Paul Rucker: A ‘PROLIFERATION’ Of Imprisoned Lives

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Proliferation4-602x400Paul Rucker, “PROLIFERATION,” 2009. Video, audio, music composition, and animation. 



“PROLIFERATION is not a viral video, [but] it could be one day,” says composer, musician, and visual artist Paul Rucker.

The multi-media project is an attempt at deconstructing the abstraction of US prison figures into a meaningful and emotional experience. His conduit is an immersive sound and video installation. In an era of shrinking attention spans, Rucker beckons all our senses for over ten minutes.

Individual frames of “PROLIFERATION” could pass for a satellite image of lights across the United States at night, but this video animation represents a somber spectacle: the sprawling formation of the carceral topography of the continental US. The flashing of small colored dots, representing prisons coming into existence over time, punctuates this spectacle. They gradually line up in patterns that follow the edges of states, the shapes of counties, and the outlines of the geographical boundaries of the country.


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An animated mapping of the US prison system set to original music composed and performed by Paul Rucker. Timeline: Green Dots: 1778-1900; Yellow Dots: 1901-1940; Orange Dots: 1941-1980; Red Dots: 1981-2005. (Nathan Eyring – Animation, Aaron Bourget – Video Editing, Rose Heyer – Research, Troy Glessner – Music Mastering.)


In 1900, there were roughly 57,000 people in state and federal prisons in the US. By 2005, the figure was 1.4 million. By now, many of us have repeatedly heard jarring statistics, either in the news, books, and popular culture about the US prison industrial complex. However, how many of us really comprehend the immense scale and meaning that such figures encapsulate?

Rucker would like his audience to think about the significance of each dot, not just as a prison but in terms of the great number of human lives it contains. “Each dot represents many human lives,” he says. “PROLIFERATION” is therefore a cure to the desensitizing effect of information overload. Rucker is hoping to touch his audience’s empathy.

The artist’s activism on mass incarceration, among other social justice issues, is informed by experiences that marked his life on either side of privilege. When he was just 13 years old, he was refused admission into a private home, apparently because of his skin color. The incident, which happened while Rucker was traveling with his school orchestra in his home state of South Carolina, left him in shock. “It took away illusions I had about how I was viewed by certain people. I really felt the world was an equal place where people were treated equally. My perspective changed. It took away my innocence.” Later in college, Rucker lost some of his childhood friends to crime (they were involved in a drug-related murder). It made Rucker ponder whether his life and family circumstances saved him from becoming another statistic of incarceration. Rucker has been the Robert W. Deutsch Artist-in-Residence and Research Fellow at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore since 2013. The stark economic disparity of his surroundings there has also moved him. “I live near the college. Just several blocks over, there is a great deal of extreme poverty. I find that disturbing.”


Paul Rucker. Alcatraz. 2011Paul Rucker performing at the Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco in 2011. © Mark Kitaoka


“PROLIFERATION” places Rucker among a group of artists who are pioneering the mining, visualization and sonification of data to draw attention to consequential social issues. One can draw parallels between Rucker’s piece and “Hard Data,” an installation by R. Luke Dubois, another visual artist and composer. The Dubois piece is a video time lapse where statistics, events and news accounts about the Iraq War flash on a map of the Middle Eastern country. Mathematically-generated musical compositions accompany the piece.

Rucker is a self-taught visual artist. “I started making visual art after 30, after working as a janitor for the Seattle Art Museum,” he says. While he didn’t delve into the visual arts until later in life, he had an early interest in music. He attributes this to his mother’s influence as an organ player who learned music through mail order instruction at the US School of Music. His elementary school music teacher also encouraged him. “Music was an escape from the monotony of school work,” he says. Rucker first studied bass before pursuing the cello, which he now considers “a nice extension of [his] voice.” He composed the music of “PROLIFERATION” with a combination of modified instruments, including the acoustic four-string guitar, acoustic bass, cello, drums and percussion. The music’s tempo rises in both volume and intensity with the increasing density of the prisons.

Rucker’s project reaffirms Sol Lewitt’s prophetic words, written in his 1967 essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” “PROLIFERATION” is an example of the ever-evolving ways in which new technologies impact the production and nature of art, and vice-versa. Impressionist painting imitated the realism and everyday subjects of the photographic camera. Then, pointillism defined a technique of composing images with patterns of small dots of paint. Today, machines draw up the images on our TVs, computers and mobile devices with patterns of small squares of light called pixels. The dots in “PROLIFERATION” are also the results of computation based on groundbreaking research initiated by Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). “Peter had this map created to study prison-based gerrymandering,” says Rucker. “Even though prisoners cannot vote, they are counted in the census. Some states have banned the practice, but not across the board.” A former PPI intern, Rose Heyer, compiled the research for  “PROLIFERATION.”

To continue his work on imprisonment and mass incarceration, Rucker has received numerous awards and grants from institutions including the Creative Capital Foundation, which supported “Recapitulation” a similar installation project examining the parallels between slavery and the 21st century prison industrial complex. Rucker has shown “PROLIFERATION” at various correctional institutions in Washington state, at the Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, and in other parts of the country. Museums, universities, correctional facilities have also shown the video for educational use. Activist and author Angela Davis and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, two prominent voices of prison reform, own copies. Since the inception of “PROLIFERATION” six of the prisons represented in the video have closed. In addition, Pew Research Center data indicates that incarceration rates in most US states decreased, although minimally, between 2008 and 2013.

Rucker is continuing to produce artwork merging original composition, sound, and visual art in furtherance of his prison activism. His “REWIND” project seeks to draw parallels between labor exploitation and disenfranchisement during slavery in America and the current prison industrial complex. “PROLIFERATION” is a feature piece in an exhibition of REWIND opening on February 7 at Creative Alliance in Baltimore, Maryland.


mohamed pic (Petronella Photography)

A native of Mali, Mohamed Keita has written about press freedom, politics, and arts and culture, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa. His articles have appeared in publications including The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Africa Is A Country and Keita is a former advocacy strategist with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He is currently based in Harlem, New York City. 

Twitter @mohkeit




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