Provoke: Digital Sound Studies

We Are Your Neighbors


We aim to expand the soundscape for Richmond incarcerated persons to the broader community, and conversely draw the attention of that broader community to the lives, conditions, and subjectivities of incarcerated persons. We are building a community-based arts workshop (sanctuary) inside the Richmond City Jail (RCJ) to create and curate poetry, music, sound, and visual art. Incarcerated and non-incarcerated persons come together every Friday inside the jail to make art and knowledge. In October of 2013, we installed a makeshift recording studio in the jail, and workshop participants began to record their work and mentor others. What has emerged is a robust collection of recordings, all inmate-created and -engineered. The next iteration of this project will include a web-based codex of visual art and writing with embedded sound.


colectivo caliban is a critical performance ensemble specializing in the use of sound, movement, and words to transgress borders: race/ethnicity/nation, gender/sexuality, academy/community, privilege and its disfranchised. Since Fall 2011, Liz Canfield has been working with RCJ inmates, facilitating poetry workshops. She brings in VCU students to learn alongside inmates in a gender studies/creative writing course. Workshops have expanded over time to include a Spanish-English language exchange and, with the addition of Andrew McGraw, music lessons, audio engineering tutorials, and group music-making. We’ve built a recording studio inside the jail out of reclaimed audio equipment—as far as we know, the only such studio inside a US jail or prison.

micdrop mixing recordingstudio5

sanctuary is more than a room inside of the Richmond City Jail lined with books and old computers, walls plastered with portraits of social movement leaders, maps, and art. It is a state of mind, a movement. sanctuary existed long before we were invited to create this workshop. It has been built over years—many voices and bodies have occupied that space. Art has been made. Learning pursued. Lives transformed. Community sustained. We are stepping into sanctuary mid-stream. We are mindful of that fact. sanctuary goes beyond the academic theory of “safer spaces” in an untenable situation. However, the beauty, persistence, and soul-fire are awe-inspiring in this space. sanctuary is about becoming vulnerable, opening up, and contributing to its movement, a society that will no longer need prisons/jails, a new community without walls. This is why we work.

This art is a gift. The visual art and sound you will experience here is but a sample of what happens in sanctuary. There is no way to truly describe or fully replicate what happens in sanctuary. We share what we can across borders that are seldom crossed. This sharing is not for your voyeuristic pleasure, but in the hope that you may see or feel something, be moved, get involved.

This is our collective statement (all sanctuary participants):

You can read our words as you wish to, but you might miss the purpose, the animation, the revolution in our voices. Our recordings invite you into our emotions, into the intimacy of sanctuary, where every word carries a piece of our souls. Sound communicates expression that words on a page can not. It allows us to emphasize meaning, to infuse layers of music and mood, to collaborate and create a memory that will live in a different kind of permanence.

The choice to create recordings empowers us to reach out through dimensions previously untouched. Hear the feeling toning through our voices. Embrace the rhythms of our hopes, loves, and struggles. we are throwing out our hearts to you. We are creating, giving, and sharing so that you can relate. Does it strike a chord? Or does it strike your soul?

Why sound? (Silence as Punishment, Silence as Refuge)

Standing at the central point, and looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver's shuttle, or shoemaker's last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. — Charles Dickens, 1842

Silence has been a critical component to a disciplined life in prison for quite some time. In pre-Victorian England and the United States, physical violence on prisoners’ bodies was considered acceptable corrective punishment for all types of offenders. Later reformists strove to eliminate the suffering they witnessed in prison houses. In 1929, Pennsylvania reformists pushed the state legislature to enact more humane disciplinary measures, and the “Pennsylvania System” was born. One of the outcomes of this radical redesign of prison life was the solitary cell where a prisoner spent most of the day away from the other inmates—in silent contemplation. Charles Dickens witnessed the punishing silence in Eastern State Penitentiary’s “rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement.” Dickens and others were not convinced that solitary confinement and silence benefited prisoners living extended periods of their day without as much as a word with another human being. Silence, as part of a disciplinary regime, is still very much a part of prison life today, most horrifyingly played out in isolation cells, or “the hole.”

Like other city jails, the Richmond City Jail encourages silence (quiet time) to all its prisoners as a way to maintain uniformity in an environment where thousands of citizens of different nationalities, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, races, genders, and sexual orientations inhabit the same cell block. The idea of the sanctuary in prison also has its roots deeply planted in the prison reformist movement of the 19th century. The solemn place where one can do work that enriches the mind and disciplines the soul is a quintessentially Victorian gesture. Now that silence has become a punitive regime inside prisons and jails, it takes on new (and not so new) meaning.

Of course, today, with the problem of a growing prison population and overcrowding jails, sanctuary at RCJ has become, for some prisoners, a room to escape from the multisensory chaos that they cannot control inside the jail and enter a small zone where they have some sense of place and community. it is a place where they can produce, remix, and discipline the chaos into oppositional expressions of their sense of seeing and not seeing, of being and non-being, and of knowing citizens and knowing non-citizens.

If we listen carefully, the sounds produced by the collective at the RCJ from their sanctuary build on the disciplinary history of such place to produce sonic traces that suggest different ways of thinking about the importance of creative spaces in the life of prisoners. This is not to say that the prisoners do not have means of doing similar things without access to sanctuary; they do. sanctuary works as a “contact zone” where prisoners, guards, academics, musicians, writers, and students connect and reconnect to enact ordinary actions to break or at the very least remix the disciplinary silence that makes the “general stillness” about the growing problem of the prison industrial complex “more profound.”

Scholarship, or Knowledge Otherwise

The work generated by academics, musicians, writers, and inmates from “sanctuary” in the Richmond City Jail joins a long tradition of knowledge-building in jails as far back as Plato’s reworking of Socrates’s dialogue with his friend Crito. A foundational document in western thought on questions of justice, fairness, citizenship, and social responsibility, it is a mandatory text for all budding thinkers and the academy, but not many scholars think of this text as academic knowledge that was produced by an inmate waiting to be executed by the state. Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and even Miguel De Cervantes created some of their best-known work in a jail cell. If we skew the discourse around academic scholarship just enough to include a discussion of these texts as work produced by jail inmates and not just giants in the world of letters, we begin to see that the imaginary border between academic scholarship and the work that is generated behind prison walls is knowledge by an other name. It’s from this small but significant clearing around the discourse of academic knowledge-making that we position the sonic, visual, and written scholarship generated by the collective at the RCJ.

We must also question the “acceptable” forms of knowledge production, if we hope to truly cross the border from academia into community. While workshop participants, incarcerated and non-incarcerated alike, are fully capable of producing jargon-laden academic articles, they choose to produce art, words, and sounds. While journals are full of people studying incarcerated populations or instructive essays about prison writing programs, we feel the work in sanctuary approaches the intersection of sound studies, collaborative knowledge, and ethical social practice with a similar critical tone, and the projects we take on highlight that fact.

So, we are producing a multimedia codex project, to comprise a handmade art book, a web site, and sound recordings. We are co-creating an accordion-fold book, 25 feet long when unfolded, containing poetry, prose, and visual art made by all the workshop participants. We are printing this book with the help of local printers Studio Two Three and Bowe House Press. We are producing at least 50 copies. One will be on display at VCU, and one will remain at RCJ. An online version, hosted at, will incorporate sound recordings produced in the RCJ studio. Our codex examines the history of mass incarceration from inside perspectives, teasing out complexities of identity and community among all contributors.

There are some challenges in doing this work. Our communication with the prisoners can be terminated at will by jail administrators. Thanks to her established relationships, Liz has already secured unprecedented access and permissions for her programs. However, this access and permission doesn’t always follow an academic schedule. We are committed to our relationship with inmates regardless of how the work suits our artistic, academic, and personal aims. We can not impose our values on the work they produce. We seek to engender an environment for contributors to create art together, developing their own interests and methods.

One complication of this commitment is in relation to the access issues noted above: prisoners are usually not encouraged to speak certain truths about their lives, and may even be punished for speaking. Even in the sanctioned space of the workshop, there is still a hesitancy. We take this very seriously. This is one reason why the codex is collaborative and anonymous. The other reason is that the codex says something when the pieces are put together that any one piece cannot say on its own.

We see these issues as part of the experimental quality of this project—unavoidable considerations in any effort to engage ethically across lines of privilege—we are initiating a process, and the outcomes are largely in the hands of our collaborators at all levels. Therefore, an aesthetic of indeterminacy and a politics of yielding control informs everything we do.

About the Contributors

colectivo caliban transgresses border through sound and movement. It is John Priestley, Liz Canfield, Salvador Barajas, and danah bella.

John Priestley is a musician, educational software developer (Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine), and a graduate of the VCU Media Art & Text interdisciplinary PhD program, having completed a dissertation on generative music.

Liz Canfield is a sound artist, zine maker, teacher, and organizer. She is on faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and has presented work nationally and internationally. Liz is interested in questions of radical pedagogy, transformative technologies, decolonial queer epistemologies, visual culture, and emancipatory ontologies of self and community.

Salvador Barajas is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. Much of his work investigates questions of social memory, place, migration, trauma, and globalization. He is currently working on a book entitled Doing Memory Work in the Third Space.

danah bella is a dancer, choreographer, and teacher. She is the director of d a n a h b e l l a danceworks, a modern dance company based in Southwest Virginia. Her choreography has been performed in venues nationally and internationall since 2002.

Andrew McGraw is an associate professor of music at the University of Richmond, who has published on gamelan and contemporary and traditional composition and performance practice in Southeast Asia.