Exhibit: ‘Shortening: Making Irrational Rational’ on Alcatraz

As the most famous prison in American history, the Island of Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s prime historical tourist attractions.  It also occasionally serves as an art exhibit space. Its next offering might reopen the closed prison and Nationals Parks landmark for crimes of pretentiousness.

Come mid-July, the National Park Service will offer Alcatraz as gallery space for Nelson Saiers and his installation, “Shortening: Making Irrational Rational.” The Rock will offers its New Industries Building for the display until January of 2017.

Also: Exhibit | ‘Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty’ at MoMA, New York

For this show, artist and mathematician Saiers will use properties of the number Pi, prison buzz words and NFL football jerseys to make his statement on the “irrationally” long prison sentences given for minor, nonviolent drug offenses and the need to shorten those sentences. Folks are left to wonder if Saiers or any loved one of his has ever been robbed or otherwise violated by such “non-violent” criminals. I’ll opt for “no.” Crimes evidently only hurt people if blood is shed.

Inmates refer to a long, double digit year sentence as doing “a football number.” So, this installation will show the first 200 digits of the mathematical concept of PI (…A constant representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter…) on 100 NFL football jerseys. With the number of NFL players constantly in trouble with the law, I wonder why Saiers didn’t just ask the wearers of those jersey to take up residence on The Rock for a while.

Pi and its relationship to a circle was chosen to represent the cyclical nature of poverty and crime. According to the promotional commentary for Saiers’ concept, the jerseys will be “hung out to dry” on hemp line with clothes pins. There’s no word on whether Saiers and his elitist friends will smoke said line over a glass of buttery Cab’ once they’re done patting each other on the back for their enlightened take on criminal justice.




The statement on the show describes Alcatraz as “an inescapable island designed to imprison military and federal convicts. It was viewed as a place that would protect us from villains who would not abide by society’s laws.”

That’s fair enough. But, the smug and self-righteous never know when to quit: “Unfortunately, today’s highly privatized and oversubscribed prison system imprisons many for durations that are disproportionate to the crimes they have committed. Most of these are not career criminals but often people with few options who made bad decisions—after becoming felons, they often have no options and the cycle continues.”

There’s no law enforcement or public defender advocacy experts quoted or any statistics listed in the preview statement. It also ignores studies demonstrating how moral codes and upbringing determine criminal behavior, not material possessions or income. In fact, the use of NFL jerseys is an odd choice by Saiers as pro athletes offer evidence countering his thesis. The league’s constant criminal scandals with men earning millions would indicate the removal of poverty doesn’t prevent crime. So, why does its presence guarantee it.

Obviously, the artist and those inviting his work aren’t interested in challenging data. It would require all of five minutes online to find opposing evidence refuting the entire point of the exhibit. I’d expect more from a mathematician. But, objective analysis often gets in the way of activism. 

As for considering the fates of these poor, sad and misguided prisoners, perhaps we could peer into the Alcatraz history books for examples. Let’s all have a weep for murderer and kidnapper Doc Barker, multi-murdering psychopath Whitey Bulger, bullet-spewing gangster Machine Gun Kelly, the two-time killer Bird Man and the misunderstood mass murderer that was little Al Capone.

There are countless people in the world who suffer tragedy through no faults of their own. Art can commemorate such unfair suffering. The people represented in this NFL jersey nonsense chose to steal their piece of the Pi. I’ll weep later. Much later.