Mirror/Echo/Tilt (2019), an exhibition by Melanie Crean, Shaun Leonardo, and 2018–19 artist in residence Sable Elyse Smith, is the culmination of over four years of work examining the impacts of the carceral state. Performed and filmed in decommissioned prisons and abandoned courthouses across New York City, the project gives insights into the layered memories and traumas felt by those affected by the criminal justice system.
Through video and photography, Mirror/Echo/Tilt presents vignettes of movement exercises and workshops enacted across architectural spaces that were sites of entry (or purgatory) for people branded with the label of criminal. Beckoning the viewer into a traditionally concealed world, one filled with preconceived notions about race, gender, and class, the project explores the pain and complexity of the subjects’ lives through choreographies without words or voices. The work relies on physical gestures to narrate personal experiences and emotions—gestures that, in conversation with the sites, bring new insights to moments that will remain entrenched in the lives and stories of the subjects and the state. Through this process of stripping stories of their words, the exhibition encourages the audience to slow down as it processes the looks, gestures, and movements that hum across the multichannel films.
Though their practices span themes such as media, culture, and technology (Crean); masculinity and identity (Leonardo); and the seen and unseen effects of violence (Smith), all the artists are also educators dedicated to teaching through art.
Working in partnership with court-involved youth across New York City, the project attempts to center the lived experiences and memories of those affected by the justice system. In a public program at the New Museum, Crean, Leonardo, and Smith expressed the importance and priority of being building relationships and being in conversation with participants before creating a curriculum or video project for the public. “The priority was existing in space, together, first. There is a way in which, through both an art lens and pedagogical lens, we understood that you couldn’t just enact a process without learning and being together,” Leonardo explained.
Through video and photography, Mirror/Echo/Tilt presents vignettes of movement exercises and workshops enacted across architectural spaces that were sites of entry (or purgatory) for people branded with the label of criminal
This care for the participants’ stories and experiences was distilled not only into the exhibition, but also into the online curriculum that can be a resource for a community of educators, activists, and advocates who want to change the systemic cycle of criminality and incarceration. As Smith explains, the project’s aim is to work with people involved in the court systems to envision a curriculum that could “create and facilitate an impact—to create a curriculum for somebody it has to be with somebody.” This manifests in the research, development, documentation, and archiving that exists online, which give the curriculum a life of its own, beyond the run of the show.
The curriculum brings together practical and theoretical exercises that imagine how art offers respite and perspective to people who have been methodically targeted and stripped of their power and agency. By exploring themes such as double-consciousness and masculinity, the curriculum and the underlying educational philosophy of the project allow for critical thinking around the experiences and methodologies of incarceration. To empower the participants, the project required storytelling, improvisation, listening, vulnerability, community building, and intimacy—all of which are fundamental tenets for creating a responsible educational environment.
Like the exhibition, the curriculum is arguably a critique of the privilege of storytelling and asks us to think about the stories and lives that merit an equal footing in public discourse and contemporary art. Mirror/Echo/Tilt reimagines how the arts can unearth concealed stories that force us to tilt our perspectives on the carceral state’s ability to target and capitalize on the lives of the most oppressed. As Crean said, the project uses “imagination as a political force” to help imagine what a restorative, and not punitive, justice system would look like. This could not be done without centering education and acknowledging its importance as a catalyst for human progress.
This portion of Mirror/Echo/Tilt was conducted inside the old Bronx Borough Courthouse, built between 1905 and 1914, and then boarded up and finally abandoned in 1978. While the Courthouse housed the Bronx’s Supreme, Surrogate, and County Court systems for several decades, its last occupant was the New York City Criminal Court, in the 1960s and 1970s.