What Links House Music With Mass Incarceration? Creative Time’s New Spring Project Investigates

“Bring Down The Walls,” organized by British artist Phil Collins, will turn a historic New York firehouse into a dance club.

Firehouse, Engine Company 31 in downtown New York. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Friday morning, Creative Time announced its spring exhibition: an ambitious, multi-part public art project that uses house music to explore issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. Titled “Bring Down The Walls,” the project is organized by British artist Phil Collins in partnership with The Fortune Society, a non-profit organization that assists people who have been incarcerated. The exhibition is scheduled to take place each weekend in May and will be free and open to the public.

Bring Down The Walls” will be headquartered at Firehouse, Engine Company 31, a decommissioned fire station in downtown New York. By day, the firehouse will serve as a venue for daytime programming, including lectures, community discussions, workshops, and classes. By night, it will turn into a full-fledged dance club, featuring DJs and electronic musicians.

For Collins, who grew up in Western England, house music and the culture surrounding it were a big part of his youth. As a student, he went out almost every night to the clubs in Manchester and nearby towns and cities like Warrington, Blackpool, and Liverpool.

“House has, to me, always been an implicitly—and occasionally explicitly—politicized culture and mode of resistance,” Collins tells artnet News. “The American government has pursued criminal justice policies leading to an exponential rise in mass incarceration, and a devastating impact on African-American and Latino communities in particular, especially in large urban centers. This intensified in the 1980s, and to my mind, there is a chronological overlap between the advent of the prison industrial complex around that time and the emergence of a new dance music coming out of Chicago, Detroit and New York, from the very same disenfranchised communities targeted by regressive policies like the war on drugs and three-strikes laws.”

Back then, the artist says, the culture of house music “bridged divisions of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and offered a haven of temporary abandon and relief from the realities of life under siege by the conservative crusade.” He hopes the Creative Time project will offer similar opportunities to the New York community. 

The project, seven years in the making, originally grew out of Collins’s experiences visiting correctional facilities in New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. He developed a particularly strong relationship with a group of men in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, bonding with them over music. Collins even set up a band with the men, and arranged recording sessions. That process led to another element of “Bring Down The Walls”—an album of classic house songs covered by groups of electronic musicians and vocalists who have themselves been incarcerated. Creative Time will release the LP in May with the launch of the programming. The tracks of the album will be accompanied by a series of short films, each featuring the musicians and shot around New York City.

A truly collaborative effort, “Bring Down The Walls” will involve over 100 people and organizations. The full schedule and list of participants will be announced later this spring.  

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