The Art of the Shiv

By William Drenttel

A shiv is a weapon crafted from the limited resources of a prisoner’s closed world. Crudely constructed from such things as spoons, shoelaces and upholstery tacks, shivs lie somewhere between the graceful and the grotesque. They’re primitive, too — like outsider art, but produced deep on the inside.

The individual parts that make up a shiv tend to be everyday objects, innocent things furtively reconstituted as lethal weapons. Each design choice is essential, but what’s particularly notable is that shivs, at their core, are not so much evocations of minimalism as they are symbols of survivalism. A shiv is all about masked utility: it’s an innocuous object with improbably toxic intent (whether used to attack others or to protect oneself…).

The shivs shown here, from the collection of designers Chris Kasabach and Vanessa Sica, were confiscated more than twenty years ago from New Jersey’s Rahway Prison (now East Jersey State Penitentiary), a maximum-security facility that houses more than 1,500 inmates serving sentences of twenty-five years to life. The designers saw each shiv in their collection as a piece of evidence, and over time, came to identify a kind of unique design pathology. Their observations are fascinating, as are the artifacts that inspired them and the circumstances surrounding each object’s unique method of manufacture. You’ll never look at a typewriter the same way again.

These artifacts were exhibited at By Design an exhibit sponsored in part by AIGA Pittsburgh and held at the Three Rivers Arts Festival (TRAF) Gallery A catalogue was produced by Chris Kasabach and Vanessa Sica, in collaboration with Brett Yasko, who also did the photography.


~ por Amanda en noviembre 20, 2009.

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