Search View Archive


Cameron Rowland, 1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011, 2016. Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA, 50 x 13 x 8 inches. Rental at cost.“The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections.” - California Penal Code 2700CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison Industry Authority. Inmates working for CALPIA produce orange Nomex fire suits for the state's 4300 inmate wildland firefighters.Courtesy of the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.

On View
Artist Space
Janury 17– March 13, 2016
New York

Walking through Cameron Rowland’s solo exhibition, 91020000, is a sobering experience. Here, the Philadelphia-born artist, who has been exhibiting in galleries for only a few years now, presents a body of work that is as disquieting as it is inspiring. The artist, known for displaying ready-made objects that are obtained through abstruse economic exchanges, showcases work that transcends its own objecthood as commodity, revealing a language (and history) of social and racial hierarchies.

This is the case in 91020000, its title derived from Artists Space’s customer account number with Corcraft, a company that manufactures affordable commodities to sell to government agencies, schools, and non-profit organizations (i.e. Artists Space). Mr. Rowland, through his partnership with Artists Space, purchased four courtroom benches made of oak, a particleboard office desk, and seven cast aluminum manhole rings.1 All are carefully strewn about the SoHo loft space, leaving the viewer to observe in silence these everyday, recondite objects. It is not until one picks up the accompanying leaflet, which includes a short essay by the artist along with captions for each piece in the exhibition, that we learn the aforementioned objects were made by the cheap labor of New York State’s prison inmates. 

Corcraft is the market name for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Division of Industries, that, according to its mission statement, “employ[s] inmates in substantive jobs that help teach a good work ethic and valuable work skills, to help offset the cost of incarceration, to help reduce disruption in the prison environment and to meet expectations of New York State’s citizens.”2 Rowland interprets today’s prison labor force, which is made up of about half a million black people (one-third of the entire prison population), as a practiced form of neo-slavery that not only has historical precedence in this country, but continues to thrive in our present economy.

Cameron Rowland, Attica Series Desk, 2016. Steel, powder coating, laminated particleboard, distributed by Corcraft, 60 x 71.5 x 28.75 inches. Rental at cost.The Attica Series Desk is manufactured by prisoners in Attica Correctional Facility. Prisoners seized control of the D-Yard in Attica from September 9th to 13th 1971. Following the inmates immediate demands for amnesty, the first in their list of practical proposals was to extend the enforcement of “the New York State minimum wage law to prison industries.” Inmates working in New York State prisons are currently paid $0.10 to $1.14 an hour. Inmates in Attica produce furniture for government offices throughout the state. This component of government administration depends on inmate labor.Courtesy of the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York Photo: Adam Reich.

Rowland’s essay takes the 13th Amendment as its springboard, tracing the history of convict leasing labor and the chain gang system—which restricted prison labor to government use—to the present condition of the U.S. prison industry. Rowland carefully explicates how the 13th Amendment made it possible to incarcerate ex-slaves for vagrancy, allowing private companies and later state governments to exploit prisoners’ free labor. He later goes on to show how a similar tactic was used to a greater extent during the war on drugs, beginning in 1970. Since then the country has seen a massive rise in the rate of incarceration, especially among African Americans, as well as a tremendous growth in the construction of prisons nationwide. The result is a corrupt correctional system that piggybacks on the legacy of slavery, paying inmates $0.10 to $1.14 an hour (a wage that clearly does not offset the cost of incarceration3).

Cameron Rowland, Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole Openings, 2016. Cast aluminum, pallet, distributed by Corcraft, 118 x 127 x 11 inches. Rental at cost.Manhole leveler rings are cast by prisoners in Elmira Correctional Facility. When roads are repaved, they are used to adjust the height of manhole openings and maintain the smooth surface of the road. Work on public roads, which was central to the transition from convict leasing to the chain gang, continues within many prison labor programs. The road is a public asset, instrumental to commercial development.Courtesy of the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.

In displaying his Corcraft purchases outside of their original context (i.e. the classroom, the courtroom, the city street), Rowland unpacks the social and racial injustices that these objects inherit. His role is that of the artist as investigative reporter, seeking out intellectual, factual, and material evidence to support his written claims. Not unlike his predecessor Fred Wilson, who unearthed artifacts from Maryland’s Historical Society that told a violent history of slavery that was otherwise kept silent, here Rowland reveals  present-day artifacts that expose a reality of modern capitalism obscured.

More importantly however, Rowland also assumes the role of active consumer, taking ownership of these objects as a form of antagonism.4 Furthermore his selections of mundane objects are not void of formalist interpretation: the austereness of the desk, the solidity of the wood benches, the strength of the lashing bars, and the durability of the firefighter suits, all connote a strong sense of power—a power which mirrors that of property.

This idea is best understood through the annals of slavery, where the possession of black bodies supports an economic structure of racial dominance that unfortunately continues to this day. Rowland reclaims these markers of a corrupt industry, stripping the objects of their use-value, and positioning them as relics of structural racism.

Cameron Rowland, New York State Unified Court System, 2016. Oak wood, distributed by Corcraft, 165 x 57.5 x 36 inches. Rental at cost.Courtrooms throughout New York State use benches built by prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility. The court reproduces itself materially through the labor of those it sentences.Courtesy of the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York. Photo: Adam Reich.

One of the more optimistic works in the show is Disgorgement (2016), not an object, but rather, a contractual agreement. In it, Rowland frames the pages of a trust agreement, aptly titled “Reparations Purpose Trust,” whose sole purpose is to acquire shares of the insurance company Aetna (which held slave insurance policies for slave owners prior to the abolition of slavery) and to hold those shares until the US government makes financial reparations for slavery, at which time the shares will be liquidated toward the payment of reparations. The act is undeniably bold. Again in partnership with Artists Space, Rowland purchased approximately $10,000 worth of Aetna shares. The partnership is a priori long lasting, an economic relationship that mediates great attention, and one that seeks sustained conflict with the capitalist agenda.

  1. The two Nomex firefighter suits on display (1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011, 2016) were purchased by the Wattis Institute on behalf of the artist, through a trade relationship established by CALPIA, the California Prison Industry Authority. The container lashing bars and corresponding Lloyd’s Register certificates were purchased using exhibition funds provided by Artists Space.
  2. “Mission,” on Corcraft Products (Department of Correctional Services, Division of Industries) website, accessed February 12th, 2016,
  3. Pay-to-stay fees that inmates incur during incarceration, according to Rowland, “often outweigh the wages of typical work programs, forming a debt that is immediately up for collection upon release.” Rowland references Lauren-Brooke Eisen’s essay, “Pay For Time: How Charging Inmates Fees Behind Bars May Violate the Excessive Fines Clause.”
  4. Since 2013 Rowland has rented some of his artworks. The artworks in 9102000 consisting of products made in prison industry programs are rented rather than sold.

The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

All Issues