This May, as the ArtPlace blog explores themes of healing, we are pleased to lift up inspiring projects that engage arts and culture to help communities reintegrate and rebuild after surviving traumatic events and injustices. One year ago this month, NYC’s Bring Down The Walls entered the canon of such projects.
“Historically, house culture has often been a mode of resistance, opening up new understandings of community and solidarity,” British artist-musician Phil Collins told Fader magazine. “Its radical proposition of simply being together offers another way of engaging the conversation around the prison-industrial complex.”
In May 2018, Collins—with partners Creative Time, The Fortune Society, and over 100 other collaborators—presented Bring Down The Walls, a three-pronged public art project staged in a historic decommissioned fire station in Lower Manhattan that turned an unconventional lens on criminal justice policy and the lived experiences of those incarcerated.
Bring Down The Walls consisted of a communal space that functioned by day as a research center where visitors could learn about the history of incarceration in America, and by night as a dance club featuring local DJs, musicians, and activists. The space was free and open to the public each Saturday in May. Bring Down The Walls also released a benefit album of classic house music tracks re-recorded by formerly incarcerated vocalists and electronic musicians.
The project began when Collins helped to form a band of men incarcerated in Sing Sing, New York’s maximum security prison. “We had time and space to get to know each other, play cassettes for each other, talk about pop history, clubbing, prison life, their perspectives on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ and the tidal wave of killings of young black men by the police,” he said. Through their revelations and collaborations, the groundwork for this landmark project was laid.