The Cell Project in the Royal Festival Hall: Discussions in a prison cell

People in a small screen, having a muted conversation. The space is fairly claustrophobic, yet in the saturated colours it is shown, the people in it do not seem threatening.

And then you take a step to the right, and here they are. Participants visiting someone that has spent time in prison, all together in a very small space. In a cell. A cell that is constructed to government guidelines, and looks like what you imagined it would look like, yet a bit different. Strangely, it looks lived in, and that incites a mixture of interest and fear.

Hosted in the Royal Festival Hall in Southbank, Rideout created and presented The Cell Project. There is an electric buzz around it, and just standing next to it invokes really powerful emotions. Saul Hewish, the co-director at Rideout is contributing to that: he talks to visitors, his passion and energy drawing them in, and he is equally engaging during our talk. He explains to me how the project took life after a discussion about the Empty Shop Network, when an impossible idea came up: ‘imagine putting a cell in a shop!’. And that is what they did.

After two installations in shopping centres (the Mander Centre in Wolverhampton in 2010; and Piccadilly, Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent in 2011), the project is now in an artistically aware environment instead of a retail destination. Saul tells me how the spaces have made difference (imagine walking into a shopping centre to find a prison cell!), however explains the general response to the project: participants find it a powerful and profound experience, that demands to challenge their views on prison (usually shaped by TV series, media, and reports that portray prisons as comfortable and luxurious summer camps).

Yet the project challenges these views. ‘Luxuries’ like a rug or a guitar are accentuated, and visitors can take part in a survey that examines the concept of the luxurious provisions.

Saul explains how the project’s main target is to raise issues of the criminal justice on a public forum, and demystify the views on jails and prisoners. It is really powerful being inside the space,and talking to people that have been through the real experience. As Saul says, this is a experience that can not really happen: people can not visit cells in prisons,there are specific prison areas for visitations. So being in the space holds so much meaning, emotion, and power for the visitor.

Even though the piece is now over, keep an eye on the Ride Out Current Projects page for any upcoming events, as well as the Cell Project website for more information. it is a truly powerful and immensely thought-provoking experience.




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