Simone and Max
Dayroom, by Simone and Max, reimagines a secure area in the City County Building.
If you didn’t realize the second floor of the City County Building housed an active youth detention center, you’re not alone. In a new art installation, Madison-based art duo Simone Doing and Max Puchalsky (professionally known as Simone and Max) are hoping to call attention to the fact that nearly 500 young people, some as young as 10 years old, pass through the space each year.
Dayroom I is a room-sized re-creation of Amber Sowards’ Captured, a series of photographs depicting life inside the center that were first exhibited in late 2015 at Madison’s Arts + Literature Laboratory. The installation — which opened at Paoli’s Artisan Gallery on Feb. 24 — is, according to the artists, “an immersive reimagining” of Soward’s photos. Doing and Puchalsky say they were awakened to racial injustices in Dane County after reading the 2012 “Race to Equity” report from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. They wanted to create art that illustrated the realities of the criminal justice system. By placing certain visual elements from the photo series (an exercise ball and wall patterning, for example) into the installation, Simone and Max aim to re-create the experience of captivity for their viewers.
This atmosphere of confinement is highlighted by the claustrophobic nature of the installation space; the “Cooler” is a 10-by-45-foot windowless room originally used as a refrigerator when the building operated as a creamery. “The room is long and narrow; it echoes,” says Ann Orlowski, Artisan Gallery’s assistant director, noting that the venue purposely chooses site-specific work for the space.
Once inside, visitors hear audio interviews of the detained youth, edited to disguise their voices and add a subtle layer of discomfort. They are also encouraged to pick up a View-Master, the well-known children’s toy, loaded with 3-D slides from Captured.
These elements demonstrate the artists’ connection to the op art (short for optical art) movement, which arose in the 1960s, incorporating serial visual patterns and illusions, usually in paintings. Many of the artists were interested in issues of perception: How is it possible for a two-dimensional image to offer the appearance of actual depth or movement? And what does this say about how we see the world? The style faded from the public eye by the end of the decade.
While Simone and Max don’t formally identify as optical artists, they adopt elements from the style while addressing social and political issues in their work. “[Op art] seems like a ripe way to engage metaphorically with ideas we care about,” Puchalsky says. “Many sociopolitical issues are difficult to actually see.”
The artists say they hope that visitors to Dayroom 1 will feel slightly disoriented, as if they are captive in the small room, and generate empathy for the incarcerated youth.
Doing and Puchalsky met in 2005 while attending Verona Area High School. They both attended UW-Madison (Doing earned a bachelor’s in art, and Puchalsky majored in music and political science), and they have worked together numerous times since their 2013 video collaboration, Once Effigy. In addition to a number of Madison installations, their work has been exhibited in Berlin, Istanbul and South Korea, as well as throughout the United States.
Both artists speak to the need for art to be connected to what’s happening in the world. “We have an agenda,” says Puchalsky. “We want to end youth incarceration.”