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Review: On The Other Side,at FACT Liverpool

On the Other Side is the product of five years of residencies, project development and in depth, personal, storytelling by three exceptionally involved artists. The project, led by FACT Liverpool, invited artists to work within the UK prison system, where they have been working since 2019.

The outcomes are outstandingly human, and share stories of men and women who have lived years of their lives behind bars.

Melanie Crean’s work with military veterans, currently incarcerated at HMP Altcourse in Fazakerley, isn’t just about the process and finished filmed though. It’s the start of a longer form project, supported by LJMU to actively support ex-offenders into higher education.

The project, A Machine to Unmake You, hopes to develop pathways to unmake people made in the military, and provide the tools for them to discover who they are outside of uniforms and institutions.

Art for art’s sake is a distant blur in this exhibition, packed with art that is very much for the sake of rehabilitation and rehumanising its participants. We, as an audience, are just given the chance to see the artists’ workings.

Katrina Palmer’s book, sat discretely at reception, is the work everyone’s talking about from the show. Each page dedicated to one outcome of one workshop, where the artist offered prison officers, alongside inmates, space to respond to three prompts: the space of the page; the door; tomorrow.

The narratives are either brief diaries and reflections on their time in prison, or imagined scenarios based on an image designed to trigger hope. In many cases, the image (of an unnamed man, faced with a closed door) triggers fear, apprehension and anxiety. Prisoners, in particular, seem to gravitate to the fear of leaving this world they know, though some see it not as an exit from the prison, but as an entrance into the dining rooms – hoping for ice cream in place of cardboard food.

The dynamic between the participants and both artists, Katrina Palmer and Melanie Crean seem comfortable through the work they present, but each has spoken honestly about their own anxieties about entering the system, and how much their preconceptions were broken down once they had spent time with, and gotten to know and trust (and be trusted by) the participants.

But if trust was a theme of their work, the visiting artist, Pilvi Takala grinds against the grain, with work showing worrying trends within the Polish prison system in lengthy but essential films. The structure of camaraderie amongst prison guards is a challenge for the safety of prisoners globally, not just in Poland. The fact she was able to have an open dialogue with them about it is astonishing, and a credit to her as a producer and an artist.

Galleries are often limited by exhibition turnarounds and focussed entirely on public-facing work. FACT’s artist development programmes, including the new FACT Labs, are a testament to the power of supporting the production process. These long-form projects not only show the benefit of building a relationship with the artist but also of allowing the artist to build meaningful relationships with their subject.

In this case, very specifically, it also meant that the artists had the chance to know how to present the stories of incarcerated men, without focussing on individual offences or chastising them. Because, while this exhibition is largely about re-building individuals in correctional facilities, it is also about the facilities and structures themselves.

So the work we see is about the institution. The work they did was about the individual. It’s process presented perfectly, and a divisive subject presented with dignity.

On The Other Side is open at FACT Liverpool until 24th June 2024
Read our interview with Melanie Crean from last month’s issue at
Words, Kathryn Wainwright