Miao Jiaxin: Jail's Seeking Prisoners

Our critic is locked in a cage, and told to do nothing

By David Everitt Howe

David Everitt Howe takes part in Jail's Seeking Prisoners, 20 August 2014. Courtesy Miao Jiaxin Studio

Is it just me being a pervert (likely), or is Miao Jiaxin’s attic jail project, Jail's Seeking Prisoners (2014), sexually charged? Built to lodge “prisoners” for $1 each per night (with $300 deposit), the jail is sized like a small room, with a cot in the corner and a sink and non-functioning toilet in the opposite end. On arrival I find what is to be my temporary home for this assignment housed in a sunny attic loft. The wider space is well-appointed, with free wifi, a nice bathroom, and a large outdoor deck with stellar views of the city. Initially posted on room rental website Airbnb before they deemed the lodging unfit, the setup is cute and Airbnb-ish, with Miao’s little yellow post-it notes placed around the room reminding guests to close the shower curtains or put the chair back where it belongs, lest it block the view of the webcam, the project’s kinky caveat: lodgers are broadcast live 24/7 – visible even at night due to a light that remains on – and ostensibly monitored by Miao. This isn’t so important most of the time, but between 9am and 12pm it’s essential. During these three hours, guests promise to lock themselves in the cage and do nothing, or else their deposit is forfeited. No cell phone use, no computer use, no yoga, no sleeping, no nothing – whatever nothing means exactly. The hovering question was how one could militate nothingness if everything, even an involuntary eye blink or my dirty neurons firing, was an action.

It was like a John Cage torture room

It was like a John Cage torture room. When I wasn’t staring at my Levi’s rivets and mulling the etymology of denim (de+Nimes=of Nimes=DENIM), inevitably my thoughts turned to dudes and dicks, though I couldn’t do anything about it, even though seemingly every faggot watching had the same thought, even my editors, who live tweeted (see below) things like 'three hours of DEH off the grid. How will we amuse ourselves? How will he amuse himself?' These are situations a penis and would-be porn star are made for! But no, I sat silently, pitching a tent in my de Nimes (not that I didn’t give a free show to Miao the night before, when no one but he was watching).

The whole setup added a voyeuristic distraction to what was otherwise supposed to be a critique of tenuous New York living; for Miao, whose income is supplemented by room rental, Airbnb is literally his economic 'cage'. To me, it was a heavy-handed homage to Tehching Hsieh, which the work too liberally pilfers from. In concept and execution, it bears a striking resemblance to Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1978-1979 (Cage Piece), for which the artist lived in a similar-looking jail cell for one year, a visceral embodiment of the struggles new immigrants encounter in New York. While similar concerns are obvious in Miao’s cage project – Jiaxin is a recent émigré to the United States – the whole thing gets bogged down in airbnb politics and issues of surveillance and social media. Some simplification would go a long way. Being off the grid though was an interesting exercise personally, in that there’s nothing left but you and your thoughts – which can be either amazing, or agonising. Either way, three hours is long enough for boredom to lead to something else entirely.

This article was originally published on artreview.com on 21 August 2014