Multi-channel audio installed at Eastern State Penitentiary as part of DLP Mirror. Photo courtesy of the artist.
At the midpoint of the palindrome, something breaks. Or holds. Everything turns, reverses itself, mirrors back what came before, changing it in the process. Against the relentlessness of forward motion or the finality of the ending, a pause; a sequence is replayed, turned over, held up for inspection. In the palindrome, every sound or sentence is reversible. Its promise or possibility is that things could have played out otherwise. And through it, in some sense, they do.
At the center of artist Mark Menjívar’s multi-channel audio and architectural installation DLP Mirror—currently on view at Eastern State Penitentiary, a decommissioned prison-turned-historic site in Philadelphia, PA—is a palindromic score composed by David Lee Powell during his time incarcerated on death row in Texas. Without access to instruments or training, Powell crafted the hand-written score—a variation on Der Spiegel (“The Mirror”), itself an invertible canon attributed to Mozart—using a stochastic process, flipping a dime thousands of times to select the notes and determine the sequence. Powell was a mathematical genius; still, the process must have been time-consuming (or time-marking) and laborious. Something to do with your hands. Something to do with probability distributions. Faced with math, I go looking for description. Powell consulted an article in Scientific American; I find a gloss on the process in a 1981 issue of the Computer Music Journal: “Stochastic techniques may also produce unanticipated possibilities, where the bonds of a restrictive and inaccurate acoustic theory and of a limited aural imagination may be broken.”1
Powell served 32 years on death row in Texas before the state executed him in 2010. After the execution, the contents of his cell carved an aleatory path: from his friend Sally Norvell, to the Texas After Violence Project, and finally to Menjívar’s studio in San Antonio, where he has lived with them since 2016.2 An inventory of the 17 file boxes includes contact lens solution, legal documents, a copy of Patti Smith’s Just Kids along with readings on restorative justice, correspondence with attorneys, packets of dry instant milk. Across a series of installations (including DLP Inventory, exhibited as part of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s 2018 show Walls Turned Sideways), Menjívar grapples with Powell’s belongings as an archive of disuse and lingering presence; as objects in search of a different kind of life.
On Eastern State’s cellblock 15, its former death row, the mirrored halves of Powell’s composition play simultaneously, forward and back. The sound carries beyond the block; we hear it as we approach, the sounds of life exceeding a space designed entirely to foreclose it.3 I visited Menjívar’s installation most recently with students in a course I teach at Haverford College on the cultural history of the death penalty.4 The music frames our entry, scoring the stochastic movement of bodies into the tight doorway, first in a line, then passing lightly, pressed in uneven combinations.5 A countless sequence of events brought each of us here. Suspended, like much of the museum, in a state of “preserved decay”—lyric testimony, maybe, to the ruination at the heart of solitary confinement and the history of prison reform—cellblock 15 was until recently largely closed off to visitors. On my first trip to Eastern State in 2019, I peeked inside briefly through a barred door, stood contemplating a large panel of electric buttons, installed when the block opened in 1959 as a “modernized” addition to the 19th century prison, then moved along. Menjívar’s installation breaks open and transforms the cellblock, using transparent polycarbonate bars to mark how the space would have been configured before it was abandoned in the early 1970s. As a digitally-rendered version of Powell’s composition plays, bringing the score to life, the transparent bars—not unlike the musical staff, quite literally bars turned sideways—script endless variations of movement through the block.6
Eastern State was founded on belief in the rehabilitative value of physical and spiritual isolation. The architecture writes social dispossession into its very walls. To be a “visitor” in this space (to navigate it more or less freely) is to grapple with a palimpsest of detention, dehumanization, unfreedom—with the “layered history of the carceral state.”7 Designed for containment, the prison is also an archive.8 This is perhaps doubly or differently true of the decommissioned prison as carceral museum, which testifies—in more or less direct ways, depending (maybe) on the kind of visitor you are—to the containerization of human life as one of the central techniques of racial capitalism and US state power.9 To consider the role of art in this space (and in carceral spaces more broadly) is to reckon with how (without any guarantee) artistic practice might disrupt the political and knowledge practices that serve to contain a life in space and time.
Or condemn a life to space and time. The death penalty, as well as life without parole (or death by incarceration), is a judgment on time itself as a container of human possibility—of what time can or cannot hold, of what kind of life is possible for human beings condemned to time or to serving time indefinitely.10 Risk assessment specialists predict the future, hold it up for uncritical scrutiny. Death sentences archive life itself, consigning it (in advance) to the past, foreclosing what time could unfold. In the face of these deathly applications of time, and in the context of death row’s radically constrained conditions for living, Powell’s score slips the bonds of a limited aural imaginary. Through Menjívar’s practice, it reverberates across carceral time and space.
In its architectural and sonic interventions, DLP Mirror transmogrifies the prison archive and its histories, making them less solid as a container.11 In this version of cellblock 15, we awkwardly practice (rehearse, block out, mirror) what it might mean to inhabit and imagine the space otherwise—that is, collectively—set in motion by the jarringly upbeat rhythm of Powell’s score. DLP Mirror includes copies of the hand-written score for visitors to take with them and play at home as a means of activating the music, filling the palindrome with an endless series of variations, lives, possibilities.
To be read through, the printed score must be held and inverted. I play the two half-notes at the center of the palindrome, circled in Powell’s pencil, on my cheap Casio keyboard—A and E—over and over, less a conjuring than a sustained practice of listening to what the carceral state does not want me to hear. Through and against containerization, sound moves—from Powell’s cell to Menjívar’s studio to Eastern State to my living room in the suburbs—between radically different spaces that are nevertheless interconnected. Sound carries, even if what it carries cannot readily be expressed or (in art market terms) possessed. The non-representational force of sound—its status first and foremost as a material vibration across bodies—reinforces its capacity to produce unexpected possibilities, to slip and exceed violent structures of isolation, past and present.12 At the center of the palindrome, just before it folds over itself, everything is (still) possible. I hold the notes, wanting to be held there.
Powell heard his stochastic composition played for the first, and possibly only, time when lawyers hired pianist William Wolfe to perform it in court during the sentencing phase of his 1991 retrial. A newspaper clipping (printed on the back of the score, along with an essay by Menjívar) notes the composition was played “in an attempt to show the jury that Powell can be rehabilitated and contribute to society”; very likely it was also played to a majority-white jury to signify Powell’s (white) genius, and thereby his humanity.13 By rendering Powell’s score through Midi programming, Menjívar pays tribute to Powell’s interest in digital music; he also resists the romance of rehabilitation which underwrote—and continues to underwrite—the penitentiary’s logic of solitary confinement.14 I turn back, again, to stochastic processes: “stochastic techniques may be used to produce fuzzy edges and to ‘humanize’ computer-generated sounds.”15 While rooted in an arbitrary sequence, the stochastic composition is not fully random. The coin toss suggests a level playing field, where the justice system and the carceral state it upholds are anything but. Menjívar’s activation of the score certainly humanizes Powell as an individual, but it also moves beyond this instrumental logic into the realm of connection, refusing the carceral and racializing force of state power which deems some lives discardable and others worth preserving.
As Nicole Fleetwood has argued, prison art offers a roadmap “to place-making and community formations that undo the logic and mandate of prisons.”16 If it cannot itself abolish prisons and policing, it is a prefigurative practice—an experiment in living and making beyond the terms of radical constraint and the self-solidifying force of state power. Fleetwood’s study of carceral aesthetics is itself a roadmap for practices of looking and listening otherwise, against “the power of the state to capture and arrest, to make visible and invisible” and (I might add) against the state’s administration of what can and cannot be heard, in the courtroom and beyond.17 This is, as Fleetwood foregrounds it, a practice rooted in care, and in the labor of sustaining community in the places where it is most forcibly denied. Menjívar’s listening practice extends to Powell’s archive, but more urgently it emerges from his ongoing conversations and collaborations with those currently incarcerated on Texas’s death row.18 These contexts are intertwined. This is, to borrow Avery Gordon’s terms, “a pedagogy of finding and making life where death and destruction dominate.”19 This, too, is an aural imaginary, and an abolitionist one—a refusal of the container at the level of art and of social practice. A radical sharing of sound.
The palindrome is relational. Fundamentally a duet, it holds up a mirror not so much to David Lee Powell as to us, listening, beside him not in space but in time, held and unfolded.20 The multi-channel audio enables two halves of the composition to unfold at once; the hand-written score travels, held and reanimated, again and again. Forward and back, again and again, until it breaks.
- Kevin Jones, “Composition Applications of Stochastic Processes,” Computer Music Journal 5.2 (Summer 1981), 45.
- Menjívar is the artist-in-residence at the Texas After Violence Project. He is in the process of donating Powell’s belongings to the National Death Penalty Archives at SUNY Albany.
- Thanks to Umika Pathak for this read on the work of sound in the cellblock.
- My deepest thanks to the students of “Against Death,” whose voices live in this piece alongside mine: Jillian Aguilar, Abigail Clark, Sophia Honigfeld, Kasey Ingerson, Bela Khanna, Amelia LaMotte, Nicholas Laskinsky, Clara Lind, Hunter Logan, Jalen Martin, Logan Zurita McKinnon, Regan Riehl, Madi Wyttenbach, and Isabella Yin.
- Thanks to Amelia LaMotte for observing and sharing this.
- Thanks to Bela Khanna for making this connection between the polycarbonate bars and the musical staff.
- Nicole Fleetwood, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020) 2.
- See Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Tait Sanders et. al., “Trans architecture and the prison as archive: ‘don’t be a queen and they won’t arrest you,’” Punishment and Society (March 2022); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Abolition Geography: Essays Toward Liberation (New York: Verso, 2022).
- On containerization, see Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013). On the carceral architectures of the museum, see Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum (New York: Routledge, 1995).
- Thanks to Felix Rosado, Raymond Tucker, members of Let’s Circle Up at SCI Phoenix, and the PA Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration for giving me this language for life without parole sentences.
- Thanks to Jack Isaac Pryor for prompting me to this understanding of Menjívar’s work as it shifts the solidity of the archive; their thinking in Time Slips and beyond is all over this essay. See Pryor, Time Slips: Queer Temporalities, Contemporary Performance, and the Hole of History(Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2017).
- We might think of sound here as a form of “penal matter,” in Nicole Fleetwood’s formulation. Fleetwood, Marking Time, 58. On sound as vibration, see Nina Sun Einsheim, Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
- Bob Banta, “Music Played to Jurors to Show Killer Changed,” Austin American-Statesman, November 13, 1991.
- My thanks to Gus Stadler for this observation.
- Jones, “Compositional Applications.”
- Fleetwood, Marking Time, 16.
- Fleetwood, Marking Time, 15. On the ethics of being (un)heard, see Jill Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
- This includes Menjívar’s ongoing collaboration with Rickey Cummings, who has been incarcerated on death row in Texas since 2012.
- Avery F. Gordon, “Methodologies of Imprisonment,” PMLA 123.3 (2008): 654.
- I borrow my phrasing and methodology here from Elizabeth Freeman. See Freeman, Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociabilities in the American Nineteenth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.