A & E

Creating a context for communication: ‘Table of Voices’ returns to Alcatraz

Table of Voices, 1994-1996 site-specific installation: Alcatraz Installation: lead, wood, gold leaf, safety glass, CDs, phones (photo: Richard Kamler)

When a perpetrator of a crime is sent to prison, visitors and visitations are limited. Usually only family members, attorneys and, sometimes, approved friends are allowed inside.

The communication that has been missing is that between the victim or victim’s family and the perpetrator. To encourage this communication, renowned artist Richard Kamler created a unique, site-specific art installation, currently on display at Alcatraz.

“I began the process of pairing victims and criminals and eventually created Table of Voices,” said Kamler. “I built the Table to look much like a noncontact prison visiting room.”

To anyone who has ever watched a crime show, the work looks familiar: “Down the center of [the table] runs a sheet of glass,” said Kamler. “On either side of it are stations; each station has a phone attached to it. A visitor to the Table picks up a phone on one side and hears the story of a parent of a murdered child or family member. Move around to the other side of the Table, pick up the opposite phone and hear the story from the person responsible for the crime.”

Alexander Picavet of the National Park Service, which operates Alcatraz Island, described the piece as “an interactive sound installation giving voice to both victims and perpetrators. The Table is made of lead and gold leaf to represent the … process of transformation, similar to the process of turning a base metal such as lead to a purer, more refined metal.”

In Kamler’s words, “something base transformed into something more refined, more complex, more compassionate, more pure and, perhaps, even transformative.”

Kamler is a keen observer of America’s penal system. As artist-in-residence at San Quentin, he attended meetings of Parents of Murdered Children. The group is similar to a 12-step program, where members tell their personal stories. There, Kamler shared his idea for the art installation and asked for volunteers to participate in the process.; 27 participants answered four questions, which form the basis for the Table recordings. One: What happened? Describe the crime. Two: How were you treated by the criminal justice system? Three: If you had the opportunity, what would you want to say to the victim and/or perpetrator? Four: The larger issue is one of a flawed prison system. What kind of actions, such as the communication we’re suggesting, might society as a whole take so that people do not repeat their crimes and go back into prison?

Kamler also interviewed prisoners and matched the criminal to the victim (or victim’s family member). All were asked the same four questions, which were recorded, and all were aware their responses would be heard by those involved in or affected by the crime.

After compiling the interviews, Kamler received an Adeline Kent Award from the San Francisco Art Institute, which enabled him to purchase the materials to create the piece. Originally the work was exhibited at Alcatraz, then for 16 years was seen at universities and other institutions across the country. It now has returned to Alcatraz permanently.

The Table of Voices is located in the New Industries Building on Alcatraz Island. There is no additional charge for it. For further information about Alcatraz, visit

About the artist: Richard Kamler, artist, educator, curator for 30 years has created art that takes as its premise that of social change and cultural transformation. He has received numerous awards for this work, among them a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Soros Foundation Open Society Artist Fellowship, a California Arts Council Fellowship, and a grant from the Institute for Noetic Sciences. For further information, visit
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