’, which transform the confused, useless or dangerous multitudes into ordered multiplicities (148).’ What the viewer witnesses is an ordered multiplicity of the personal narratives and encounters confronted by Storor and Anderson and shared by the multitude of prisoners and officers over the period of three years.

And to make these narratives visible is a powerful political act not to be overlooked. We can define the critical aesthetic of the ‘tableaux vivants’ best through Ranciere’s nod to Foucault when he describes aesthetics as ‘the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience’ (13). The form is the process; a tender subject as a performance-installation was only a final act in the journey. As spectators we were left to ask ourselves who or what are the tender subjects? The visitor was first introduced to the work by being escorted in a van that had blacked out windows to an unknown destination. If you noticed the Serco logo on the van, you have made a connection with the privatisation of the prison system in the UK, especially by a company that is part of the FTSE 100 Index. To understand the implications of this socially was and is to come back to Anderson’s question about structural violence.

According to Paul Farmer the division between affluent and poor creates a series of politic manoeuvres that sustain the status quo and are violent in their impact on poor communities. To take this into account is to begin to critically look at a tender subjectas a work that encompassed much more than the virtuosity of an individual performer.

Finally, I invite the reader to consider the performers themselves: a group of both ex-prisoners interested in performance practice and working prison guards, all of whom had participated in the research phase. Though the cast, performing as prisoners, may see themselves as actors in a role, I wondered how someone like a prison guard, who was not a performer, performed their own role publicly but in a different framework. When I spoke with some of the guards they explained that in actuality they were ‘playing up’ the part, partially to audience expectations of stern authority. At the same time they were briefed by the artist to assume the detached pose of those accustomed to the circumstance and un-phased by the context. As Goffman describes in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life ‘...the performance serves mainly to express the characteristics of the task that is performed and not the characteristics of the performer (83)’. As we left a tender subject, exiting alone into the street, with our possessions in a plastic bag and a parting loaf of Mother’s Pride to comfort or confuse us, we were invited to create a critical aesthetic judgement of this work through our own personal lens. This critical framework offered an approach that took into consideration the process, the people, the site and the images as a singular focus of appreciation. To view the work as comprising only of the performance element was to miss the larger picture. So, I invite the viewer to consume their Mother’s Pride and consider the layers of meaning in the work, in order to fully appreciate a tender subject.


Cited texts

Davies, D. (2004). Art as Performance. Malden, MA ; Oxford : Blackwell Pub.
Foucault, M (1995). Discipline & Punish. New York: Vintage Books.
Goffman, E. (1982). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Middlesex, New York: Penguin Books.
Jackson, Shannon. (2011). Social Works. New York, London: Routledge
Ranciere, J. (2009). The Politics of Aesthetics. New York: Continuum.