Beneath the Floor

Essay for the exhibition catalogue Mary Jo Bole: Purge Incomplete
Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, 2009


Beneath the floors of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a complex system of plumbing, a vast network of lead pipes, cisterns, and sewers that was an innovation of engineering when constructed. While commonplace today, this modern plumbing was part of early-nineteenth-century reformatory efforts that used architecture to influence human behavior. Built in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was the first of more than 300 prisons constructed in the United States to feature a radial plan and to use solitary confinement to rehabilitate prisoners. The Separate system prison was built with an underlying theory that if inmates lived in single cells and performed daily activities in isolation—sleeping, exercising, eating—they would become penitent and thus reformed of their wrongdoing. Each cell was equipped with a small skylight, reminding inmates of the religious basis from which purification came. Designed by John Haviland, the Separate system—like the panopticon, developed some forty-five years earlier—relied on architecture to affect inmate activities. Silence or penance was the primary agent for reform in this building, and with this system plumbing design was integral.

Today, Eastern State Penitentiary is a historic landmark and museum with site-specific works by contemporary artists. Mary Jo Bole’s installation Purge Incomplete, located inside two opposing cells, investigates the intersections of architecture, psychology, and human behavior with particular attention to the prison’s plumbing. Bole’s research focuses on the cast iron, hopper-style toilets and “soil” or “filth” pipes used to prevent inmates from making noise and communicating between cells. While the toilet and plumbing design was progressive and a first for institutional facilities worldwide—indeed, even President Andrew Jackson did not have a toilet at the time—their dual role as both plumbing and mechanism for silencing and controlling inmates simply proved unworkable. The soil pipes were often blocked and completely filled because of inadequate water supply and pressure. As a result filth would accrue in the pipes, leaving the institution, inmates, and guards steeped in extraordinary stench. Bole found this inexplicably strange.

In preparation for this installation she produced seven drawings. But these drawings are more than her layout for the installation. They are thoughtful ruminations and in-depth notes, forms of free association that chronicle the basis of harsh conditions faced by inmates at Eastern State. Purge Incomplete is a series of replicated hopper-style toilets made with frosted, colorless blown glass connected with casts of soil pipes molded from a burnt-yellowish polyurethane resin, dimly illuminated and symbolizing the resonant odors. It includes salvaged prison doors made of wood covered by Bole with intricate drawings and traces of original plumbing decals. The doors contain sketches of cell interiors, cross-sections of plumbing networks, schematics of “odor dissipation,” bits of insight about drain “sabotage,” logos of fixture supply companies, and images of various types of correctional facility toilets. Similar images and information adorn Bole’s work History of Penal Institution Sanitation, a ceramic sink like those found in prisons in the United States. The decals on the sink are quotations, photographs, logos, sales manuals, and newspaper texts that tell two distinct histories of the companies that make plumbing fixtures and the inmates who use them. The sink does not have faucets. The user cannot turn it on and off. In fact, History of Penal Institution Sanitation symbolizes the intricate mechanisms of institutional authority; water was released from sinks only at certain times and only at the will of some invisible authority.

The unique narratives in Mary Jo Bole’s installation Purge Incomplete reveal the forgotten slices of history and the extraordinary efforts taken to control social behavior with the soil pipe network in Eastern State Penitentiary. The unsanitary conditions that resulted from flawed engineering are just minor consequences in the ongoing and persistent efforts of the vast legacy of penal system reform that physically and psychologically continues to make human beings into subjects.

PDF available here.