on Toshareproject.it - curated by Bruce Sterling
*No matter how difficult life may be as an “artmaker,” there’s always someone else who has it worse.
*This meditation on “adversarial interoperability” is from Cory Doctorow’s “Pluralistic” list.
* Prisoners’ Inventions: The unmissable new edition of a maker classic
for a carceral nation.
* This day in history: 2006, 2011, 2016, 2020
* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current
writing projects, current reading
🕵️ Prisoners’ Inventions
2003’s PRISONERS INVENTIONS is an underground classic, a high-stakes
precursor to MAKE Magazine, combining ingenuity, adversarial
interoperability, and user-centered design. After 13 years out of print,
Half Letter Press published a new, expanded edition.
Prisoners’ Inventions was created by Angelo, a pseudonymous,
long-serving incarcerated American who entered into a collaboration with
the Temporary Services collective, who both published Angelo’s work and
staged multiple gallery showings of his work.
For these shows, museum workers followed Angelo’s finely drafted,
detailed drawings and notes to recreate the inventions he’d documented,
recreating his cell from the floorplans and elevations he’d supplied.
The new edition documents these showings, and the absurd ways that
Angelo experienced them – for example, when a guard discovered a
postcard with a recreation of Angelo’s cell, he was convinced that this
was evidence that someone had smuggled a digital camera into the prison.
So realistic was the reproduction – so precise and faithful were
Angelo’s plans – that the warden took extensive persuading to be
convinced that the digital camera theory was a paranoid guard’s fantasy.
The anaecdote illustrates the core attraction of PRISONERS’ INVENTIONS:
not just that Angelo has a fine, expressive draftsman’s hand, nor that
his accompanying text makes for an economical, shrewdly observed
ethnography of the tools and their users.
But rather that this ingenuity is an act of survival and resistance,
created under harsh conditions where each inventor must create the tools
to fashion the tools – under adversarial conditions where all-powerful
enemies can smash everything and set the makers back to zero.
In some regards, it’s like a for-real version of those neo-neolithic
Youtubers who show how to bootstrap advanced tooling from raw materials.
In others, it’s a physical version of the beloved first-person accounts
of daring feats recounted in the pages of 2600.
This is true adversarial interoperability – treating the environment as
a puzzle and a challenge, to be deconstructed and reconfigured by
toolsmiths for their users’ benefit, overcoming both user-hostile
designs and policing by the original designers’ armed enforcers.
Reading Angelo’s accounts of his fellow toolsmiths’ ingenuity, I was
forcibly reminded of the thrill and dread I experience every time I
re-read James Clavell’s debut novel, KING RAT, a fictionalized account
of his incarceration in the infamous Changi death-camp.
I always lingered over Clavell’s description of the POWs’ ingenuity,
from the contraband radio inside hidden water-bottle compartments that
had to be clipped together when the conspirators gathered to tune into
war news, or how tailors practiced their trade behind the wire.
This is the true hacker mindset, the combination of playfulness, lateral
thinking, user-centered design, and pitting your wits against brutal
authority. It’s part of a lineage that includes classics like STEAL THIS
The illustrations in Steal This Book are strikingly similar to those in
Prisoners’ Inventions, though Angelo’s prose is sharper and less
Equally, Prisoners’ Inventions recalls wartime pamphlets like the famous
MEND AND MAKE DO, with their emphasis on thrift and finding creature
comforts under conditions of indefinite hardship and privation.
Many of the inventions Angelo catalogues are about creating space for
comfort out of miserable conditions. The prisoners who make
greeting-card pigments by scraping ink off magazine ads and mixing it
with body-lotion embrace the Mend and Make Do ethos as much as anyone.
Prisoners’ Inventions deserves a spot on your shelf between your MAKE
Magazines and your copy of PRISON RAMEN, a bridge between those two world.
I long treasured my 2003 copy of the original. Last year, my office
flooded and I lost my whole bottom shelf of books. I salvaged just two:
that 2003 edition and the illustrated history of Dachau my parents gave
me when we visited the camp when I was 12.
Both books recorded prisoners’ resistance, the humanity of caged people
in inhumane circumstances – and both do so from the perspective of the
incarcerated, just as King Rat does. These are powerful stories that
shaped my view of the world and are never far from my mind.
As the new edition’s introduction notes, Angelo died in Dec 2016 in LA,
three years after his release from more than two decades of
incarceration. He was days away from his 73rd birthday.
He spent his brief years of freedom watching and cataloging films he
sourced from thrift stores and other secondary sources, living a quiet
and mostly solitary life.
The new edition is a tribute to Angelo. America continues to incarcerate
more people than any nation in human history.
🕵️ How to get Pluralistic:
Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):
Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):
Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):
Medium (no ads, paywalled):
(Latest Medium column: “The Rent’s Too Damned High,” about the long con
of convincing Americans that they will grow prosperous through housing
wealth, not labor rights
Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and
Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):
“*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla*” -Joey “Accordion