That You Have the Body: Alix Lambert Interviewed by Signe Swanson

The filmmaker and photographer discusses the return to her work on Russia’s inmates.

Cain Tattoo Artist 2

Photograph from Alix Lambert’s Mark of Cain, 2000. Image courtesy of the artist.

I was introduced to Alix through a friend of mine who thought her work on Russia would interest me. They were right: her archival work on the waning tradition of Russian prison tattooing is stunning. Originally released in 2000 as a documentary film and recently re-distributed as a photobook, The Mark of Cain continues to expose American audiences to a uniquely Russian art form that would have otherwise been lost to time. “Camp tattoos”—images drawn from Russian art and literary history, frequently reproducing Orthodox iconography—allow inmates in some of Russia’s harshest prisons to inscribe the prison’s hierarchical social system onto their own skin. As rigid and permanent as these systems and tattoos may be, Alix’s strength as a documentarian lies in her ability to represent prison life without subordinating the interviews buttressing her project to any singular narrative mission. Her documentary has no narrator, and her book provides no explanations of the pictures contained in it; it’s exactly this unresolved ambiguity that preserves The Mark of Cain’s relevance almost twenty years after its premiere.

—Signe Swanson

27 Lecture Cain 1

Photograph from Alix Lambert’s Mark of Cain, 2000. Image courtesy of the artist.

Signe SwansonIn Scott Macaulay’s introduction to the new Mark of Cain (2018, second edition), you’re quoted as saying that prison tattoos were “a very extensive language … As works of art, they are extraordinary, encapsulating the whole Russian understanding of art, history, and literature.” I’m interested in this distinction between tattoos as art and tattoos as a lexicon of their own. What does it mean for a decorative art form to also act as a language?

Alix LambertYes, I found this especially fascinating. A historical painting may show up on an inmate’s body. In and of itself it might be beautiful and full of an understanding of art history, but by appearing on skin the tattoo accrues a different meaning: one that establishes hierarchies between inmates, while remaining unintelligible to the prison’s guards. The language of the tattoos evolves more rapidly than a traditional language; it resembles slang in this way. This mutability also ensures that the language’s meaning will remain hidden in plain sight. They can communicate with each other silently in front of the authority figures. Where on the body it appears and who is allowed to wear it will tell other inmates much about the wearer. This enmeshing of fine art and utility is a place of ongoing interest for me.  

SSCould you talk a bit about the difference between camp tattoos and decorative tattoos and why it is that camp tattooing died out as Western-influenced tattoos gained popularity?

ALLike you said, all camp tattoos have specific meaning as to crimes committed, status, sentence, personality, and so on. One’s not allowed to have an inaccurate tattoo. If your tattoo indicates that you are a murderer and you are not, severe punishment will be inflicted. It could be cut off of you by others, or you could be killed. The camp tattoos serve as a language that helped establish and keep hierarchal order. As Russia opened up, younger inmates started articulating their position in prison with money: American track suits, clothes, jewelry, and the more aesthetically minded, Western-style tattoos. One prisoner told me that he might go to university one day and he didn’t want to be permanently marked as a criminal. 

Clip from Alix Lambert's The Mark of Cain, 2000. Video courtesy of the artist.

SS It’s interesting how the decline of camp tattooing so closely mirrored the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was a time when all of the newly-formed countries comprising the post-Soviet empire had to reinvent themselves in accordance with the aesthetics of global capital, so it seems only natural that this reinvention of Russian identity would extend to its prison population. What did you notice about the generational differences underlying the decline of camp tattooing and its replacement with a more Western-influenced, non-linguistic form of tattooing?

ALYes, there was a huge divide between the older and younger generations, with older prisoners talking about the younger ones the way a grandparent might talk about music, only they were talking about crime: “There are no good murderers anymore. Now it’s all drugs, drug addicts, and drug dealers.” The older prisoners seemed more invested in establishing their life in prison than in thinking about release and what life outside might be. There was also a refrain I heard often from older prisoners about a code of behavior and remaining human. Understanding and living by this “code of thieves” was important to the older generation. 

SSThough they share subject matter and even some of the same subjects, the experience of watching your documentary feels totally different from the experience of reading the photobook. How did you adapt the film’s capacity to let prisoners speak for themselves to the voiceless pages of a book?

ALI feel like the still images of the inmates are not actually voiceless. The complex language of the tattoos that threads through the film are in the still images as well.

SSMaybe it’s that the expressive gesture isn’t in the narration of the film itself—there is no narrator, but a tapestry of interviews with various prisoners who speak to the same experience of prison community. The tattoos themselves are the language through which this history gets articulated.

ALYes! Of course seeing the film informs the stills, but my background is in both film and still photography, and I am quite interested in the power of a single image to tell a story. I shot many stills while I was filming and always wanted the opportunity to work with them in some way. For me, moving images offer one kind of story: How does it feel to move through the labyrinthian prison hallways? What are the sounds attached to the gruel as it plops into a bowl at meal time? Looking through stills you are afforded more time with a single frame and can really gaze. It asks your imagination to do more, to fill in more, but you also can narrow your focus to a single moment and stay there for as long as you want. 

SSYou say that “the prison system is the main character” in The Mark of Cain. This collapse of space and subject feels referential again to silence, as places don’t speak and prisons dehumanize and silence their inmates. The power of silence in the photo book is striking; its subjects are pictured working, playing cards, posing, and throwing up gang signs, but never talking. How did the task of representing silence play out as you created this new book?

ALI think about silence a lot. Non-verbal communication is at the heart of much of my fine art. In Cain, their tattoos are “speaking” or “saying something” even when they are not. Additionally, this silence mirrored some of my experiences in getting them to open up to me. They were much more inclined to speak when guards were not around, often still in hushed tones. All of us, even when spoken language is not restricted, use non-verbal communication as our primary way of understanding each other. Much of the footage I find most revealing about day-to-day life was silent.

SS Speaking of silence—the re-release of The Mark of Cain has also brought renewed attention to another book you’ve written about Russia, The Silencing (2008). In the same way that mass incarceration continues to plague contemporary Russia, state-sponsored attacks on the country’s marginalized but outspoken independent media outlets continue to restrain the Russian Federation’s purely nominal democracy. Many of the disappeared journalists you write about in The Silencing worked for the political newspaper Novaya Gazeta—which was recently sent a very strange threat: a severed sheep’s head and a funeral bouquet in the mail. Clearly, threats to independent media haven’t abated. Like The Mark of Cain, do you consider The Silencing to be an ongoing project?

AL Yes. I wish I could answer no. The Silencing was published a little over ten years ago and documents the murders of six journalists in Russia. As we’ve seen lately through the sheep’s head threat that you mention, the brutal murder of Jamal Kashoggi, and a long list of journalists silenced since the publication of my book, this is a problem that is swelling, not contracting. Even at the time of making the book, the six I chose were just a sampling of a much bigger problem. Last year the CNN journalist Jim Acosta was denied White House access because the President simply didn’t like his questions. This attack on our free press is dangerous in the extreme.

Markof Cain Coverimage

Photograph from Alix Lambert’s Mark of Cain, 2000. Image courtesy of the artist.

SS In my favorite picture from the new book, a man proudly places his hands on his hips, his chest covered in prison tattoos; he’s wearing shorts printed with American dollar bills all over them. It reminds me of the early part of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, when young Russians expressed hope in their country’s ability to achieve prosperity through integration with global capital and commerce. But it was so much bleaker than that. The picture reminds me of this Russian Pizza Hut commercial from the ’90s in which an entire Pizza Hut franchise erupts into heated debate over whether or not Gorbachev’s laissez-faire attitude towards Soviet decline was justified or not. Capitalism’s arrival in Russia came as a shock, and the aesthetics of consumer culture in the ’90s reflected this trauma. When you first began filming The Mark of Cain, the Russian youth’s faith in a democratic future was already yielding to mass frustration with daily life in an increasingly poor and no less authoritarian state. How did the historical moment in which you began your work in Russia inform the types of images you chose to document?

ALThese shorts were also my favorite example, but there were many: knockoff sports jerseys, Western tracksuits. These were worn by younger inmates, as more material signifiers replaced tattooing as a means of asserting status behind bars. It’s also worth remembering that many inmates who went into prison under communism would be let out under capitalism, with no preparation for how to live in a changed society. The inmate you refer to also has tattoos that do not fall under “camp tattoo”—I believe he has Madonna on one leg. Living in a material world …

SSThis actually brings me to my last question: in the film, one interviewee makes this brilliant comment: “The Zone [the Russian prison system] is a kind of model of the state. Only all of the relationships between people are exaggerated. It remembers a theater of the absurd.” He goes onto suggest that tattooing is this generative performance of identity while still acknowledging its ties to this larger system of senseless and state-sponsored alienation. I would argue that there’s an intimate relationship between extreme alienation and the performance of identity. What can Russian prison tattooing say about this relationship?

AL I was so pleased that that inmate suddenly said the exact thesis that was in my head! “Prison is a model of the state” has certainly been said before, but that was absolutely what I was looking at. I also repeatedly heard from people that their goal while in prison was “to remain human.” When incarcerated, one is left with almost nothing that is within one’s own control. One’s body is a place where one still has it. A general trend toward tattooing behind bars reflects this desire for control; that said, as we’ve already discussed, there are very strict rules around camp tattooing. A regular tattoo, like Madonna on our friend’s leg, is up to his discretion and allows him some individuality within a system that is trying to deny him any. The aesthetic or commercial tattoo intentionally telegraphs your individuality and separates you from others. The camp tattoo, on the other hand, offers a prisoner a passport that records where he has been, what he has done, how much power he has. Yes, a non-camp tattoo might say some of this as well, but you answer only to yourself with this kind of tattoo, you are making no claim to a community.

The second edition of Alix Lambert’s The Mark of Cain is now available on Perceval Press. Lambert’s forthcoming book, Courtroom, will be published by Perceval Press in 2019

Signe Swanson is a writer and translator living in Providence, Rhode Island.

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