The most famous example is Johnny Cash’s live recording At Folsom Prison, an album that not only breathed new life into the Man in Black’s career, but also had its share of imitators — including Cash himself, who followed up the 1968 album’s success with At San Quentin a year later. He and the prisoners that attended the concerts are the seminal example of American public art made in a prison, setting the stage for similar performances, like the far less celebrated performance a decade later by the San Francisco punk band Crime, who made their way into the notorious San Quentin Prison dressed like prison guards.
The Cramps had a similar idea around the same time, only they decided to entertain the inmates at Napa State Mental Hospital in one of the strangest performances you’ll ever see.
Yet the biggest difference between Ai creating an art instillation for the public in a former prison and Cash or Crime playing for incarcerated men isn’t the medium; it’s the fact that Ai is putting together his works by proxy, still unable to “escape” his country, according to the Times piece. “I would love to regain my rights to travel before that,” he said, “but I have no idea if it’s possible.”