Inventions in camps and prisons

Thursday 10th June, 2021 - 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.


Today’s links

* 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:

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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

Guy” DeVilla