THE HUMAN TALKING & LISTENING MACHINE & SHU BOX
HENRIETTA MANTOOTH / NICKY DRAVEN / GAVIN BROWN
This installation, as part of the “Art In Odd Places” annual event, had two sections: Henrietta Mantooth as The Human Talking & Listening Machine and Nicky Draven representing a Prisoner in Solitary Confinement.
Visuals included an 8’ x 10’ foot black felt carpet showing expressive cut-out drawings of heads and faces of men, women, and children in red acrylic paint. Mantooth, dressed in a black coat and hat, sat on a black wooden chair on this carpet and engaged passersby on subjects such as mass incarceration, discrimination, segregation, homelessness, high rents, jobs, and any daily subject a passerby wanted to talk about such as “I lost my keys” or “my girlfriend walked out.” Collaborator Gavin Brown carried a large sign advertising The Human Talking & Listening Machine and was available to strangers on their way to someplace else.
Many people spoke of personal experiences in jails and prison or family members and how difficult it is to make a new life after release. Others complained their tax dollars were going to house criminals. One woman spoke of having attempted suicide twice but added that she is safe now with help. A young man said he wanted to become an actor but hadn’t had the courage. A young woman from Ecuador said she had faced insults for being a “lazy” Latinx.
We had constructed a corrugated cardboard box (labeled SHU BOX, which are the two words used by the inmates to describe Solitary Confinement). Painted gray, it stood eight feet high with a four foot square area inside where Draven spent four hour periods each of the two days, gesticulating and talking to the public through a cut-out barred window. A box nearby was lettered with the words “Free Prison Bars.” The bars were a lightweight foam core about two feet by two inches. On their black surface was painted the names of the 69 prisons in New York State. “Take home a prison bar to remind yourself what is keeping you locked up.” The box was emptied by the end of the second day.
Our aim was not to offer solutions but to give people a chance to say what was on their minds, even to strangers, and the experience was charged with discoveries by the “strangers” as well as by the “performers” on 14th Street.