Bill Morrison and Vijay Iyer, curated by Julie Courtney: Release

Curated by Julie Courtney

Archival Film of Al Capone's Anticipated Release Incorporated Into New Film and Music Project by Vijay Iyer and Bill Morrison

Release, created by filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Vijay Iyer and curated by Julie Courtney, corresponds to the 80th anniversary of Capone’s release from the Eastern State Penitentiary. This project is a first-time collaboration between Morrison and Iyer, both renowned artists in their own fields. It also marks the first time that archival footage of the Penitentiary has been used in an art installation. The footage, never before seen by the public, shows a crowd outside the prison walls anticipating the release of Al Capone from Eastern State Penitentiary. In actuality, he was released before the crowd assembled. Morrison’s edit of the archival footage takes the first audible line, "The crowd seems to be getting bigger and bigger all the time," and builds on it, expanding the clip in both directions until it reveals at first a large crowd, then a desolate street, and finally the looming building overhead. Iyer’s surround–sound composition is built around Morrison’s cut. The real–world sounds in the found footage, including old–fashioned engines and car horns, horses’ hooves, male voices, and a paperboy’s sing-song, gradually transform into musical events that amplify the hypnotic structure of the film.

The 12–minute piece will be on display in the cell next to what was Capone’s cell, and will be integrated into the regular public tour at Eastern State. This installation will complement the most popular existing exhibit at the site, the recreation of how Al Capone was permitted to decorate his cell. Alphonse "Scarface" Capone, who was Chicago’s most famous mob boss, spent eight months at Eastern State in 1929–1930 as prisoner C-5527. Arrested for carrying a concealed, deadly weapon, this was Capone’s first prison sentence. His time in Eastern was spent in luxury compared to the other inmates; Capone had oriental rugs, a cabinet radio, free time, and access to the Deputy Warden’s phone.

Julie Courtney, the curator for Release, explained how the work came to be: "My serendipitous relationship with Vijay Iyer and Bill Morrison began by hearing Vijay on National Public Radio’s Studio 360 speaking about the connection between music and the brain. About six months later I heard him perform, showered him with my enthusiasm and mentioned my desire to collaborate with him and a visual artist. I suggested Bill Morrison, a filmmaker whose work I had seen only once. Vijay replied, ‘Oh, I know Bill and we’ve always wanted to collaborate.' So with that, I pursued this dream." This project is Courtney’s third curatorial project with Eastern State Penitentiary.

How the Footage Was Discovered

In May 2008, Bill Morrison, designing projections for another project, was searching the database of the Fox Movietone collection held by the University of South Carolina’s Newsfilm library. One of the titles that turned up was listed as being shot at the "Eastern Pententiary" (sic). A subsequent search for "Eastern Penitentiary" (spelled correctly and misspelled) turned up the long panning shot of a crowd gathered on Fairmount Avenue on March 17, 1930, hoping to glimpse Al Capone being transferred to Chicago. (Capone was reportedly transferred the day before.) He knew at once that this footage would be the basis for the team’s new project at Eastern State Penitentiary. Before Morrison’s discovery, this footage remained unknown to Eastern State and will become an important addition for its archives. Vijay Iyer is a New York–based composer, performer, bandleader, and producer. He has released thirteen albums, most recently Historicity, which was named #1 Jazz Album of 2009 in the New York Times, NPR, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Village Voice Annual Critics Poll. He has also composed orchestral and chamber works; scored for film, theater, radio, and television; collaborated with poets and choreographers; and joined forces with artists from various musical genres. Iyer received the Alpert Award in the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and commissioning grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, Creative Capital, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, American Composers Forum, Chamber Music America, and Meet The Composer. He has been published in Music Perception, Current Musicology, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Critical Studies in Improvisation, Journal of the Society for American Music, and the anthologies Uptown Conversation, Sound Unbound, and Arcana IV. Learn more about Vijay Iyer. Bill Morrison’s films and videos have been screened in theaters, museums, and concert halls worldwide, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Museum of Modern Art, Royal Festival Hall, Sundance Film Festival, Tate Modern, and Walt Disney Concert Hall. Morrison is a Guggenheim fellow and has received the Alpert Award for the Arts, an NEA Creativity Grant, a Creative Capital grant, and a fellowship from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. His work with Ridge Theater has been recognized with two Bessie awards and an Obie Award. In addition to his work with Iyer, Morrison will also premiere new collaborations in 2010 with Dave Douglas at Stanford Lively Arts, Jóhann Jóhannsson at the Durham (UK) Cathedral, and Ben Neill and Mimi Goese at BAM Next Wave 2010. Learn more about Bill Morrison and visit him on Facebook. Julie Courtney has been an independent curator since 1991. She was founding director of The Temple Gallery from 1985–1988 and consulting curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art until 1992. In 1995 she co–curated Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site/The Prison as Subject at Eastern State Penitentiary, her first foray into commissioning site–specific projects in unusual spaces. In 1996 she curated Points of Departure: Art on the Line, a project of temporary site specific projects in 9 train stations. This project was in the first round of exhibitions funded by the Philadelphia Exhibition Initiative. Other PEI funded projects are Pandemonium, 2005, a percussive sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at Eastern State and The Lost Meeting, 2005, with J. Morgan Puett in an abandoned Quaker Meetinghouse in Jenkintown, PA and Mark Dion’s Travels of William Bartram Reconsidered, 2007 at Bartram’s Garden.


A packaged DVD of the Release film and music will be published to offer visitors to the site a way to re-experience the work after they have left the Penitentiary. It will also offer those who are unable to view the work firsthand a way to experience it on their own. Noted writer Lawrence Weschler’s interview with the two artists is featured. This DVD will be a lasting document of the installation as well as a new direction of artistic endeavor for the Penitentiary and the artists.

Release has been funded by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Berwind Fund, Carole Haas Gavagno, and The Barra Foundation.