For his contribution to this volume on Art & Labor, artist Phil America shares a selection of digitally-remastered images of framed flags taken from his series But Let Me Tell You How This Business Began. The title for the series is an excerpt from a book of poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era, by formerly-incarcerated poet Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Phil’s designs for these flags are reimagined advertisements for items that the artist personally encountered while he was in prison. The objects and scenes he depicts are commonly known by people who are incarcerated and include various foods and forms of entertainment, as well as examples of labor that people might be expected to perform while serving their sentences. Many of these references and cues are less familiar to an art world audience. By catapulting this imagery out of the prison context and into the mainstream, Phil challenges us to confront this hidden reality and the financial manipulation that is embedded within the carceral system.
For the purposes of this publication, Phil has embellished the reproductions of his flags with eye-catching text bubbles, mimicking the style of advertisements designed to manipulate the consumer. While normally we would expect these text bubbles to display special offers or quotes about the popularity or efficiency of the showcased products, here they highlight shocking yet widely available information relating to the prison industrial complex, its history, and its current objectives.