Chicago, July 2016: I spoke with artist Maria Gaspar about her upcoming project RADIOACTIVE: Stories from Beyond the Wall on the Fourth of July. We talked about mass incarceration, a central subject of Gaspar’s work, on a day that asks people in the US to reflect on freedom. Days after Gaspar shared her thoughts on art and disruption, names like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile started to break open the stitches of old and new wounds and raise questions about freedom. I couldn’t ignore the timing.
In The Face of Human Rights, Carlos Fuentes writes, “perhaps those who lack freedom understand its value better than anyone. Those who take it for granted are those who risk losing it. And those who fight for it must be aware of the dangers implicit in the struggle to obtain it.”
Maria Gaspar, People and Places Become One Another (excerpt from Martin Luther King's Chicago Freedom Movement Rally
Speech on July 10, 1966 at Soldier Field, Chicago), 2013, Lasercut Acrylic Mirrored Plexiglass, 18 x 24 inches. All images: Courtesy of the artist
History and the unrest of the present make painfully clear the ways in which police violence, the unjustifiable revoking of freedom, and mass incarceration are inextricably linked. If you need proof, you can look to the efforts in Chicago of organizations like Project NIA, Enlace Chicago, BYP100, Assata’s Daughters, Stop Chicago, We Charge Genocide, and others who continually work at their intersections. If it’s not calling out to you loud enough from the streets and digital space, you can find the evidence in exhibitions like our duty to fight at Gallery 400. Organized by Black Lives Matter Chicago and many of its allies, the show featured a collection of ephemera, documentation, artistic responses, and family collaborations around these concerns. It was all contextualized in a powerful statement and a list of harrowing statistics that outline many of the symptoms of each cause.
Maria Gaspar, Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter, Installation view at the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, 2016, Woven Collage on Digitally Printed Dye Sub Fabric, White Stoneware, Cone 6, Oxidation, Brown Overglaze on Acapulco Furniture. Courtesy of the artist
With these injustices and the attention they need—and even with many of the aforementioned organizations counting artists among their members—the question of what art can do comes up time and time again. But how does amplifying these issues happen now through artistic moves?
I landed on an essay in journalist and music critic Jeff Chang’s book Who We Be: The Colorization of America. In it he talks about how art, music, and writing has the ability to help us understand one another’s pain and joy. He uses the words of musician Vijay Iyer to consider how sound in particular can melt away the visual obstacles that keep some people from experiencing empathy for others, specifically those who look different or have experiences different than their own. Sound, he suggests, can dissolve the visual biases of color (or gender) that prevent people from connecting or achieving understanding on a basic human level.
Alongside these ideas and efforts is the work of Maria Gaspar and The 96 Acres Project. 96 Acres is a project she started in 2012 that uses a range of artistic and pedagogical approaches to talk about mass incarceration at Cook County Jail (the site of which is 96 acres) and how it impacts Black and Brown communities in Chicago. Along with artists, educators, and stakeholders within the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the jail, Gaspar is growing an archive of audio testimonials, artistic projects, and curricula that tell a different story about mass incarceration.
Recently, the Rauschenberg Foundation named Gaspar one of the 2016 Artist as Activist Fellows in Racial Justice + Mass Incarceration. Through this fellowship, she and the team will work with people inside the jail to produce a new series of projects that build on the work that has already happened outside of and on its walls.
Maria Gaspar, Haunting Raises Specters (By A.G.), 2015, Digitally Printed Dye Sub Fabric, Aluminum, Beaded Chain, Grommets, 10 x 160 feet
With RADIOACTIVE: Stories from Beyond the Wall, a series of audio recordings and projections on the jail that Gaspar will produce during her fellowship, she is continuing to work with those most impacted by Cook County Jail. This includes thinking about what sound, the disembodied voice, and other art forms can uniquely communicate and what disruptions they can cause. Gaspar is thinking about these things at a time when recording is seen as a radical act, a necessary attempt to protect ourselves, an effort to maintain power over our stories, and a tool for exposing the blindspots of American freedom.
On Independence Day, I spoke to Gaspar about RADIOACTIVE, how it relates to her overall practice, and the work that has happened through 96 Acres.
Tempestt Hazel: Can you speak about RADIOACTIVE and its connection to your work with 96 Acres?
Maria Gaspar: I started 96 Acres in 2012. I spent a good two years just getting the project off the ground by having conversations with the sheriff, getting support from the Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy" Garcia, getting community support, and just trying to think about what the shape of this would look like.
The main focus of the first four years was looking at how the jail framed a community and its political, social, and cultural impact. It was also about mass incarceration and thinking about how this jail has residents who come from five neighborhoods in the city, like Roseland, Austin, and North Lawndale, which is right next to South Lawndale, where I grew up. All Black and Latino neighborhoods. This work was about mobilizing people and thinking critically about the kinds of meaning this place has within our lives, society, and culture. It was also about how we can create counter-narratives through compelling artistic projects.
One of the best parts of the last four years has been mobilizing the steering committee members. They are teachers, community organizers, young people, and formerly incarcerated people. They are really dedicated to seeing this work unfold and trying to grapple with issues like what art is and what the role of art is in social justice.
[Over time we started] thinking, “Okay, now we’ve done all this great work. We could keep doing this for a long time, but what is the part that’s missing?” And that is talking to people on the inside. We’d already talked to people who had transitioned out and worked with them on projects. But a lot of people were excited about doing something on the inside.
RADIOACTIVE is basically phase two of 96 Acres. The way 96 Acres has worked is there’s a larger project—not an organization—and there are smaller projects within the 96 Acres project. RADIOACTIVE falls somewhere in between as a project of 96 Acres, but it blurs the lines a little bit. RADIOACTIVE [allows us to work on] the second phase of talking with people on the inside while continuing the work on the outside. Throughout we will be thinking about a mutual exchange of communication. We will create audio and visual projects on both sides to dissolve that wall, in a way. We don't hear those stories enough, and maybe we don’t give others the chance to really listen and witness these lives that are highly unjust. Maybe through audio—the silences, the pauses, intonation in the voice—maybe a different kind of thing can happen. We’re going to start programming inside the jail in the fall.
TH: How important have the first years of 96 Acres been to building up a relationship, and access to the prison in the way you have now, or is that something that you’re still working out? Is there resistance and, if so, how do you negotiate that?
MG: At the end of the day, all of this work is about creating relationships and nurturing them. It’s about learning what each person needs, wants, and imagines. That takes time. All things haven’t been resolved and I don’t think they could. Things are changing all the time. Since there are no policies in place we have to think about how our work affects the prison’s system itself. Or if there are things happening outside in the neighboring community, all of those things play a role in what the context is. Things are changing all the time—creatively, contextually, politically—and as an artist, I must consider those complexities within an evolving project like this one.
It certainly helps to have had time to get to know people and to problem-solve together because within that we all begin to understand how each of us works in the world and the perspectives that we’re all coming from.
In terms of the trusting relationships, I’m privy to that area because I grew up there. A good percentage of the people I work with on the community level are people who I’ve known for over 15 years. It would be different if that was not the case. The hyper-local quality of the project is really valuable and important.
Learning about mass incarceration and how it affects people’s lives other than my own has been a learning process for me. And not just for me, but all of the other people in the project. Learning, listening, questioning, and and researching are ongoing processes. All of these things help form what the programming will look like in the inside of the jail. I hope that this learning will make any projects on the inside stronger and relevant to participants.
Maria Gaspar, Wretched and Paramount #1 (Extreme Landscapes Series; Google study of Cook County Jail in Chicago), 2014, Inkjet Print, 27 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches
TH: Have you seen a shift or impact in the parts of your practice that are perhaps more autobiographical, formal, or object-based after starting this work with 96 Acres?
MG: Absolutely. But I also think my practice has impacted 96 Acres. I was doing public art and murals when I was 14. A lot of the artists I met at that time were people who were involved in a spatial politic. Now, we take those things for granted in a place like Chicago. The community mural movements here started with people like William Walker and the Wall of Respect. There was an important political gesture that I experienced by seeing artists taking a marginalized site and making images that created a sense of power and monumentality that was meaningful to a lot of people in the area. Witnessing that made me think about what it means to have the largest architecture of my neighborhood be a jail [Cook County Jail] that is seemingly invisible. I think that all of that has a tie.
96 Acres has led me to think about how all of my work deals with a sense of belonging, or ideas of invisibility, visibility, geography, and the politics of space, like with Roberto Bedoya’s idea of dis-belonging. However, in many ways, this has always been present in the work. Whether it’s my family migrating from Mexico to the US as a kind of politics of space and geography or the Brown and Black bodies that are inside and outside of that jail, these ideas are ever-present. I see those connections more vividly. I think of 96 Acres as a site-specific project because it’s focusing on one place and all of the things that come out of that place—the pressures, the surveillance, the power and powerlessness. So, acknowledging all of that, what does/can art do? It always comes down to that question for me.
TH: It’s a question that I grapple with often, especially with all of the things happening in the city, nationally, and globally that demand attention. I’m constantly questioning my role and questioning how to respond to it all with my particular set of skills and resources. I think this keeps coming up for a lot of people.
MG: Yes, especially in a time of urgency. What is the pragmatic route for this? We’re in a place where there is a sense of helplessness. Then I think of bell hooks’ writing or Augusto Boal who talks about art as the rehearsal for revolution. I start to think through how art is a space for liberation. Or I think of Mariame Kaba, who is super inspiring to me and works with juvenile detention. She often says that whoever you are and whatever you do—whether you’re a writer or an artist—find a way to talk about these things. Find a way to write about them. Don’t go out and try to become a policy maker if that’s not what you do. Do what you’re best at and speak on it in a critical way. And sometimes when I hear that I think to myself, “Okay, okay…Mariame Kaba says it’s okay to be an artist…” It’s incredibly empowering to hear that from people you admire for their creative work within a current hostile political space. The role of artists and creative folks is always an interesting one because I often think about how artists can point to, put light on, proposition, incite, intervene, subvert, reveal in forms that can range from a space of both poesis and praxis.
TH: The 96 Acres Project has collected a lot of stories and has had interactions with many people impacted by the Cook County Jail. Are there any that remain fresh in your mind or that you keep coming back to?
MG: I was working with elementary school students from the same school that took me to the jail for a sort of “Scared Straight” program when I was a kid. I was running an audio program there for the summer. All of the students that I was working with were ones who had experienced some kind of trauma or their families were victims of gun violence—either died or were injured. I will never forget. I was doing a group meeting with mostly young men and two young women who were college students, around 18. They were all from the neighborhood and the young women were clearly more mature and older than the young men. I was running this program for a couple of weeks and teaching them how to do audio recording, interview each other, and editing. As we were going around we were making maps around the places where they felt a sense of freedom or a sense of limitation. So, they made these community maps that marked where they felt those things. We talked about what those places meant and why. Did they feel limited because it was gang territory, or because of a fear of danger? And they talked about where they felt really free and it was usually people who made them feel free and comfortable.
At one point this one young man who was probably in sixth grade told us a story about how when he was walking through his neighborhood these boys took his book bag from him. And around that time his brother had been shot and they were teasing him about that. I can’t even really describe what happened but I could tell that he was, for the very first time, articulating his experience. It sounded like this was the first time he was putting language to it. It was such a powerful moment to witness. I realized that it was important because how often can we do that? How often can we find those moments when language doesn’t work? When he almost started crying, all the other boys in the room gave him validation. And these were tough boys, but tender ones, too. It was such a beautiful moment that really touched me. His story and they way he told it—it was truly a powerful thing.
TH: Do you find yourself recreating that space for openness and vulnerability in the collaborations that you do?
MG: Absolutely. I’m excited by improvisation. Art that you make with others is so much about improvisation. And improvisation as an artistic form with a thoughtfulness, a reflectiveness, and a slowness about it. Some of the people I work with enlighten the conversations in ways that challenge my notions of what improvisation is. Some of the teachers in the group practice that everyday in their classrooms in limited spaces and timeframes. I look at their way of teaching to reflect on how I can do it better.
TH: Have any of the ideas you entered into this project with changed? Has your perspective been reshaped or reconfigured in any way?
MG: From a project standpoint, there have been so many. Earlier, I talked about struggling with what the role of art could be. That has been a constant place of reflection. There were many moments in the beginning when I wondered if this had any value. [I wondered if this] should be an education project or re-entry program. Certainly those things are necessary and needed. There were many times that I wondered if it would have any impact. Then, once the project was underway and people started getting involved, that’s when it started to feel like people were getting something out of this. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing.
To a certain extent I also understood that predetermined outcomes don’t work and fall short. There’s a difference between predetermining something and having a strong vision about something. In the studio and as an individual you can have a pretty solid plan and go for it—maybe not all artists, but some work this way. Within participatory projects, you just can’t predetermine things when you’re working with people.
I know and care deeply about all those men and women who are incarcerated and end up in that system and are systemically oppressed for a long time. My friend Sarah Ross runs a project at Stateville Correctional Center. I got to spend some time there recently and I ran into someone that I knew. I ran into a former student of mine when I was at a juvenile detention center doing a talk. That makes it very real to me. But what I started to understand is that all of these people who are under this system are affected, even the guards and administration. There were moments when I was surprised after coming in on defense to the jail. I was surprised by some of the healthier conversations I had with people. During informal conversations with guards, they have shared their own traumas with me and how being a guard has negatively affected their lives and families. This larger system is traumatic to many people existing with the carceral state—the incarcerated, families, as well as the correctional officers. If we think about the whole system, we can see how it systematically creates disadvantages for all of society. Creative projects have this power to make spaces to share these humanizing stories.
TH: When you look forward with this project, what do you see? How do you see this continuing over time?
MG: I can tell you what I’m seeing now. Teachers are making curriculums based on [96 Acres'] projects that they are now developing on their own and in classrooms. Michael De Anda Muñiz, one of the committee members, is running a book club. Our first book is Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne. For the next book I suggested The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten [and Stefano Harney]. What I see is that this project could prompt other cultural projects to happen and that this can serve as a model, and that more people can listen, witness, and be more tender.
I also hope that people can have a different perception of those inside—like most people I talk to don’t realize that it is a pre-detention facility and not a prison. They think everyone has been convicted. Maybe this project can help contribute to people’s research or policy and help illuminate the issue in ways that haven’t happened before. I’m still trying to see.
Visit Jane Addams Hull-House Museum to see Into Body Into Wall, a collaborative exhibition between the museum, The 96 Acres Project, and Maria Gaspar on view through August 2016. Gaspar’s work is also in the group exhibition For Freedoms at Jack Shainman Gallery on view through July 29.
Tempestt Hazel is an independent curator, writer, artist advocate, travel addict and co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center, a Chicago-based online arts publication.
ArtSlant would like to thank Maria Gaspar for her assistance in making this interview possible.