JOSE ANTONIO VEGA MACOTELA, Intercambio 331 / Time Exchange 331, 2010, a collaborative project in which the artist spied on the ex-lover of an inmate, who in exchange made a boardgame (which is modeled on the prison layout) by arranging his and his current lover’s hair on paper. Courtesy Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles.

Prison Breaks

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A brave and beguiling art project, “Time Divisa” (2006–10) by the Mexico City-based artist José Antonio Vega Macotela, reminds us that art is not mere property or an asset class. It is also a gift that can be unexpected and impossible to value, and demands that we, as recipients, share it with others. Shown at New York’s New Museum in “The Ungovernables,” from February to April, “Time Divisa” features artifacts from Macotela’s interactions with the 365 occupants of the Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico City over the course of four years. These include one prisoner’s immaculately arranged grids of cigarette butts, another inmate’s diagram of his steps over the course of a day, as well as a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, through which an inmate had bored a hole.

Macotela described the project in a 2010 interview with Vice.com: “After becoming friends with some inmates, I proposed a deal to them. I would use an agreed-upon amount of my time to perform tasks for them out in the world at a specific day and hour. At the same time they would do whatever I asked them to do as an artist . . . What they usually want me to do is to literally take their place in the outside world. I’ve visited the tombs of their brothers and said a few words. I’ve asked their fathers for forgiveness. I’ve gone dancing with their mothers. I’ve met their sons and acted as their father for a day. I’ve read a letter out loud to a dying relative in the hospital. One prisoner even asked me to go to his girlfriend’s house and watch her masturbate so that I could describe the scene for him, bit by bit . . . Since we perform our tasks at the same time, a really weird and strong connection gets made between the two of us.”

Believing that our daily lives have been transformed into mind-numbing cycles of work and consumption, Macotela decided that the only way to really experience time itself was to “do time for others.” “Time Divisa’s” resonance derives not from its institutional incarnation, but rather from the real-life network of relationships between Macotela and the prisoners. In his treatise The Gift (1983), American writer and cultural critic Lewis Hyde considers art as both a priceless gift and as a commodity. Yet he states that gifts are unlike commodities, because we do not obtain them through our own effort and we are intended to re-gift them to others, thereby keeping the spirit of the gift in circulation. The exchanges of time and labor embodied in the objects of “Time Divisa” are a perfect illustration of Hyde’s concept, as the artist offers or transfers the gift of creative expression.

An instructive comparison can be drawn to the strategies of artists such as Alighiero Boetti and Vik Muniz, who have each used hired contractors, often from developing countries, to execute their works. Boetti’s iconic textile series “Mappa” (1971–94) is sometimes exhibited alongside photographs of the works’ Afghan and Pakistani artisans. The documentary Waste Land (2010), about Muniz’s “Pictures of Garbage” (2008), spins a heartwarming narrative about the Brazilian recycling workers who helped realize these re-creations of famous paintings, made from trash. Although these stories are compelling, a whiff of exploitation remains in Boetti’s and Muniz’s respective works, and the viewer remains uneasily conscious of the power hierarchies of global politics that enable these art projects.

Macotela takes the relationship with his collaborators a step further by treating them as complete equals; the prisoners’ names are listed as co-authors of the artworks and, according to the artist’s gallery, Steve Turner Contemporary, the works are not for sale because they are “not entirely [Macotela’s] to sell.” Most notably, Macotela’s minimal presentation of “Time Divisa” confers more dignity upon the prisoners than a surfeit of detail would have achieved. One comes away from “Time Divisa” burning with curiosity. What were the artist’s prison collaborators like? What crimes had they committed? What other tasks did the artist request, accept or deny? Which exchanges were the most perilous? Which posed ethical conundrums? Did people cheat? Was the artist ever endangered? Macotela chooses not to indulge tabloid curiosities at the prisoners’ expense, and instead trains our attention on the two acts carried out in the same period of time: one within the prison, the other without.

The artist whose methodology Macotela’s appears closest to is, ironically, Santiago Sierra, known for his hiring of laborers to perform menial and often demeaning tasks in the context of an exhibition. At first, they appear diametrically opposed: “Time Divisa” is practically a humanistic intervention compared to Sierra’s brutal critiques of capitalist exploitation. However, these two artists illuminate two sides of the same coin. While Macotela bestows the temporary gift of creative freedom upon incarcerated individuals in a game-like fashion, Sierra demonstrates that nominally free people remain enslaved, often to a horrifying degree, by contemporary structures of power and money. Perhaps the most resonant gift from these artists is summed up in Hyde’s words: “When we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price.” Together with this knowledge comes a certain degree of responsibility that transcends the mere ownership of property.