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Artist Installations 2017

Eastern State Penitentiary Announces Three New Artist Installations for 2017 Season

March 27, 2017

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site will host three new and 11 returning artist installations in 2017. The projects were chosen for their ability to address Eastern State’s primary themes—including perspectives on the contemporary American criminal justice system and the penitentiary’s fascinating past—with a memorable, thought-provoking approach.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site has commissioned site-specific artist installations since 1995. To date, more than 100 artists have created work for the penitentiary.

Artist installations are included with standard admission. Regular daytime programs, including “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, guided Hands-On History tours, and history exhibits, are also included with admission. Tickets are available online at, or at the door subject to availability.

To celebrate a new season of artist installations and the new Hospital Block tours, Eastern State Penitentiary will host an opening reception on Friday, May 5 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. This event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments served.

New Installations for 2017 Season (Opening May 5):

Erik Ruin and Gelsey Bell:  Hakim’s Tale
This video and audio installation features formerly incarcerated activist Hakim Ali. The installation projects an animation of a paper-cut portrait of Ali, which is gradually obscured by strips of torn paper that are then slowly removed, symbolizing his loss of self and eventual regaining of it. In the accompanying audio, Ali recounts his experience of solitary confinement, and the spiritual and psychological crisis and resilience that came with it.

Jared Scott Owens:  Sepulture
The artist pulls from his personal experience to create a symbolic burial of an individual once incarcerated. A life-size wooden coffin in the style of a formal Egyptian burial occupies a cell at Eastern State. The coffin is covered in hieroglyphs, and the inmate’s belongings, also rendered in wood, are meant to keep the inmate’s soul satisfied throughout his stay in the afterlife. Visitors to the historic site experience this installation as if attending a funeral, coming to pay their respects to the symbolic loss of this inmate’s life.

Piotr Szyhalski and Richard Shelton:  Unconquerable Soul
This installation combines an overhead drone video with poetic audio recorded by prisoners. The footage is captured by a drone-operated camera that ascends from the skylight of a cell out into the atmosphere, using mirrors to transform a single cell into a multitude of cells across time and place. The accompanying audio is a chorus of individual voices reciting poems that were written in prison cells about the individual complexities as well as shared universalities of the prison experience.

Returning Installations:

Greg Cowper:  Specimen
This evolving collection of insects trapped within the walls of the penitentiary is displayed in a Cabinet of Curiosities, assembled from old prison doors, hardware, and the traditional method for amateur collections, cigar boxes. Cowper’s work is inspired by an article written by an entomologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences after a summer 1889 visit to Eastern State. This visit included a chance encounter with an inmate who collected several rare species of moths and butterflies from his narrow, high-walled exercise yard.

William Cromar:  GTMO
This cell is a recreation of a cell from Camp X-Ray, the now-abandoned holding cells in the United States Federal Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Department of Defense replaced the Camp X-Ray cells with newer holding cells, called Camp Delta, in 2002. By placing the Guantanamo Bay cell inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cell, Cromar illustrates “nearly polar-opposite means used to find a nearly equivalent end.”

Luba Drozd:  Institute of Corrections
This video installation utilizes source materials created for correctional employees that include conferences, training discussions, and simulated scenarios. The artist edits the footage to uncover the system behind incarceration and the dialogue that goes on internally within the field of corrections itself.

Michelle Handelman:  Beware the Lily Law
This video projection uses the 1969 Stonewall Riots as a starting point to address issues facing gay and transgendered inmates. Visitors watching from inside the cell see three actors portraying inmates (projected on the wall), enacting the process of transforming their genders while sharing their characters’ stories of development, sexuality, and eventual imprisonment. Handelman developed these monologues based on the experiences of real men and women.

Tyler Held:  Identity Control
Reflecting on the idea that a man is “too easily reduced to an object” when institutionalized, artist Tyler Held uses a car, stripped inside a cell, as a metaphor for relinquished individuality.

Alexa Hoyer:  I Always Wanted to Go to Paris, France
Alexa Hoyer’s installation challenges visitors to reexamine their notion of prison life. Three televisions are placed in three different locations throughout the penitentiary: a prisoner's cell, a hallway, and a shower room. On each television, excerpts from over seven decades of prison film history are screened. The excerpts are chosen to relate specifically to the setting in which the television is placed.

Jesse Krimes: Apokaluptein16389067:II
The piece reflects the artist’s personal experience while incarcerated in federal prison, where he created a 39-panel surreal landscape on bed sheets and mailed each piece home. His installation at Eastern State modifies this massive image to cover the interior walls of an abandoned cell.

Jess Perlitz: Chorus

The artist asked incarcerated men and women from throughout the United States, “If you could sing one song, and have that song heard, what would it be?” Her recordings are played inside a cell at Eastern State. In the resulting “choir,” these haunting voices are layered, escalating, colliding, and eventually grow overwhelming.

Ruth Scott Blackson: No Trace Without Resistance

The artist applies new paint chips, coated in gold leaf, to the flaking walls of an existing cell. In 
the resulting “shimmering constellation,” sunlight on the installation may entice the visitor in the same way an inmate may have been forced to concentrate on the walls during solitary confinement. The prison’s neglect reveals something surprising and rare underneath.

Cindy Stockton Moore:  Other Absences
These translucent portraits depict murder victims whose perpetrators served time at Eastern State Penitentiary in the 20th century. The work hangs inside a cell, as a reminder of those impacted by violent acts and a reflection of how crime and punishment extend beyond prison walls.

Brian James Spies: Solitaire
Having spent time in solitary confinement as a teenager in a juvenile psychiatric facility, the artist relies on his personal experience to create a sound collage of layered vocal tracks on Eastern State’s audio tour player.  He replicates the sensation of being alone, consumed by one’s own thoughts in solitary confinement.


Artist installations are made possible in part by revenue from Eastern State’s Halloween fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls.

Eastern State also receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner