Artist as Prisoner

A dozen inmates wait patiently in hard plastic chairs arranged in tight rows. They fix their stares on the steel double doors that occasionally bang open to admit a new face, usually a lawyer with a heavy briefcase. The visitation center lobby at the federal prison in downtown Miami hums with the idle conversations of prisoners in do-rags and shaggy beards. Their voices are muffled by the room's carpeting. Forearm tattoos and forest green jumpsuits seem to bleed together under the powerful fluorescent light.

A middle-age white man sits upright yet relaxed, alone in the front row. His gray hair is carefully parted around a bald spot, his glasses folded in a breast pocket. He smiles faintly, nods, and offers a half-wave with his right hand. This is Edward Bobb.

A squat, bald guard with clanging gold bracelets leads Bobb to a small anteroom furnished with bolted-down tables and chairs. Shortly after taking a seat, the Miami Gardens man starts sipping vending machine coffee and, unprompted, begins a steady flood of commentary. Rubbing his stubbly chin, he holds forth on creativity, mythology, Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp, beat novelist William Burroughs, the musique concrte movement, and the bullet to the gut that forever altered his perception of the world.

"It was my mitzvah," he says, using the Hebrew term for good deed.

In the cold light, Bobb's skin looks sallow, his eyes deep-set. Wrinkles and red splotches climb from his chin to his forehead. He pauses frequently to consider a question or concept. Occasionally he reaches for the paper coffee cup as though it might offer an answer. "Every day, every moment is a creative outlet," he says, even in prison. Then, weighing his words, he adds, "But I don't want to be cavalier about it.... I'm just an artist."

Indeed Bobb is an internationally known avant-garde sound and video artist who, during the past decade, has been called "one of Miami's foremost experimental musicians" by the Miami Herald, "the father of Miami's experimental scene" by Spanish journalist Vidal Romero, and an "aural terrorist" by this newspaper.

The man once known as Needle, Twonky, and Johnny Zhivago is now known as prisoner number 66046-004. Since February, the closest Bobb, age 52, has come to video art are the occasional Hollywood movies -- like Happy Feet -- shown on the three television sets in his cell block's common area.

Bobb was convicted this past February of illegally downloading thousands of images of child pornography. But in fact his crime was nothing more than what he has done for decades -- push the bounds of artistic expression. Depending on the sentence a judge is scheduled to hand down June 1, the day after this newspaper is printed, Bobb might spend the rest of his life in jail -- leaving behind a disabled son, a gravely ill fiancée, and elderly parents.

The case has left some in the local art community bewildered.

"He doesn't seem like he's harmful in any way," says Bobb's onetime fellow art class student Paul Gaeta. "Images? I mean we're polluted by images every day from every angle. Especially with how violent we are as a culture, to throw a man in jail for looking at images?"

When she has the strength to sit up in her queen-size four-poster bed, Rebecca Salame either talks on one of the several phones scattered around her room or types letters on her laptop. From the second floor of her townhouse in rural New Jersey, she can look out on a small garden, but she rarely ventures outside or downstairs; she's too weak from chemotherapy to handle the staircase alone. Dozens of DVD movies -- a gift from Edward Bobb -- are her main source of entertainment. The two have known each other for more than two decades. They are engaged. Days before Bobb's arrest this past August 25, Salame was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. A strip of hair on her scalp -- the only wisps left after chemo -- looks like a Mohawk, and her fingernails only recently grew back. She wears a mask when friends visit and recently developed shingles on her eyes, making it increasingly difficult to type up the letters she has been sending to colleagues and friends of Bobb's, asking them to petition the court on his behalf.

The phone rings frequently and e-mails pour in from all over the world, Salame says. People want to know how she's holding up. They want to know about Bobb.

The two met in Miami 23 years ago and began dating a few months later. The relationship ended when Salame decided she wanted a more stable life than Bobb could offer at the time. It was rekindled in 2000, after Salame's husband left. While the right time for a wedding never presented itself, Bobb and Salame have been engaged dozens of times, by Salame's count. "It's a running joke we have. He's given me a lot of rings. I have a collection."

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Rob Jordan
Contact: Rob Jordan