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Should You Ever Happen to Find Yourself in SOLITARY

Saturday, November 17, 2012     10:45 am



The New York Institute for the Humanities and the Institute for Public Knowledge
at New York University present


Should You Ever Happen to Find Yourself in
SOLITARY:  Wry Fancies & Stark Realities


An All-Day Wonder Cabinet and Symposium


10:45 a.m. till 8:00 p.m.


NYU’s Cantor Film Center
36 E. 8th St. (off University Place)
Free & Open to the Public



Gradually, almost without anyone’s even having taken notice, the United States has become one of the most frequent and extensive practitioners of solitary confinement anywhere in the world, at any time in history. The Vera Institute of Justice puts the number of individuals being held in this manner, according to many experts a harrowing form of torture in and of itself, at over 80,000 (based on figures from 2005, one of the most recent years for which we have reliable information). According to Solitary Watch, “far from a last resort used for the ‘worst of the worst,’ solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort in many prisons and jails.” (New York City’s Rikers Island alone has 990 isolation cells.) “Today inmates can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders, or using profanity. Thousands of prisoners are held in solitary because they have been named as gang members by other inmates who are rewarded for their information. Others have ended up in solitary because they have untreated mental illnesses, are children in need of ‘protection,’ are gay or transgender, are Muslim, have unsavory political beliefs, or report rape or abuse by prison officials.”


For this public program, the latest in an annual series of all-day Wonder Cabinets, the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, teaming up this time with NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, will initially approach the issue, as is its perennial wont, from a sort of slant, with “Dreams of Solitaire.” Starting at 10:45 in the morning, we will ask eminent individuals from a variety of disciplines to imagine how they might endeavor to keep from going crazy were they ever to find themselves condemned to such a terrible fate. Around 3:00 pm, we will pivot so as to hear from a quartet of people who actually have spent extended periods of time in solitary confinement (it turns out that most of the fantasies we have of the sorts of things we might do to keep from crumpling under the pressure are of little use in real life). And in the final session, at 5:30 pm, The Scandal of Solitary in the United States Today, we’ll hear about the philosophical, human rights, and legal implications of the appalling surfeit of solitary confinement currently characterizing the American prison regime, with an eye to what we as an engaged body politic might want to do to remedy the situation.







I.   Dreams of Solitaire


10:45 am – 12:00 pm
Introduction by Lawrence Weschler
Playwright Tony Kushner
Poet and translator Alastair Reid
Author and memory champion Joshua Foer


12:00 – 1:00 pm
Biologist at bay Stuart Firestein
Insect photographer Catherine Chalmers
Digital visionary Carl Skelton
Video of mathematician/musician Vi Hart


1:30 – 2:45 pm
film and sound editor Walter Murch
“identity correction” activist duo The Yes Men
artist and money crumpler Dan Tague
avant garde mosaicist Samantha Holmes
monologist Mike Daisey




II.   Four Who Have Actually Spent Time


3:00 – 5:15 pm
Breyten Breytenbach
The renowned Afrikaner poet and painter and human rights activist who
spent seven years in South African prisons for his anti-apartheid activities,
as chronicled in his memoir The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist


Shane Bauer
One of the three Americans hikers captured and held last year on the
Iranian border, who spent four months in solitary before his eventual release, after which
he covered conditions at California’s notorious Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison
for Mother Jones (he will be represented by a short film made on that assignment)


Robert Hillary King
Only freed member of the Angola 3, a former Black Panther who spent 29
of his 31 years at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison in solitary confinement,
most of that time on charges from which he was eventually exonerated


Tim Blunk
Who spent seven years in solitary for exposing an FBI sting operation while
serving thirteen years in prison for his role in the Resistance Conspiracy case




III.   The Scandal of Solitary in the United States Today


5:30 – 8:00 pm
Lisa Guenther
a philosopher from Vanderbilt Univ., who will draw on ideas developed in her forthcoming
book, Social Death and its Afterlives: A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement


Juan E. Méndez
the celebrated human rights lawyer who himself suffered a harrowing stint in solitary
during the Dirty Wars in his Argentine homeland, who will put the U.S. situation in a
wider international context from his perch as the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and
other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment


Scarlet S. Kim
one of the co-authors of the recent New York Civil Liberties Union report
“Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons”



(in order of their presentations)



Tony Kushner received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his two-part play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Other plays include Caroline, or Change (a musical, 2002), his translation of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children (2006), and most recently, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to Scripture (2009). He coauthored the screenplay to Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich, and has now provided the screenplay for Spielberg’s latest film Lincoln.


Alastair Reid, a splendid poet, travel chronicler, and essayist in his own right, long associated with The New Yorker (see his collections WhereaboutsOutside In, and Inside Out), is also one of the foremost translators of the work of both Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. The current poem, “The Thousand and One Nights” by the late Mexican poet Juan Carvajal, formed one of a sequence of poems by various English and Spanish language favorites of theirs that Reid co-translated with a Mexican collaborator, Pura López Colomé, published last year in a bilingual edition as Resonancia/Resonance.


Joshua Foer is a science journalist and the author of the international best-seller Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. An acolyte of the 17th century wondercabinetman Athanasius Kircher, he is the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura,an online guide to the world’s wonders and curiosities, and the design competition Sukkah City. His next book will be about pygmies.


Stuart Firestein is the Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences where his colleagues and he study the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. His book Ignorance: How it Drives Science, was just published by Oxford University Press.


Catherine Chalmers holds a B.S. in Engineering from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in Painting from the Royal College of Art in London. She has been featured on PBS, CNN, NPR, and the BBC. Over the past several years, she has spent a lot of time hanging out with insects, culminating in two remarkable books of immaculately staged photography, Food Chain (2000) and American Cockroach (2004).


Carl Skelton, development leader at Betaville, an innovative open-source program aimed at tackling contemporary urban issues, works more generally in fields bridging the arts, design, technology, and community engagement, from serving as a neighborhood association president in his native Toronto, to building new integrated digital media programs in Brooklyn and large public works of art in the physical world.


Vi Hart (represented here by one of her videos) is a polymathematician and musician, whose remarkably entertaining short videos on everything from mathematical doodling to balloon and bead and paper work, and on to music and a whole lot more, have been featured on her blog She recently joined forces with the Khan Academy. One of her biggest fans, Carl Skelton’s nine-year-old daughter Pearl Selvo Skelton, will help lead us through Vi Hart’s explication of hexaflexagons.


Walter Murch, one of the world’s foremost film and sound editors (JuliaApocalypse Now, the Godfather movies, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, Jarhead, etc.) is the author of the editing world bible In the Blink of an Eye and also, just out, an adapted translation of feverish and lyrical passages from the work of the endlessly complicated Italian journalist-chronicler Curzio Malaparte, The Bird That Swallowed Its Cage.

The Yes Men
, the culture-jamming political activist collective originally formed and still led by Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos and now comprising over 300 co-conspirators, will be represented at today’s event by Mr Servin, aka Andy Bichlbaum. Mr Servin got his start as an activist when, as a computer programmer, he inserted a swarm of kissing boys in a shoot-’em-up video game just before it shipped to store shelves, and found himself fired, famous, and freshly launched into his new vocation. Now, he helps run the Yes Lab for Creative Activism at New York University. Joining him today is Mary Notari, co-runner of the Yes Lab and actor hopefully appearing in the The Yes Men’s newest film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, which is currently fundraising by way of
Dan Tague is a politically engaged artist, based in New Orleans, whose home was destroyed by Katrina, all belongings lost. In the storm’s wake, he began working with whatever was at hand, notably across a series of revelatory chewing-gum-wad-squashed American dollar bills, which were featured as spot art throughout the New Yorker’s recent October 8, 2012 Money issue.
Samantha Holmes is an artist based in New York and Ravenna, Italy who focuses on conceptual and material experimentation in the medium of mosaic. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the ARTPLAY Design Center (Moscow), the Moti Hasson Gallery (New York), and the International Festival of Contemporary Mosaic (Ravenna).
Mike Daisey is an internationally celebrated monologist, author, actor and raconteur, whose monologues, since 1997, have covered topics as varied as Nikola Tesla, L. Ron Hubbard, Bertolt Brecht, PT Barnum, the Cold War, globalization, and the New York City Transit system. His latest include The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which brought much needed attention to the depredations involved in Apple’s Chinese supply chain, and now, American Utopias, which blends accounts of Burning Man, Disney World, and Zuccotti Park.



Breyten Breytenbach, the eminent exiled South African Afrikaans-language poet, essayist and painter, returned incognito to his homeland as an anti-apartheid activist in 1975, was captured and spent the next seven years in regime prisons, much of that time in solitary. His account of those travails can be found in his books The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist and the novel Mouroir. Other more recent books include All One Horse, Notes From the Middle World and the forthcoming Catastrophes.


Shane Bauer, an award winning photographer and investigative journalist, was held hostage in Iran, along with his wife Sarah Shroud and his friend Josh Fattal, from 2009 through 2011, part of that time in solitary. Returning to the US, he recently completed a report for Mother Jones on conditions at the Pelican Bay Super-Max prison in California, where, he asserts, conditions in solitary are even more dire than those he faced in Iran.  “No Way Out” theMother Jones video being screened here, was supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, and will be introduced by Mr. Bauer’s collaborator on the project, co-producer, cameraman, and editor James West.  “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I went Inside America’s Prisons.” (Mother Jones, Nov/Dec. 2012)
Robert Hillary King is a former member of the Black Panther Party who spent 32 years in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, 29 of those in solitary confinement, for a crime regarding which he was subsequently exonerated. The only one of the so-called Angola 3 to have thus far been released (in 2001), he recorded his experiences in a searing autobiography, From the Bottom of the Heap.


Tim Blunk served over 13 years in some of America’s most notorious prisons for his activism in resistance to US involvement in Central America, Southern Africa and the Middle East during the 1980s, including seven years in solitary confinement in USP Marion. His case was recognized and documented by both Amnesty International and US Human Rights Watch. In prison, he wrote extensively and taught himself jazz saxophone. Released in 1997, Tim became the director of a nonprofit art gallery and performance space in northern New Jersey and authored an as-yet unproduced screenplay based on his prison experiences.



Lisa Guenther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, from where she facilitates a weekly philosophy discussion group with prisoners on Tennessee’s death row. Her phenomenological exploration, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives, is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press.


Juan E. Méndez has been the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment since November 2010. An Argentinian lawyer who was himself imprisoned and subjected to all manner of horrors at the hands of that country’s junta during the Dirty Wars, he went on to work with Human Rights Watch in Washington and New York from 1982 to 1996, after which he became president of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), concurrent with which he was Kofi Annan’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (2004 to 2007). Between 2000 and 2003 he was a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, and served as its President in 2002. He has taught law at Oxford, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and now at the American University in Washington; and is the author (with Marjorie Wentworth) of Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights.


Scarlet S. Kim, who earned her J.D. from Yale Law School in 2011, is the co-author (with Taylor Pendergrass) of the recent NYCLU report “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons,” which documents the use of solitary confinement in New York State. She completed the project while a Gruber Fellow in Global Justice at the New York Civil Liberties Union, and is currently clerking in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.



Lawrence Weschler, co-convener and host of today’s event, will be leaving the directorship of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, following twelve years in the post, this coming summer. Prior to that he was a staff writer at the New Yorker (1981-2001). His over a dozen books include several volumes of political reportage, including The Passion of Poland(1983), A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (1990); Calamities of Exile (1998), which includes his profile of Breyten Breytenbach; Vermeer in Bosnia (2004); and nowUncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (2011), which includes a piece on Walter Murch.



The Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK) brings theoretically serious scholarship to bear on major public issues. Located at NYU, it nurtures collaboration among social researchers in New York and around the world. It builds bridges between university-based researchers and organizations pursuing practical action. It supports communication between researchers and broader publics. And it examines transformations in the public sphere, social science, and the university as a social institution as these change the conditions for public knowledge. For additional information, and to join IPK’s mailing list, visit


The New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU was established in 1976 to promote the exchange of ideas between academics, professionals, politicians, diplomats, writers, journalists, musicians, painters, and other artists in New York City—and between all of them and the city. It currently comprises 220 fellows. Throughout the year, the NYIH organizes numerous public events, including conferences, symposia, readings, and performances. For further information, visit or contact or 212.998.2101. Director: Lawrence Weschler / Assoc. Director: Stephanie Steiker


Saturday, November 17, 2012
10:45 am-8:30 pm
Event Category:
New York Institute for the Humanities


Cantor Film Center
36 East 8th Street, new york city, 10003 United States
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