An Oubliette, so I’m told by the word panel on the wall of the museum comes from oublier, the French for ‘to forget’. The Oubliette is a particularly harsh form of punishment where a prisoner is left to die, rather than be efficiently executed by noose or guillotine. Death without food or water would come within a few days - but it could take as long as two weeks to die if you could find a way to drink condensation and cave water.
An extreme, unforgettable image.
Although ‘forget’ is somewhere in the etymology of the Oubliette, that you have someone starving to death at the bottom of your building would be anything else but forgettable for the jailer; the continuous stench of rotting flesh and mounting sewage would be an instant reminder each time you entered the caves. I imagine a slow and painful death also wouldn’t be silent, the cries bouncing and echoing around the passage of caves, transmitting the images of pain from the prisoner to the jailer.
At Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice the Oubliette runs vertically, and as far as I understand this is the style of the Oubliette - imagine a deep bulbous vase shape set into the floor of a cave. You can see down to the bottom of the Oubliette through a small hatch with metal bars.
The Oubliette is positioned below a cave with a ceiling high enough in which it is possible to walk around unobstructed. This central cave leads back to a network of tunnels that eventually lead upstairs to the main court room. This central cave is also well-finished by comparison with all rubble removed. It looks like it has had part of it smoothed away by water rather than chipped away by hand; this kind of interior style choice makes the cave ever so slightly more pleasant than either the Oubliette cave below or the other prison cave that runs horizontally passage-like from the central cave further into the rock.
The horizontal cave runs for five meters or so until its low roof forms a curved dome shape down to the floor. An entirely different sense is gained from the horizontal cave: the weight of the roof feels like it is straining on the shallow slope of the walls. Rubble and debris from the cave's creation still linger in the corner, giving the whole thing an unsteady look.
The Oubliette probably gives the sense of being trapped down (you can’t actually gain access to it at the moment, so I’m assuming), the other horizontal cave gives the sense of being held back. Perhaps the difference in the amount of potential energy an object has in these positions - to the side or below - makes a difference to the prisoners’ status. If an object has to move laterally less energy is needed as it doesn’t work so hard against gravity. The status of a prisoner might be informed by this position of potential energy; a prisoner likely to do a lot of damage physically or psychologically is held down in an Oubliette or in solitary confinement, i.e. Charles Bronson, or Julian Assange to some extent (although not technically ’in prison’). Protesters and football fans are held back, but again not technically imprisoned - they are further up the social status than the man at the bottom of the Oubliette.
Charles Bronson is a maker of strong images that are dependent on being locked up; he is co-dependant on prison for his, for want of a better word, creativity. Recently he was said to have covered himself in butter so he couldn’t be caught by the 12 prison guards wearing riot gear that he attacked. Try and forget that image if you will.
Charles Bronson’s plain desire to be remembered is exactly counter to the role of the prison - your debt to society is paid through time away from that society, that being temporarily forgotten allows the ‘good’ people to get on with normal life uninterrupted.
The only thing that this misses is that jail is a community in and of itself, with rules structures and hierarchies. There are limited options for making strong images in jail - you can be worse than the other people in the community around you, to be harder, meaner, more brutal, these are the only images that transmit outside of jail, often these details are leaked through letters from a prisoner to a friend on the outside, acting like an unofficial press officer. The other options that are regularly present are that of the jail transvestite and paintings by notorious criminals - a subversion of the harder, meaner, more brutal theme.
I’m most interested in the sculptural possibilities of these various prison shapes and the physiological impact that these spaces can have: I am imagining an Oubliette at 45 degrees would have very subtle differences and psychological pressures to the existing ones at 90 or 180 degrees. If the horizontal cave was simply wedge shaped, narrowing to nothing, what would that feel like? Or if the vertical Oubliette had a single shaft of light, what would happen there? If there was a hole to the outside world, with a bit or work might give you enough space to escape how would that then feel?
Another potential scenario that may have swept through the jailer’s mind at some point - it wouldn’t take much for the central cave also to be turned into an accidental Oubliette with one nicely placed rock fall. At this point you’d need the help of the other prisoners to escape, and the sense of the power balance would completely changed. You’d hope not to be forgotten by your co-workers.
Other various oppressive possibilities in which the psychology of the space changes: perhaps in one such Oubliette the cave would be a smooth, hollow ring in which a prisoner is continuously chased by a machine that perfectly fills floor to ceiling.
The sense of not knowing where you are, neither room, nor passage, could heighten the drama. There could be a pitch black Oubliette that rotates 360 degrees, forcing the prisoner to constantly move, to counter the changing pitch of the cave, the potential energy/status of the prisoner would constantly change. Various 360 Oubliettes could be made so that the angle of the Oubliette is in exact proportion to the crime - petty theft at 1 degree, murder at 180 degrees.
All this is perhaps to press home that prison is a very performative, theatrical act developed by societies past to reassure the masses, protect private property, the state, the status quo, and so on.
In this prison museum, the magistrates' court is very literally above the complex of caves and prison rooms, and therefore being sent ‘down’ is exactly that - down some steps from the middle of the wood-clad court room.
Up/Heaven, Down/Hell. Up becoming good, down becoming worse.
Why would you need to starve to death when you could be hung? The only benefit is providing others with a strong image that they might also suffer the same consequence if they take the same actions. It is unmistakable image creation of an image and a direction - you’ll go down.
One quirk of the English language which I think is worth drawing attention to here is that of putting movement and locations on things. This might be useful in a euphemistic sense - one can have a dog ‘put down’, or we can repress fears to the ‘back of our mind’; we might talk about a ‘gut instinct’ - somehow being down there makes it more honest -, or we might talk in the way of recovery after hitting ‘rock bottom’. Each example produces a more fully-formed image in our minds, making it more memorable and easier to picture.
This placing images and feelings in a physiological space forms the basis of a trick used by magicians to remember a whole deck of cards; it consists of each card being made into an equivalent image, which is made into a story. For instance if we wanted to remember a series of four cards we could say that ‘A big elephant (Ace of Spaces)'s footprint (four of Spades) holds nine lovely (nine of Hearts) Queens (Queen of heart)’.
A big elephant’s footprint holds nine lovely queens
Ace of Spades, Four of Spades, Nine of Hearts, Queen of Hearts
The first is far more easy to remember as it forms a story, no matter how abstract, and it is quite conceivable that you’d remember most of that first sentence in a months time, even after just one read.
With a little practise of this mnemonic spatial placing of images can be used to remember a whole deck of cards built from things that have nothing to do with each other simply because they form a series of strong images in the mind. For seasoned card magicians, inventing this other language of images is as strong as the real language of the cards. The world record is below one minute to remember a whole deck of cards in order.
I’m intrigued as to what other combinations of spatial image associations could be made and if they could be used for more adventurous mental activities. Doing a trick to impress friends or in a competition seems like a fine way to spend your hours in prison or at home, but surely with this much possibility there must be other uses.
If I were a brave political prisoner, I’d use the time in the ‘forgetting’ chamber to remember the days before as vividly as possible - the smells, the sounds, the people, the feelings - and the next day I’d go back one further day until I’d un-forgotten days and days of my life, until I’d done my time again.
Now, without looking up the page, what cards am I holding in my hand? Don't tell me now, tell me when we next meet.
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