Studio CNS / Counter Narrative Society

Sensible Housing Unit (SHU)


Tactical Object to Engage Audiences in Critical Dialogue about the Human/Civil Rights Issues of Prison Control Units

06.2008 / On-going

The Sensible Housing Unit (SHU) is a fabric replica of a prison cell and it functions as a portable prototype tactical object to engage audiences in critical dialogue about the human/civil rights issues in prison control units*. The object has been presented at the Lost Coast Culture Machine (2011), University of San Francisco (2009), Mission Cultural Center for the Latino Art (2009) and the Mission Arts Performance Project (2008).

The goal of the Sensible Housing Unit is to share publicly the stories of our brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, neighbors and comrades who have been subjected to the brutal psychological isolation and physical violence in super maximum security prisons.

The project can be presented in collaboration or in coordination with the Society, so if you are a family member, former prisoner, friend, activist, collective, or organization who is facilitating an artistic, academic or political awareness event dedicated to the advancement of the human and civil rights of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in the USA, please contact the CNS. The society will be happy to hear from you.


Sensible Housing Unit - project

[Photograph displays the Sensible housing Unit and its brochure. (A fabric bag measuring 18 in. length and 7 in. diameter and the inside containing a fabric prototype replica of a Prison Cell of 6ft x 8 Ft.; Full color brochure of 8.5” x 11” inches.)]


[* Control Units (CU), Segregation Housing Units (SHU) or Administrative Segregation Units  (Ad-Seg) refer to a kind punishment, management and architectural system under the USA Judicial System where youth and adult prisoners who are perceived a threat to the establishment (ex: the guards, the prison population, and to themselves) are isolated 23 hours a day in sealed single prison cells. Often these prison cells are used for the prolong isolated captivity of individuals who suffers mental illnesses, who are engaged in activism inside prisons and who have been presumably associated with gangs activities. Currently in all state and federal maximum security prisons, an incarcerated individual maybe forcefully isolated for a year up to decades.]


Chronology from Most Recent Versions of the SHU:

12.03.2010 – 01.30.2011 – SHU v.6
The SHU is revisited in a new light through the project One-on-One Guided Conversations with The Weight I Carry with Me

During two consecutive days, Negrete set up the Sensible Housing Unit in the gallery, and began a series of one-on-one conversations with participants. Via oral history and a constellation of practical objects, sound and archives, she led an immersive experience of 40 minutes; each drawn from her first hand accounts and the society’s research. Special attention was given to the particular rippling effect that invisible punishment has on those bearing its conditions today in our country. Finally she asked participants for advice to further the Society’s artistic and research activities to advance their understanding of punishment and torture.

05.23.09SHU v.5
The Society led a 10 minutes interactive performance entitled AIR at the Unlock the Box political event presented at the Mission Cultural Center for the Latino Arts, SF – CA.

03.30.09SHU v.4
The Society led a workshop on socially engaged art practice with the Sensible Housing Unit at the University of San Francisco, CA.

SHU v.4

02.20.09-03.27.09SHU v.3
The CNS presented the SHU in the exhibition Future Landscapes Designed by Women at the Mission Cultural Center for the Latino Art, San Francisco – CA

Rendering the space minimally like a store for outdoor products, the project instigated a critique about how the incarcerated that is often subjected to isolation in prisons, is treated like ‘product stored in a warehouse’. To prove this complicated idea the Society had installed several objects and media elements paradoxically weaving in a 12 by 12 feet space, to bring up to light the austere and invisible conditions prisoners have to bear to survive under our capitalistic prison system.

For example, as you entered the space, you heard an ambiance sound playing excerpts of activities typically to a store in a loop for 7 minutes. Right in front of you, there is a video loop with a landscape where only the grass is moving and on the floor a note eliciting audiences to explore the Sensible Housing Unit. Across from the video screen, the wall has a text and beneath to the left two shelves containing a performance photo-book and a binder with reading and visual materials. Through the performance photo-book, you are led to discern that the peaceful landscape in the video screen is actually facing a maximum-security prison – in this case Corcoran State Prison. The binder’s contend lets you see and read key main problems prisoners are facing today in California State Prisons and nationwide, ei. invisibility, depression and cruelty.

On the adjacent wall, there are multiple replicas of the SHU on display. Each has a price tag and carefully describing how prisoners are surviving the austere isolation inside prisons. Text comes from the Survival Manual written by prisoners for prisoners published and distributed by the American Friends Committee. Near these replicas there is a hand drawing of the Sensible Housing Unit illustrating its full dimensions and playfully with vinyl letters listing definitions, which lets you quickly understand the political and artistic predicament of this object and purpose. Across from this wall, there is a couple of ink drawings on the wall portraying a figure opening the SHU in steps.

During the opening and through the length of the exhibition, the Society performed a series of actions responding to the issue of social isolation.

[Installation with Video, Sound, Printed and Vinyl Texts, Wall Drawings, Relational Object and Live-art Activities]

Production team for this installation and live-art: Mabel Negrete (Lead Artist), Fiona Glas (Support Artist), Alli Spector (Performance Artist) and Axel Herrera (Composer/Sound Artist) | Some photos courtesy by Mark McBeth .

SHU: testimony

SHU: flip-book detail / performance facing corcoran state prison

SHU: detailSHU: detail flip-photo-book

SHU: actions by participants


02.20.2009 – The Sensible Housing Unit – 1st installation was inaugurated at the Solo Mujeres.
>> CLICK HERE to access announcement and address of the event

01.20.09 Axel Herrera (sound artist) and Fiona Glas (support artist) joined Mabel to help develop the installation at MCCLA.

01.15.2009 – Proposal was accepted by the Solo Mujeres Exhibition: Future Landscapes Designed by Women .
>> CLICK HERE TO SEE PDF – Proposal for MCCLA from TCNS – 01.2009

12.2008 – Brochure for the SHU.
SHU: brochureSHU: brochure inside


08.04.2008SHU v.2
The Society presented the street event “Subliminal Sketches of a SHU” as part of the Mission Arts and Performance Project, San Francisco. Production team: Mabel Negrete, Alli Spector, Victoria Reslter, and Marguerite Davenport.
Picture 4

07.2008SHU v.1
The Society tried the Sensible Housing Unit for the first time at The Golden Gate Park, SF CA.
Team: Mabel Negrete (Performance) and Margueritte Davenport (Photography).
SHU - at Golden Gate Park

05.2008-07.2008 – During  these months the Society built the Sensible Housing Unit.