Maria Gaspar

Maria Gaspar discusses her collaborative work with incarcerated communities

Maria Gaspar, On the Border of What Is Formless and Monstrous (detail), 2016, five-channel sound and video installation, dimensions variable.

Over the past year, artist Maria Gaspar has been leading workshops with a group of men at the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. Together, they have produced audio recordings and visual artworks that will be compiled into a digital animation and radio broadcast titled Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall, 2018, which will be projected onto the compound’s north-facing wall for three hours after sundown on September 15 and September 16, 2018. Here, Gaspar discusses her related and ongoing 96 Acres Project, 2012–, and this new work.

WE WILL USE THE JAIL WALL AS A SCREEN—one that frames the site. The jail is beyond it, both visible and invisible. The wall is enormous and brutal, yet also old to the point of crumbling. While it invites all manner of associations or metaphors—our personal projections, if you will—there are some eight thousand people behind it. To amplify a few of their voices sets up a new channel of communication between those inside and everyone outside. Of course, one can argue that this division is perhaps not as clear as one would think, given that mass incarceration is but one symptom of systemic oppression. I grew up a few blocks away from the jail, and like the entire largely Latinx, working-class community in its vicinity, I saw it every day. I’ve had family incarcerated, and as a social-practice artist and educator, I’ve had my students go through juvenile detention or traumatic encounters with law enforcement.

This will be the latest in a series of interventions that I have been organizing at and around Cook County Department of Corrections under the aegis of 96 Acres Project. For that piece, I have focused on mobilizing and cocreating work with neighbors living in the vicinity, as well as with people with prior experience of incarceration, either personally or through family or friends. Those interventions were public and used audio, installation, performance, and theater. I am drawn to media that involve malleability, like fabric, or that transgress physical boundaries, like sound. I recently finished another project titled Sounds for Liberation. For the better part of two years I worked with local leaders in the Whalley-Edgewood-Beaver Hills neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut to develop it, and the piece essentially explores the relationship between the New Haven Correctional Center and the larger community. I collaborated with local high school youth and detainees to produce a set of audio recordings that responded to the question, What does liberation sound like? We broadcast the recordings and hosted live conversations with community members from a mobile sound studio stationed outside the correctional facility.

Maria Gaspar, On the Border of What Is Formless and Monstrous (excerpt), 2016, five-channel sound and video installation, dimensions variable.

Similarly, Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall involved producing art with detainees, but in this case within the confines of the largest single-site jail in the United States. The jail staff referred to our sessions as “classes,” or “the program,” and they were classes in the sense that there was a curriculum and I was teaching, but it was also more collaborative than a typical adult education course. Maybe workshop is a better word, since we were workshopping ideas, researching, and collaborating on the content for the audio and visual broadcast. My goal was to create a curious, trusting relationship, to provisionally disassemble any hierarchies between us. We referred to the group as the “Radioactive Ensemble.” We opened each class with performance and movement exercises, and from there we would look at and discuss art relevant to the project, like Doris Salcedo’s tender and compelling responses to violence in Colombia. We would also read texts aloud: “Affirmation” by Assata Shakur, “A Poem for the Artists” by Margaret Burroughs, and excerpts from Ghostly Matters by Avery Gordon. The group would split into smaller pairs and create collaborative drawings and audio recordings in response to the question that we identified as the driver for the project: What would the jail say if it could speak? The goal was to imagine the jail as a massive amplification device.

We focused on the material aspects of the site, investigating traces, ghosts, hauntings, trauma—all of which were very present for the detainees during their incarceration. They chose from what they saw and touched every day: their DOC uniforms; the foggy mirrors that no longer reflect faces; the chuck holes through which detainees communicate between cells, only their mouths visible. Other people talked about the bricks in the walls, broken tiles—deterioration and decay. They created fictional narratives based on their chosen materials, personifying them and reciting their audio recordings in character. Most of these materials were in regular contact with their bodies—someone spoke as a shoe that had witnessed a violent act. We used fiction as a space of freedom. Thus, they were at liberty to talk about their own stories, but they were by no means required to (this had practical value, as their cases were ongoing).

The title Radioactive: Stories Beyond the Wall is a nod to the invisibility of a group of human beings in this system, and their potential to inspire activism and action. One of the things the group expressed to me early on was their desire to show people that “We are charged, and we are alive.” My hope is that the project helps viewers correlate racism, poverty, and unemployment, as well as the role we play within that system. We incarcerate more than two million people per year in this country—a number that is also disproportionately racialized. Incarcerated people are locked in spaces where there is nothing to do—little to no intellectual rigor or resources. One of the things you realize right away when you step into a jail or prison is the systemic effect of dehumanization. There are so many senses that you can’t tap into, without which it is impossible to tap into your full humanity; those parts of you are cut off or under duress. I want to recover normally ignored aspects of speech that connect us as humans—articulations, pauses, nervousness, and laughter—for a larger public. To better understand these detainees’ experiences makes a different mode of caring possible.