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Contemporary Art Behind Bars: The emblematic Miguelete Jail in Montevideo, Uruguay, is a venue where a past of imprisonment merges with art of the present, creating new forms of expression.

Contemporary art has gone to jail, and it is not trying to escape.

The building in question is definitely a prison, with massive walls, barred windows, small cells, and interminable hallways. But law-breakers are no longer incarcerated here. Now it's a place of freedom--freedom of expression through art.

For 102 years, this fortress in the middle of Montevideo was known as the Miguelete Jail. But on July 27, 2010, the Contemporary Art Space (Espacio de Arte Contemporaneo--EAC) opened its doors with the inauguration of its first phase of reconstruction, including two floors on one of the wings of the former jail. Today, the space houses paintings, artistic installations, and "happenings" in a celebration of culture. And it is on its way to becoming an international reference point for the promotion, study, production, and exhibition of contemporary art.

Miguelete was the first penitentiary in Uruguay. It opened in 1888 during the regime of General Maximo Tajes and was known for a time as the "Preventative and Correctional Jail" before it was renamed the "Detention Establishment of Miguelete Street and Arenal Grande." Modeled after an English prison in Pentonville built in 1840, it had four wings, each with three floors and 30 cells on each floor. When it was first built, it was on the outskirts of the Uruguayan capital, but the city grew in around it over the years.

At the inaugural event, Cecilia Saravia, head of Public and Media Relations for the EAC, explained that Miguelete was considered a model prison focused on rehabilitation through work and that it featured a "panopticon," a place from which all of the rooms could be observed and monitored. She lamented, however, that very little of the history of the jail has been preserved and that it has been difficult to recreate that history. "Some time later, they began to fill the jail with un-convicted prisoners awaiting trials, and as many as nine people were placed in what was meant to be one-person cell. One of the results of this overcrowding was damage-to the building," she said. Between 1985 and 1990, Miguelete functioned as a detention center for delinquent minors as part of the National Institute of Minors (INAME), but then it was finally closed because of the terrible conditions.

The building eventually passed into the hands of the National Culture Office of the Ministry of Education and Culture. After years of disuse, the place was in ruins, inhabited by hundreds of pigeons. Then, several years ago, the EAC project was financed by the Uruguayan government with the support of the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation, and a new venue for art and expression was born. According to Cecilia Saravia, the idea for transforming the jail into a space for art came from former Minister of Education and Culture, Maria Simon, and the National Director of Culture, Hugo Achugar.

The EAC is located in one of the wings of the former jail. Another wing is occupied by the Center for Industrial Design, and the others are not yet being used. The first floor was left just as it was, so the contrast between it and the refurbished space is notable. At the same time, the cell doors and the bars are permanent physical reminders of the past. "The idea is to keep memory alive, and to be intentional about giving new meaning to the jail. The public remembers the past, but can also embrace the way it has made positive, beautiful, interesting things possible," Saravia said.

The original dimensions of the cells, windows, and bars have been maintained, and visitors can also look through a glass into the panopticon and the other wings, which are still in their original state. Saravia emphasized the potential of the place: "This is a way of infusing the space with new meaning. The neighborhood, the city, and the whole country had this memory of the Miguelete Jail with all of its terrible history and the feeling of having a jail in the middle of the city. But now it has become a space for contemporary art, where the State can promote artistic production, the exchange of ideas and proposals, and discussion about art."


The inauguration event included a number of exhibitions, including one collective exhibit called "Delitos de Arte 1" (Art Crimes 1). Fourteen entries were chosen for this exhibit, each with different artistic languages expressed in one of the jail cells in the basement of the building. Meanwhile, the individual exhibits were shown on the first floor. Artists from various backgrounds were selected by a three-person expert jury in an open call process.

One of the cells housed an exhibit called "Como sos tan lindo" (How Come You're so Beautiful) by the Uruguayan artist Paula Delgado who explores the relationship between men and their bodies and the construction of masculinity today, reflecting variations in different cultural contexts. The project is in a video format that includes photographs and interviews of men in different countries.

Uruguayan Paula Giuria and Argentine Ezequiel Steinman presented "Proxi," which brought out the idea of interpersonal space and the social uses of space through the design of a mechanism for many people to coexist in a reduced space--the cell--over a period of time. Then they introduced "Proxi Happening." A "happening" is a physical interactive mechanism, an artistic expression, frequently multi-disciplinary, characterized by the participation of spectators in a situation of personal and intimate proxemics.

In another one of the spaces, the Uruguayan artist Ricardo Lanzarini presented "?Como llegar a las masas?" (How to Reach the Masses?) Lanzini created this piece particularly for the Miguelete space, and the barred windows were a determining factor. He thought about the connections between the jail, the cultural center for art, the artists, and the prisoners, and came to the conclusion that the connection lay in the masses. He imagined how prisoners must have spent many nights thinking of strategies and tactics to raise the stakes and go for it once they were released.


Artists Cristina Casabo, Agueda Dicancro, Lacy Duarte, Magela Ferrero, Nelbia Romero, and Margaret Whyte presented "Mujeres memoriosas" (Memorious Women). In this exhibit, the artists take a self-conscious look at their experience of being women, colored by memories of childhood and daily life.

As part of its first season, the EAC also hosted an international exhibit titled "Post-it City. Ciudades ocasionales," which was created in 2005 and completed its Latin American itinerary in Montevideo. The exhibit presented the new temporary uses of public spaces in European and Latin American cities. The "Post-it City" idea emphasizes urban areas as a space where different uses and situations overlap legitimately in opposition to the growing pressure to homogenize the public space.

The second season for the EAC ran from December 2011 to March 2012 with the presentation of "Delitos de Arte 2" (Art Crimes 2). The rest of the wings and rooms of the jail are expected to be refurbished eventually for other cultural projects in order to create a mega-center for artistic exchange.

People are no longer locked up behind bars in the cells of the Miguelete Jail. What's more: the cries of the captive past have been replaced by an anthem to freedom and to contemporary artistic expression.

Lorena Castellano is a freelance journalist from Uruguay. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Castellano, Lorena
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3URUG
Date:May 1, 2012
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