“You wanna know what it’s all about”: Art with Veterans in Custody

“what it means to have served ones country and later to serve a prison sentence”

EMurray

Dr Emma Murray is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice at Liverpool John Moores University. Emma’s research focuses upon the welfare of veterans’, particularly those convicted of a crime in England and Wales and how we might better understand them in policy, critical pedagogy, and through art.

TDegenhardt Dr. Teresa Degenhardt is a Lecturer in Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast and a Fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice. Teresa has worked on the intersection between war, crime and punishment in discourses on the war on terror, on military interventions, and the development of border security technology.

On April 6th, 2017, The Separate System[1], a film made by artist Katie Davis, in collaboration with military veterans in prison was premiered at FACT (Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology), Liverpool. As part of a broader event entitled ‘To Serve’, the audience were asked to consider what it means to have served ones country and later to serve a prison sentence. As the Chair and invited guest (respectively), we were tasked with responding to the film – an art work ‘owned’ by many – which attends to the visceral experiences of military life and the criminal justice system. Over the moving images and sounds of the prison and public spaces in the film, veterans speak their narratives to their imagined audience. Indeed, the audio alone is important and through this work their voice has a platform. The notable lack of veterans voices in discourses of the convicted veteran has already been suggested as a glaring omission (Murray 2016; Treadwell 2016), as such this platform is empowering. As the literature on war and the military continues to emerge with vibrancy in criminology, we contend that this artwork invites those veterans who participated into our theorising – placing the embodied and aesthetic experiences of their lives as they know them in sharp focus.

Our Approach

It is important to note that this was not a research project but an art project – and we do not intend to ‘evaluate’ the art but rather harness some of the key messages, as we see them, for further criminological enquiry. We approach this artwork, conscious that experiences of war, and of the criminal justice system are inherently embodied and sensual, as is becoming a soldier, a veteran, and a criminal. As such, we see this an opportunity to engage with those aspects of the convicted veteran’s life experiences that are difficult to capture through language. Crucially, this socially engaged process of knowledge production offers insights which were signed off by veterans themselves.

Our inquiry focusses upon two broad questions:

  1. What does this form of engagement with veterans in custody offer to criminological scholarship on war and the military?
  2. What might veterans in custody gain through their collaboration?

We do not claim to be able to answer these questions in detail here, nor do we have the space to attend to all which the work has to offer. Instead we bring three stills[2] from the film to bear upon our current work and thinking on war, criminal justice, and those who have experienced both. And believe that the images selected (and those that fall outside of our remit here) have the potential to advance our understanding of the personal, symbolic, material, relational and transformative aspects of veterans in custody lived experiences.

Embodying the Separation

From the opening scenes we are invited into consider the separation that the ‘convicted veteran’ perceives of body and place because of the attached label. Their veteran status separates them from others in custody, and their conviction separates them from more dogmatic images of what it means to be a veteran to society more broadly. Or at least this is their perception.

The Faceless Body

Face1

This image without the face, appears to us amid the sounds of prison doors closing, symbolising the moment when the often-uniformed ways in which we come to know the veteran (epitomising a sovereign’s pride and bravery) is left behind. The symbolic power of the faceless body offers an insight into the visceral perception of those who participated. It also reminds researchers to be mindful of the ontological and epistemological questions necessary when placing veterans in custody into a broader critical criminological commentary. Particularly to ensure that the socially constructed, yet self-constituting experience of being a veteran, isn’t overlooked.

The Space of Separation

One becomes a veteran in civilian society. The veteran status serving as further evidence of the separation between the military and the civilian space which they serve, or at the very least that military experience, once disclosed, alters how one is understood. The convicted veteran however, is removed further. The spaces of multiple separation portrayed in this film offer an insight not into how the convicted might understand their identity and place in society, but the space (i.e. the military or the prison)  in which new forms of subjectivity (i.e. the convicted veteran) are created and exercised through the individual.

Prison

The prison wing captured through this image makes visible the distinction, representing the materiality of the disciplinarian techniques deployed by the state to contain and separate this violence from military violence. Here, the convicted veteran represents a glitch in that governmental machine – a failure of disciplinarian techniques and their separation.

“Civvie Street” or War landscape?

WarSeparation is, of course, the works’ recurring theme. Separation however, is also relational – occurring only with reference to that from which one is separated (whether physical, imagined or otherwise).  For the veterans who feature in this film, that is civilian society – or “Civvie-Street”. The destruction apparent in the last image chosen for this piece captures the demolition of a building in Liverpool. Working closely with Katie, veterans can share memories of war, evoked in an otherwise ‘peaceful’ street, noting how the clear distinction between inside/outside, us/them, good/bad, war/punishment and peace/war are more problematic than ever in the 21st century (Degenhardt 2010; Loader and Percy 2012). Through this image, veterans themselves, share how they have experienced that complexity, and how that complicates their resettlement post-service. The continual reference to ‘Civvie-Street’ might also remind us that while both the military and criminal justice are important to studies of the convicted veteran – our subjects have a third reference point – society.

Projecting the Voice

Aware that their work will have many audiences, those involved took the opportunity to project their truth across the prison wall, and back to the civilian society they find so difficult to be part of. Telling us of the struggles of routine tasks which were done for them in the military, and of how civilians had asked them questions about their deployments, urging them to confess of the violence they may have experienced and indeed committed. They tell us how they had felt betrayed by the state, and how it has included and excluded them for violence. As an audience we hear of the importance of using your weapon, the fitness, the safety, and the difficulty to adjust to civilian norms and law. They tell us of bullying and of how they were discharged (through a letter). Their voices, and the parts of their bodies which they chose to share (such as their eyes and tattoos), a sort of performativity depicting the gaze and the marks of their experience of both state institutions.

2018

As 2018 draws ever closer, these insights are of growing importance. It is a year which marks the end of the centenary of World War 1 (1914-1918); twenty years since Ruth Jamieson (1998) published her seminal chapter ‘Towards Criminology of War’, urging us to consider the complex connection between war and crime; and ten years since National Association of Probation Officers report made national news with their claims about the prevalence of veterans serving a sentence in prison or in the community in England and Wales. Each serving as important reference points for the study of war within criminology. Taken together, these three milestones reveal how war, its violence and its affect are represented, reproduced, and imagined in way which ask us to question the distinction between military and civilian life, connections, and distinctions between total institutions such as the prison, and the military – and the liminality of the ‘veteran offender’ upon such thresholds.

Arts with Veterans in Custody?

Which brings us back to our questions. We hope to have demonstrated the potential of this form of engagement with veterans to unearth some of the most complex understanding of the experience of conflict and conviction, those that can hardly be expressed through language. When veterans collaborate with artists in this way, affective understandings of themselves can be harnessed and reproduced through creative practices which are inclusive and participatory. In art we see the capacity to produce culture- rather than just express it – where culture is intended to be that which connects human beings. When veterans collaborate in such projects, they tell more than their story, they also ask their audience to interrogate their own schemes of intelligibility.

 

References

Degenhardt, T. (2010) ‘Representing War as Punishment in the War on Terror’, International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory, 3 (1): 343-358.

Jamieson, R (1998) ‘Towards a Criminology of War’ in Vincenzo, R; South, N & Taylor, I. (Eds) The New European Criminology, Crime and social order in Europe London: Routledge.

Loader, I, and Percy, S (2012) ‘Bringing the ‘Outside’ In and the ‘Inside’ Out: Crossing the Criminology /IR divide’ Global Crime 13: 213

Murray, E. (2016) ‘The Veteran Offender: A Governmental Project in England and Wales’, in McGarry, R & Walklate, S. (Eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Crime and War. Palgrave MacMillan.

Treadwell, J. (2016) ‘The Forces in The Firing Line? Social Policy and the ‘Acceptable Face’ of Violent Criminality’, in McGarry, R & Walklate, S. (Eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Crime and War. Palgrave MacMillan.

 

[1] The Separate System (2017) Katie Davies with Andy, Billy, Callum, Danny, Gaz, Gaz, Jay, Jonno, Mark, Mark, Paul, Rob and Trevor. Commissioned and produced by FACT. Supported by the Armed Forces Covenant Fund and Paul Hamlyn Foundation. With thanks to HMP Altcourse and HMP Liverpool. Available at https://vimeo.com/228801873

[2] The Separate System (2017) video still, © Katie Davies, commissioned and produced by FACT, supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation, all rights reserved

Contact

Emma Murray, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice, Liverpool John Moores University  E.T.Murray@ljmu.ac.uk, @Emma_T_Murray

Website: https://www.omva.co.uk/

Teresa Degenhardt, Queen’s University Belfast t.degenhardt@qub.ac.uk

Copyright free images: from the authors.