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Shortening: Making Irrational Rational - a new art installation opens at Alcatraz
Artist and mathematician Nelson Saiers installed 100 NFL football jerseys in sequence with the digits of Pi in Alcatraz's New Industries Building to weigh in on the "irrationally" long prison sentences given for minor, nonviolent drug offenses. The exhibit is titled "Shortening: Making Irrational Rational."


SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Running through mid-January 2017, the National Park Service and Nelson Saiers—artist and math Ph.D.— present an installation called Shortening: Making Irrational Rational, installed in the New Industries Building at Alcatraz, best known for the historic federal penitentiary and occupation by the Indians of All Tribes. Using 100 NFL football jerseys and a three painted on AstroTurf, the exhibition incorporates properties of the number Pi and prison vernacular, to weigh in on the "irrationally" long prison sentences given for minor, nonviolent drug offenses and the need to shorten those sentences.

Artist Nelson Saiers explains, “In prison, long sentences are often referred to as ‘football numbers’ because the duration in years resembles numbers on a football jersey (or field). An irrational number is one that never ends nor repeats—like the vast majority of numbers, Pi has this property. In contrast, an example of a rational number would be one that has only a finite string of digits like 3.1415. Hence, the number on the football jerseys and AstroTurf that was formed by truncating Pi's infinitely long string of digits down to its first 201 is rational. Hence, by shortening Pi we have turned it from an irrational to rational number and by analogy by shortening these ‘irrationally’ long prison sentences we will be making them ‘rational.’”

The jerseys are attached to hemp line with clothes pins—"hung out to dry"—a nod to society's unfair treatment of these offenders. The green AstroTurf also points to the expression "go on the green carpet," i.e., go to court. The choice of Pi (and its inherent relation to the circle) also points to the cyclical nature of prisons and poverty.

Other elements of the installation are designed to give visitors an opportunity to learn more about this storied venue. The first 200 digits of Pi include the number 85, which is shown on a Chicago Bears’ jersey. It turns out 85 was the prison number of Al Capone who rose to infamy as boss of the famous Chicago Outfit. Native American activism plays an important part of Alcatraz's storied history and one that Saiers chose to highlight by painting over the derogatory word "Redskins" on Washington football jerseys.

Despite being closed for over 50 years, Alcatraz is the most visible and recognizable prison in the USA, attracting media coverage, filmmakers and tourists. Best known as an inescapable island designed to imprison military and federal convicts, “The Rock” was viewed as a place that would protect us from villains who would not abide by society's laws. 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.

Alcatraz has a long tradition of welcoming artists to provoke thought about freedom and incarceration. This exhibition shines a light on the important topic of prison reform.





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