What Art Can Do: The Transformative Work of Sharon Daniel

by Gordy Slack 


The question “What is art?” has inspired and vexed artists and art scholars for thousands of years. But Sharon Daniel, professor of art at UC Santa Cruz, is interested in another, more pressing question: What can art do?   

"I refuse to accept reality as it is," she says. And Daniel’s digital documentary and new media work is devoted to changing it.  Or, rather, she says, to permitting others to change it for themselves. Unlike most artists, whose work involves some sort of representation, Daniel says she is trying hard to steer clear of representation. “I do not want to attempt to speak for others, but to allow them to speak for themselves," she says.  

Professor Sharon Daniel works to give disenfranchised groups, such as women prisoners and shantytown dwellers, access to technology to document their experiences.

Daniel is working to give disenfranchised groups access to electronic tools that can promote self-representation.   Four years ago, while on a two-month residency in Buenos Aires, Daniel undertook a project called Palabras, which means “words” in Spanish. Palabras is both a digital exhibition and a toolkit designed to help disenfranchised communities create sites that will help strengthen them as communities rooted where they are, and also to communicate with the world beyond their borders. Daniel first collaborated with Crear Vale la Pena, a non-profit working with young people who live in “La Cava,” a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. People from that community made short video clips of various aspects of their lives, which they then assembled and organized based on taxonomy that they developed themselves.   

The toolkit that Daniel created included a very simple “disposable” digital video camera that she and her collaborators hacked to allow its reuse, very basic video editing software that allowed users to simply compile and index their videos, and a platform for presenting and archiving their evolving work. “Simplicity was key,” says Daniel. She wanted to keep the threshold for participation low and few of the young people involved had previous digital experience.   

The Palabras site has grown to include about 2000 short videos compiled from the original project in Buenos Aires, with additional footage from communities in Darfur, Sudan, San Francisco, California, and Kiel, Germany.   The Palabras software allows people to easily tag, search, and sequence their footage. Visitors to the piece can use tags to search for clips of relevant material from their own and other communities.   

“I am trying to shift the thrust of my art from something that provides content, to something that provides context,’ Daniel says. But this is not just a theoretical deconstructionist exercise for her. She is driven, she says, as much by her ethical concerns as by her esthetic or intellectual ones.   

Those ethical concerns also led Daniel to the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) Prison in Chowchilla, California’s Central Valley, where she created Public Secrets, a digital work that puts the stories and voices of some of the more than 4,000 women imprisoned there into context, says Daniel.   When she first passed through the gauntlet of gates, guards, and bureaucratic obstacles to visit women in the prison in 2003, she says, “the stories I heard inside challenged all my basic preconceptions of justice, freedom, and responsibility.”   

Public Secrets was a 2007 Webby Awards Official Honoree.

That’s when Daniel launched Public Secrets, an effort to “penetrate the wall of silence surrounding prisons in California,” she says. Unlike the self-made footage archived in Palabras, the voices in Public Secrets were recorded by Daniel herself. Over a period of 5 years, Daniel recorded conversations with prisoners, nearly 600 excerpts of which make up the bulk of the piece.    


The women discuss everything from the mundane aspects of prison life to the economics of what Daniel refers to as the “prison industrial complex.”  The women’s voices and stories open portals of experience into the psychological, theoretical, and ideological realities of the prison. All this is placed in a broader theoretical context, says Daniel.  

But as with Palabras, Daniel is trying not to bring her own agenda to the table: "I am trying not to bring my preconceptions to the project, not to determine what they talk about and what they feel about it."  Some of the stories are grizzly. One woman was incarcerated for a minor offence but her conviction converted to a near-death sentence because of the lack of medical treatment, or even dietary accommodation, for her diabetes. Other women get infections that are improperly treated or left unaddressed until they become life threatening. HIV infection goes undiagnosed and spreads quickly through the common sharing of infected needles. Women who are infected with HIV sometimes hide the fact, because they are ostracized by the community, further increasing the likelihood of infection for others. Treatment offered by the prison is minimal. “No HIV drug cocktails there,” Daniel says.   

Daniel expects, and hopes, that visitors to the project will have the kind of reaction her mother did when faced with the stories these women tell. “My mom considered the prisons a good solution to the social problems of crime and addiction,” Daniel says. “Then I started telling her some of the stories about women going inside for a relatively minor offence and coming out addicted to drugs, having been raped by guards, about the Three Strikes law, what happens to prisoners’ children when they are in there.”  “My mom underwent a kind of conversion experience,” Daniel says.  “That is what I want to have happen,” says Daniel about Public Secrets. “I want people to go to the site and because of what they hear and see there to start to doubt their own assumptions. To start to question what’s really going on.”    

The conversations with women prisoners are displayed as a constantly shifting constellation of voices organized by topic, theory, and speaker. Daniel does not use photos, but rather pieces of each woman’s conversation float across the screen as stylized text.   A visitor to the piece can take an “organic” approach using a “flow view,” where clips are connected through themes and threads and authors. There's a topical interface, too, if you want to do research on a particular topic. If a user chooses a single topic, such as “malpractice,” they get all the statements on that subject.  

The overall effect is disturbing and profound. And it is meant to be. The title, Public Secrets, comes from Daniel’s observation that there are some secrets kept from the public, and there are others, such as the nature of the prison system, that the public chooses to keep from itself. The truth seems too disturbing to be acknowledged, Daniel says. But it must be acknowledged, she continues, if it is ever going to be corrected.

And that is the whole point of her work. She wants us to “rethink the assumptions that lead to social exclusion, to reconsider who the “public” is, or can be, in public art,” she says. And then, based on what we have learned, she wants us to do better.