Artist publication makes case for prison reform

Syphon tackles issues of incarceration through multi-media

Guests at Syphon 5.0: Incarceration launch event.
Photo provided by Modern Fuel Artist Run Centre

In a city famous for its art and prisons, it’s only natural for the two collide.

The Tragically Hip may have put Kingston on the map for some, but long before they were selling out shows, the Limestone City was on its way to become a hub for dark tourism with its prisons and penitentiary tours. Now, Kingston bands seek inspiration from the city’s history in songs like The Hip’s “38 Years Old,” and The Glorious Sons’ live album Little Prison City.

On Saturday, Feb. 23, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre launched Syphon 5.0: Incarceration.

Syphon—an arts and culture publication—focuses on local and international art with an emphasis on obscure and non-mainstream pieces. Syphon 5.0: Incarceration takes a look at Kingston’s past and present relationship with crime and criminals through the local and plentiful prison system.

This issue explores problem facing prisoners and the cultural stigma surrounding incarceration in media including film, photography, writing, and painting.

Syphon 5.0: Incarceration was edited by Robin Alex McDonald, a fine arts instructor at Nipissing University and PhD candidate in the cultural studies department at Queen’s. An area of McDonald’s research is focused on prison reform—something they said holds personal significance.

McDonald grew up hearing little of their own brother’s incarceration, sensing it wasn’t an accepted topic of conversation in their household due to the family’s shame. Though McDonald’s brother passed away in 2005, it’s still on their mind.

“It’s such a point of shame for my family to talk about,” McDonald told The Journal. “Because of the silencing around this particular aspect of [my brother], this experience that he had and my family’s shame around it, it really made me curious about why that’s a source of shame, and what can be done to change it.”

McDonald identifies as an academic first, but their research often covers art and activism. Both are becoming an intricate aspect of their work.

McDonald is fascinated by how the two disciplines complement and support each other. With many artists intentionally swaying their artwork towards social and political ends, McDonald sees visual and material art as important parts of our political lives.

“Issues of incarceration predominantly affect marginalized people including and especially racialized people in Canada and Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S.,” McDonald said.

McDonald noted that Black people, as well as trans people—especially trans women of colour—are severely affected by the incarceration system due to their increased vulnerability.  

Besides being something close to their heart, McDonald wanted to focus on prison reform in this issue of Syphon because they knew many artists in Kingston and surrounding areas are doing exciting about prisons.

They wanted to give these artists a platform to highlight an issue that they believe goes overlooked.

That’s why Syphon was the ideal place to showcase this work.

The purpose of Syphon is to connect Kingston’s art communities with those across Ontario and Canada. It facilitates networking between artists through opportunities like Syphon 5.0.

McDonald knew this was the perfect platform to connect artists to others who care about the same issues. 

Syphon involves creative and research-based writing, as well as three interviews—one with the creator of a film played at the launch event—and photographs of the Kingston Penitentiary. Also in the issue are interviews with former inmates at the Kingston Women’s Prison, and a list of the distances in kilometres from Modern Fuel to each prison in Quebec to emphasize the sheer volume of incarceration facilities in the area.

Finally, there’s a series of sketches showing surveillance tools used to catch undocumented immigrants. The issue is jam-packed with diverse prisoner experiences and studies, all of which support the plea for prison reform. 

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