Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Performance Architecture

Cathedral of Sevilla
In 1987, I moved to New York City to attend college.  For me, this transition from a small suburban town in Pennsylvania to The Big Apple was enormous.  So dramatic was the change in my reality that I am still trying to process and learn from the things I saw and heard.  At the time, I was only able to capture about 25% of what was going on, the rest of it just kind of swirled around me.  So new and different were these ideas, that I couldn't even process them.  The irony of it all is that as a living example of what Foucault was writing about, I couldn't understand what he was writing.

Some of the more mind altering venues that I experienced were my Women's Studies classes.   I remember one class in particular - a core class in feminist texts or something like that - that was taught by this petite woman with Laurie Anderson hair, a black leather jacket with "Silence=Death" pin and Dr. Martens boots.  Writing this today, she sounds like a caricature of the early '90s.  But keep in mind that Rent hadn't been produced yet.  It was 1990, she was the real deal.  I remember how hard she tried to share ideas with us.  I'd say about half the class was able to keep up.  The rest of us sat in stunned silence.  Whattchatalkin' about Willis?

I remember one class we talked about Karen Finley and the performance art scene.  A naked woman.  Messy food. Sex. NEA funding.  I don't remember much else.  But I do remember the excitement in the room.

This weekend, I visited the Cathedral in Sevilla, which is quite a sight to see. Who knows what tourists are thinking about when they gaze up at that gaudy gold alter? Standing there in the crowd, I had a early '90s moment, Karen Finley popped into my mind.  The Cathedral is truly awesome, it took my breath away.  The crummy picture at the top of this blog does it no justice because it isn't the kind of thing that can't be captured in a picture.  You have to see it in person, it's performance architecture, it's a live action show.

Now, to say I am a non-practicing Catholic would perhaps overstate my connection to Catholicism, so my reaction to the Cathedral was not a religious one.  I think it took my breathe away not because I felt the presence of God, but because I felt the power of the Catholic Church.  If it makes my knees shake now, you can only imagine the effect it had on Spanish peasants in the 1600s.  A performance of state power.

Another type of performance architecture is, of course, the prison.  Coincidentally, right before leaving for Sevilla, I had the opportunity to experience this other type of performance at the Teixeiro prison in Galicia.
Teixero Prison
Tall walls, swirling bar wire, loud doors, one way mirrors and slender windows.  Again, not a piece of work that can be truly captured in photos, for it is standing in the shadow of the wall and hearing the loud doors shut that the state power is really experienced.

For me, walking through these two buildings within a matter of hours created an interesting conversation in how to use architecture to exert state power.  What stands out in my mind is that the prison performance is decidedly one-sided. The cathedral message is that if you follow the rules, glory awaits.  There are also some not-so-subtle messages about what your fate may be if you stray.  The prison message is that if you don't follow the rules, tedium awaits.  But what might be in store for those who comply?