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Imaginative Speculation: Public Secrets as an Act of Resistance
"Public Secrets" represents the forefront of documentary in the digital age. With heart, soul, brains, guts and elegant design, it confronts the intellectual and political struggle for public accountability and understanding of that most repressed and invisible of social oppressions: women in prison. The epidemic of incarceration sweeping through the United States, is, as "Public Secrets" points out in boldfaced type, “an expression of sovereign power.”

"Public Secrets" unpacks and unsettles sovereign power, crime, punishment, the justice system, the correctional system, and prisons with the voices of women in prison describing their feelings, longings, bodies, desires. "Public Secrets" remaps the relationships between public institutions and the private traumas of incarceration, demonstrating the irrefutable linkages between political institutions, everyday life, and gender. As you immerse yourself in this project, pay close attention to the eye-opening original research offered in interviews, theories, and conceptual ideas.

"Public Secrets" blurs the lines between public and private, inside and outside the prison, theory and practice, digital and analog, the read and the voiced, design and research, mobilizing a fluid exchange between each that asks the user to consider incarceration from multiple shifting perspectives. As one of the headlines states, “inside and outside in-determine each other.” This phrase identifies the major operational trope of "Public Secrets".

"Public Secrets" raises questions of great significance to documentary practice: explanatory models and critical historiography. Although documentary is a media genre most associated with evidence and explanatory models, in its more feature film and televisual forms it has, most recently, defaulted to a linear narrative development based on characters and plot, structures which often marshal melodramatic modes and victims who triumph over adversity.

In the digital realm, documentary has emerged as an archival domain, assembling evidence and indexes but often minimizing argumentation. "Public Secrets" cuts through these two problematics. It circumvents the melodramatic by focusing on the women’s voices and minute descriptions of their daily lives and fantasies as microhistories, all within an explanatory model of reconceptualizing incarceration. It dismantles the compulsion to archive into infinity by assembling materials to advance the necessary and urgent argument that one must rethink prisons from the inside and the outside in a double movement.

As a project marshaling evidence from myriad sources ranging from the voices of the incarcerated to critics analyzing prisons to theoretical discourses from Angela Davis and Giorgio Agamben (to just name a sample), "Public Secrets" visually and conceptually answers many questions posed by critical historiography. Recently, historiography has probed how to create a polyphonic, plural history that rejects linear progression. Critical historiography shifts history from the temporal vector of causality to the spatial vectors of layers, multiple voices, disjunctures. Rather than historical unity, it aims for struggles, conflicts, differences, contestations. Polyvocality replaces great actors and great events.

"Public Secrets" elaborates a polyvocal and heterogeneous historiography of women in prison through design, interface and astutely assembled archival traces. The black and white interface, with bold letters and blocks, suggest the architecture of the prison itself. The blocks on the screen which one can scroll over for more sound, or dig deeper into for more information or ideas, imply that the regime of the visual has been disbanded for an exploration of the conceptual as it takes us to these women in prison. These blocks function as headlines for ideas that shift our preconceptions about prisons and the women in them. The audio of the women’s voices, doubled by the text of their testimony, refuse the image and instead open up the concept of incarceration and the inscription of state power on hearts and minds as a liminal zone between power and feeling.

As we hear the voices of the Linda Candelaria, Judi Ricci,Yavonne Anderson, Linda Rodriguez, Jane Dorotik, we watch the elegant block design of the interface filled with text, instructing us that ideas become material and material things become ideas. "Public Secrets" is a radical intervention into documentary form, critical historiography and political media. One of the text panels sums up the artistic and conceptual depth of the piece: “Imaginative Speculation is Resistance.”

The following questions are meant to spark further discussion of the piece:

1. What strategies and forms does "Public Secrets" invoke to intervene into public consciousness about women in prison?

2. How can we interpret and analyze the mode of historiography mobilized in this piece? How does the interface, design, and structure of "Public Secrets" connect to historiographic explanation?

3. How do the women's prisoner's voices interact with the theoretical and analytical material? What is the effect on the user of scrolling through blocks of text, to go deeper or sideways? Does this constitute a feminist digital interface?

4. How is this piece significant as a piece of political documentary for organizing? For changing our attitudes about incarceration? For bringing us into larger conversations across divides of race, class, gender, crime? For thinking about incarceration within a larger political matrix?
- Patricia Zimmermann, Ithaca College, 01.29.2007