Creative Time

About the Project

In May of 2018, Creative Time, in partnership with The Fortune Society, artist Phil Collins, and over 100 collaborators, presented Bring Down The Walls, a three-part public art project which turned an unconventional lens on the prison industrial complex through house music and nightlife. The project consisted of a communal space that functioned as a school by day and dance club by night, as well as a benefit album of classic house tracks re-recorded by formerly incarcerated vocalists and electronic musicians. Bring Down The Walls was free and open to the public each Saturday in May starting May 5 at Firehouse, Engine Company 31, a historic, decommissioned fire station in Lower Manhattan.


Bring Down The Walls pulled into focus the dichotomy between the sense of freedom, unity, and joy ingrained in house music, and the punitive control and violence—physical, mental, and emotional—perpetuated by the U.S. prison system. Set up as a deeply collaborative framework defined by the impulse to meet, listen, and cultivate more comprehensive knowledge about mass incarceration, the project was inspired by the ethos of early house music venues, which often functioned as hubs of political engagement as much as spaces of personal liberation and collective transcendence.


At the heart of Bring Down The Walls was the pairing of knowledge built from research with that which has been gained by experience, including a wide range of views and a focus on prison abolition. Daytime programs were primarily led by people who have experienced the system and those working to change it, drawing powerful new connections on the issues and campaigns around decarceration, immigrant rights, ending cash bail, closing jails and prisons, and improving reentry. By night, this communal space also convened DJs, musicians, performers, and other influential contributors to New York City’s current club scene, acknowledging the history of nightlife as a haven of abandon and temporary relief, in which divisions of race, class, gender, and sexuality are often crossed in unexpected ways.


The unusual connection between house music and incarceration comes from years in which Collins worked with men serving long-term sentences at Sing Sing in New York. Structured around the formation of an unofficial band, sessions repeatedly turned to a canon of dance floor anthems, which were a formative influence for both the band members and Phil. Deepening this personal connection is the historical context, as in 1980s the exponential rise of mass incarceration in the U.S. coincided with the emergence of a new dance sound coming out of the communities disproportionately targeted by regressive criminal justice policies. This experimental electronic music soon took over downtown Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Manchester in England, where Collins grew up, as well as, in quick succession, the rest of the world.


In the artist’s words, “All social interactions are inherently political. Historically, house culture has often been a mode of resistance, opening up new understandings of community and solidarity. Its radical proposition of simply being together offers another way of engaging the conversation around the prison industrial complex, which sentences discriminately and disproportionately, but impacts us all. Even after their release, people remain confined and punished by invisible barriers — physical, emotional, economic. The very real human cost of systemic regressive policies comes sharply into focus through sharing time and space, and in direct exchange with one another.”


Photos by Peter Koloff, Akintola Hanif, and César Martinez (Creative Time’s Leonhardt Cassullo Video Fellow).