ESP – The Eastern State Penitentiary

Oops, jumped too far forward. I haven’t finished talking about the trip to Philly.

Continuing the tour of strange museums of Philadelphia we come to the Eastern States Penitentiary.

I first heard of this space when Alan Wexler gave his first lecture at CCA. He was chosen to create a project for Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site/The Prison as Subject in 1995 at the Eastern State Penitentiary – where he created a huge range of the artifacts for use in the space (books, paintbrushes, pigments,etc.) by dismantling and re-assembling things that were provided for his maintenance (paper cups and plates, napkins, etc.). I remember it seeming like a strange mix of Gilligan’s Island, Angkor Wat and every POW movie I’ve ever seen.

Enlightenment gothic!

The textures that have been retained, fostered, restored are amazing! It’s almost like coral in places.

Stairway to heaven?

And close up its Rauschenberg meets Kiefer (maybe).




You can’t NOT think about what human suffering sweat and talk has percolated through these walls to leave such stains.

Say goodbye for two years of solitary...

Some of the long abandoned cells have a grandeur about them. This one still has remnants of the urban rainforest that blossomed on this site after it was abandoned in the 70's

Some of the cells have become locations for site specific artworks.

Karen Schmidt's - Cozy. A hand-knit cell-warmer.

Local entomologist Greg Cowper's tribute to a prisoner who displayed his collection of 18 species of butterflies and moths (some quite rare) gathered at the ESP to Dr Henry Skinner in 1889.

Cowper works in the same role at the same institution as Skinner did 200 years ago. He has now collected more than 500 specimens of more than 150 species of insects and invertebrates at ESP which are now displayed in one of the cells.

There's been a long history of art at ESP as you can see from this extraordinary documentation of two inmate's precocious performance art from the 50's.

The ‘official’ caption reads “The meaning of their project has long been forgotten”. I think I’ve found the perfect epitaph!


  1. Gabriel Russo Clothing November 22, 2011 at 12:43 am

    Great story! The bottom photo of the 2 men, looks like they’re holding mini clothing on a clothes line with a cool retro fan blowing. Wonderful photos as well. Thanks for sharing.


    1. That’s exactly what those guys are doing!!
      Now can you tell me why?


  2. Great pictures, Donald–Thanks!


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