I have been going to jail once a week for the past two years now.
In exchange for my being the witness of his son’s first steps, Superaton spent the three hours that I was with his son cataloguing the cigarette butts in his cell.
I have been going to jail once a week for the past two years now. I stay for about seven hours each time, which means that as of now I have spent more than 500 hours in prison.
The first time I went I was truly scared. There are more than 2,500 men in this jail and when they saw this outsider coming into their world, let’s just say that they were not happy at first. They would constantly jostle me as I walked through the grounds. They would yell from afar, and a few times right up in my face, about how they were going to kick my ass. Many times they tried to steal my bags of materials. It was horrible, and I often wondered if I was an idiot, putting myself at risk for an art project. I had a knot in my stomach every time I arrived at the gate. Fortunately, since then I have made some friends among the inmates, and now they make sure that everyone behaves around me. It’s only the prisoners themselves who can guarantee your safety in there, not the guards or anybody else. Whether it’s comfortable to admit it or not, it is the prisoners who rule this prison—especially since there is a ratio of 1 guard to every 100 inmates. It’s only their weird power structure made up of dominant guards and dominant prisoners that keeps it all relatively calm.
I started going to the prison because I have been working on art that deals with the concept of time for more than six years now. Time has been appropriated by institutions. They’ve taken it away from us. In this somewhat Marxist mind-frame, I clearly saw that time has been transformed into production and then production into distribution. Our work time is converted into salary, and our leisure time into consumption. So we can actually represent and measure time with bills and coins. In the instant that time is transformed into hours, minutes, and seconds instead of experiences, well, then time has been taken from us. It has become objective instead of subjective. But time is not a representation. The only way one can feel time is through the free acts and personal moments that we create within it. And following this train of thought, I came to the conclusion that a prison is a kind of physical representation of this idea of appropriated time. Doing time—doing time for others, abiding other people’s instructions. So I started visiting a jail to get a better understanding of this concept.
The jail I picked is in Santa Martha Acatitla. It started out as a “model” prison 12 years ago. They would only admit people who were first offenders and given less than ten years of jail time, and they supposedly had all sorts of progressive social programs. But things have changed a lot since then. Jails all over Mexico are overflowing. Most Mexican prisons are 35 percent over their intended capacity, and it is getting worse day by day, in large part because of this whole government campaign going on right now to crack down on the drug mafia. There is nowhere to hold all of them. They send all the leftovers from other jails to Santa Martha Acatitla. You can find people inside that will be there for 20, 30, even 50 years. There is a women’s jail and a men’s jail, side by side. The women’s has about 1,500 inmates and the men’s has about 2,500. Both are overpopulated. They often cram 12 or more prisoners into a cell that was designed for 8.
In exchange for my giving Fernando’s mother a birthday celebration, Fernando spent the exact hours that I was with her finding every scar on his body and writing down the story of how he got it.
After becoming friends with some inmates, I proposed a deal to them. I would use an agreed-upon amount of my time to perform tasks for them out in the world at a specific day and hour. At the same time they would do whatever I asked them to do as an artist. Neither of us would be wasting time. Instead, we would be exchanging it. What they usually want me to do is to literally take their place in the outside world. I’ve visited the tombs of their brothers and said a few words. I’ve asked their fathers for forgiveness. I’ve gone dancing with their mothers. I’ve met their sons and acted as their father for a day. I’ve read a letter out loud to a dying relative in the hospital. One prisoner even asked me to go to his girlfriend’s house and watch her masturbate so that I could describe the scene for him, bit by bit.
Since the body is our only real, subjective way of measuring time, usually what I ask for in exchange is for measurements of time using their body. So I tell them, “You want me to go cook for your family? OK. Then you will hold your hand to your neck for three hours and make a scribble on a piece of paper for each heartbeat that you feel. You are going to give me all of your heartbeats for these three hours.” Since we perform our tasks at the same time, a really weird and strong connection gets made between the two of us. I usually do five of these exchanges per week nowadays. They become me and I become them, for a little while.
Some of the inmates teach me their particular “skills” in exchange for my time. One of them, in trade for teaching his daughter to read, showed me how to kill someone with a shoelace. Basically, all you have to do is hold the shoelace in such a way that when you shake someone’s hand, his index finger gets caught in a little noose. Then you pull sharply, he loses his balance, and you twist the shoelace around his neck and pull as hard as you can. The prisoner who showed me this technique is a really tiny guy, but he can do it in one swift move. It’s crazy to watch, almost like a magic trick. He used to be a locksmith, and he says he has invented a lock that not even he can break into. He asked me to help him patent it, so I am researching patent laws for him next week.
This project has taken me to some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Mexico City. It’s weird, but I believe that this idea of taking their place, of being them for a few hours, actually serves as some kind of strange protection from harm when I am on their errands. Even families composed solely of really dangerous thugs treat me with the utmost respect and warmth. It is really as if for a few hours I represent their relative for them. Once a prisoner asked me to go see his son’s grades and ask him how he was doing in school. His family had stopped visiting him for quite a few years—he was a really tough character and I couldn’t completely blame them. So I went, saw the kid’s grades and talked to his family for a few hours. My visit seemed to have touched some type of nerve, because the next week his family started visiting him again.
I am not allowed into the women’s jail anymore, but I must say I was relieved when that happened. It is even harder to take than the men’s, believe it or not. So damn depressing. By law, all children under six must stay in jail with their mothers, so there are six-year-old kids in there that were born in jail and do not know the outside world. An unnaturally strong bond forms between them and their mothers because of the conditions and then, suddenly, they are taken away from their mothers the day after they turn seven. There are also so many women who have not received visitors in the last ten years. I read a statistic recently that stated that out of the 1,500 women in Santa Martha, only 79 of them have outside partners who signed up for conjugal visiting rights. When men get put into jail they become like children for their families; when women get put into jail they become phantoms. They are denied and then forgotten. The social stigma is a lot worse for them. They usually become really hard and aggressive in jail. They have to.
Men usually ask me for favors related to their friends and family, whereas women would usually ask for favors dealing with faith, like asking me to crawl on my knees inside the Basílica de Guadalupe (one of the most revered churches in Mexico) to do penance on their behalf and pray for them, or to go leave flowers at the Santa Muerte’s altar. It is as if they were looking for hope beyond the human realm, because the human realm is no longer within their reach.
It was the prisoners who came up with the idea for the object series. One day some of them came up to me and said, “OK, Macotela, look. If art is—as you say it is—the modification of daily life, or the modification of objects and acts to give them new meanings, then we have a question for you: Don’t you think that survival in here can be art too? Because here we take normal objects and give them new meaning.” In jail, the handle of a bucket stops being the handle of a bucket and becomes a weapon, which becomes power. A brick plus a few loose wires becomes an electric stove, a piece of a windowsill gets turned into a knife. So they proposed that these survival technologies become their art, and that one of the things that I would do for them would be to sell these art pieces on their behalf in the outside world. That is what we are starting to do now, and they recently even formed an art collective: They call themselves the Rashes, from “rash,” the English word, saying that they are like the tiny skin-colored bugs on cows that create huge rashes all over and are also very hard to kill. They are both really visible and terribly invisible, at once. I laughed so much when they told me that was what they would call themselves.
Here are some of the ingenious household tools and appliances crafted by Antonio Vego Macotela's imprisoned collaborators.
Safe Box and Key This is a safe made from a crate, with a lock that operates in the same way as the closure on the trunk of a car. The lock on this box is made from a paper clip and a lighter spring; the key is also made from a paper clip.
Two Razors and a Needle The first of these instruments is made with a pencil sharpener from which the blade is removed and put into the hole where the pencil is inserted so that it makes a razor for cutting paper. The second is made with a lighter and a piece of bucket handle. The handle is sharpened on one end, and close to the end a kind of slot that serves as an eye is made to create a needle for darning things like footwear or clothing. The third is another version of the razor blade, but made with a lighter and a pencil sharpener welded together with fire.
Dishes A sardine can acts as a plate, a Boing juice can (with the top removed by scraping it on the floor) as a cup, and a piece of tin (left over from a can) acts as a spoon.
Tin Stove This is the deluxe version of the brick grill. It is constructed from a can, dirt from the prison yard, and a resistor cured in garlic and lemon. Aside from increased durability, this stove reduces the risk of electrocution because there are fewer short circuits.
Grill This is a brick in which a channel is carved out to act as a resistor, which is connected to the electric current from your cell’s wall in order to recook the “mess” (the name given to the prison food, which is generally terrible).
Bucket Swords The handle of a bucket is cut into two pieces so that you have two weapons. Each piece is then sharpened on one side by filing it against the floor. Finally, the other end is bent so that it adjusts naturally to the hand.
Incense This is a strategy for hiding the smell of marijuana while smoking in your jail cell. To accomplish this, saturate some toilet paper with Old Spice deodorant, roll it up, and light it on fire. Next, stick it to a wall with some gum. (It is advisable to use two or more of these incense sticks to obtain better results.)
Fluidless Lighter In prison, fuel is very scarce at times. However, there is a technique for starting a fire using a lighter with no fluid. Utilize pieces of the flint stone to make sparks, with toilet paper as fuel.