MARIA GASPAR seeks to make "what is invisible more visible, what is unknown known." As a studio artist, facilitator, collaborator, performer and audio archivist, she explores power and the social and political meanings of geographic spaces, especially in Chicago’s West Side, where she grew up. In 2010, she collaborated with young residents (aged 14-21) of the North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods in Chicago to create a series of temporary public art projects known as City as Site. Her long-term project 96 Acres is a complex, collectively-produced portrait of the massive Cook County Jail and its effects on the surrounding neighborhood. Recently, Maria was awarded a prestigious Creative Capital Award for a set of public sound installations to further her work in Little Village. She received a Maker Grant in 2013 and was featured in the Chicago Tribune's Chicagoan of the Year in the Visual Arts in 2014. In 2015, she will be in residence at Project Row Houses in Houston. Maria is an Associate Professor at SAIC in Chicago, where she lives.
OtherPeoplesPixels: What early influences have impacted your community-engaged public art projects?
Maria Gaspar: I was greatly impacted by the work of local artists who engaged young people and residents in a creative process of art-making. In Chicago's mural movement, artists and community folks worked together to represent positive images of their neighborhoods. Spaces like bodega corner stores and community buildings became visual sites for dialogue and civil rights. I understand this work as not only having symbolic power, but also political, social and cultural reverberation. This approach continues to influence my way of translating issues around displacement, contested spaces and the politicized body.
(Viaduct study, Kostner Ave.)
OPP: Tell us about the public interventions of City As Site.
MG: City As Site was very intentionally located on the West Side of Chicago, where I could examine the spatial subtleties around landscape and power with young people within the Lawndale communities. Young people are constantly negotiating their social behaviors within the often-authoritative and oppressive realities of so-called public space and a growing hyper-surveillance normalcy, especially towards brown and black communities. Through City As Site, we created performance interventions with our bodies; mediated vacant lots by way of temporary installations; invented new stories around an isolated viaduct, inserting performance art into the architecture of a bleak space; created drawings on sidewalks using found street detritus; and staged comedic tableaus at the local public park.The most compelling experiences occurred during our daily collective walks as we interacted with architecture through improvisation, where youth made beautiful, poetic, and powerful gestures. At the same time, we also faced misperceptions around our collective walking. What we considered to be a positive and imaginative set of dérives through the city was interpreted as threatening to some strangers. Walking with youth of color became a radical, political act.
City As Site led to my thinking around specific contested spaces in the Little Village community. In my ongoing conversations with other artists and activists in the area, we speculated about potential art pieces on the jail wall. In 2012, that speculative conversation turned into meetings with community stakeholders, including the Sheriff's Department, and that led to 96 Acres.
OPP: What’s been most challenging about 96 Acres?
MG: The jail is the largest architecture of my community and grappling with what that means on the social and political level is difficult to say the least. The project begets questions around impacted communities of color, the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, and works closely with transformative justice approaches. Its complexity is also in its diversity of voices, including an organized 96 Acres Steering Committee and 96 Acres Education Initiative, all facets of 96 Acres that grew out of an organic conversation around the needs of the project. It includes artistic contributions from many other artists and activists around the city and beyond that creatively intervene in the Cook County Jail site using art that engages its surrounding communities.
OPP: How does your more traditional studio practice influence the community-based work?
MG: My collective projects are durational and community-specific, which entails a lot of time and sensitivity to the conversations that surface through a very thoughtful and open set of questions. This is very different from my individual work where the durational element is in a space of solitude. That space allows me to not only make installations or objects, but also reflect and identify new questions for my work and contend with them. As someone interested in community engagement, the process through which radical community ideas emerge is the most powerful element to this work. I’m influenced Augusto Boal's Games For Actors and Non-Actors and its improvisational methodologies—performance, the body and translation intricately negotiate the gesture, personal and political histories, collaboration and participation. To me, the power lies in the orchestration of situations that create a range of provocative images, interrogate language, and generate innovative ideas. And ultimately, that the spaces I create with others are also spaces for freedom—to be, or to become—fluid spaces of reimagining.
OPP: Tell us about your ongoing exploration of the color
brown. What does brown mean to you, formally and symbolically, and how
have your explorations of it changed over the last few years?
MG: The color brown is persistent in much of my work. Originally, I was interested in the way that Chicago's Graffiti Blaster program removed graffiti by covering it in brown paint. All along my neighborhood, I saw patches of small and large brown areas that obscured signs, words or images along viaducts or buildings. The color brown was meant to cover the signs and assimilate into the architectural landscape, but instead the brown color became more visible and the small patches turned into entire sides of buildings. Along with the color, the gesture of "blasting" brown was an interesting act to me. So, I decided to do the same action in an installation at 6018 North, where I spray gunned an entire room brown—ceiling to floor. This action was meant to amplify brownness as an act of power. It was about dislocation and belonging and asserting a brown space into what is traditionally a white gallery or exhibition space. In my series of "brown outs," I've completed a series of shadowy forms that conceal and reveal themselves within interiors of buildings. The forms demarcate space and territory and rouse issues of proximity and subjectivity.
OPP: I was particularly struck by the documentation of Oblation for Another Parade Performance
(2009) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was sad and
powerful to watch how few people even noticed the slow-moving group of
people of color. The symbolic social and political implications about
visibility and space are clear, especially in the context of MCA's First
Fridays. I also ended up thinking a lot about how human beings have
different capacities for spatial awareness. In crowds, there are
patterns of behavior for claiming and asserting space, which may be
culturally conditioned. Some people weave in and out, predicting
movements of other people, while others simply plant themselves or
barrel ahead, oblivious to the bodies of other people. Was there
anything really surprising to you about the crowd's response or lack of
response to the performance while it was happening?
MG: So much of my artistic practice has used interventionist strategies within public or private spaces. I am often examining the ways that spaces elicit a certain kind of behavior, such as within the confines of a museum. My inclination is to subvert it. I wasn't completely surprised at some of the lack of acknowledgement at the MCA because it was during the First Friday's event, which is like a museum-turned-nightclub. Most people were interested in the socializing aspect of the event, which is exactly why I wanted to create a performance that punctured that environment. The performers made a kind of shape shifting architecture that necessitated an alternate pathway. I was more interested in the ways that people were redirected around the performers and the power that the performers attained as they moved through the first floor of the museum. In addition, the performers were a mix of people, such as modern dancers, a former student who performs in professional drag shows across the city, as well as my community of friends and colleagues who were not experienced performance artists, but enthusiastic and committed to exploring this idea with me. It was a great experience, overall.
OPP: In 2013, you produced a short, audio documentary called Cook County Jail: The Visible and the Invisible,
which investigated what it means to live next to one of the largest
pre-detention facilities in the country. On your website are images of
proposals for a series of sound installations based on the proximity of a
jail. Have these proposals become a reality yet? Will these sound
installations make use of audio from The Visible and the Invisible or have you continued to interview Little Village residents about the jail?
MG: The proposals are meant to provoke a dialogue about who sees the jail and who doesn't and why/why not. The idea is to place three sound installations in three parts of a major street, 26th Street (same street as the Cook County Jail), and program them with interviews and personal stories about incarceration. A version of this proposal is currently in development. For now, the audio archive is growing. On the 96 Acres website, the public is invited to upload their personal stories. At an upcoming 96 Acres exhibition at the Hull House Museum (Fall 2015), we will set up a recording table for visitors interested in contributing a personal story. I recently began a residency at the Experimental Sound Studio where I am producing a new set of audio pieces that deal with the sonic landscape of the jail vicinity. I have been documenting the informal architectures of the jail periphery the past few years, which include photos and audio of cultural events located just outside the jail walls, including a recent carnival last week. Audio is a powerful medium that transcends boundaries and geographies and grants the listener the freedom to imagine a space, people and places.
OPP: In 2014 you won a Maker Grant, which is cosponsored by Chicago Artist Coalition and OtherPeoplesPixels, you were featured in the Chicago Tribune as Chicagoan of the Year in the Visual Arts in 2014, and you were just awarded a Creative Capital Award. How have these prestigious awards impacted both your practice and your career?
MG: Receiving these awards has been a tremendous honor, to say the least. Lori Waxman, who wrote about my work in the Tribune, is a person I greatly respect and admire. Her writing on my practice means a lot to me. The Maker Grant is special because it means that people in my own city have recognized my work as a Chicago artist. Whereas on a national level, Creative Capital has been supportive in funding my long-term art projects that are generally riskier and more challenging to fund. They are willing to take that long ride with me and are invested in all aspects of my creative life. This is an incredibly profound experience that is entirely new to me. I am very motivated by the opportunities and possibilities. I am also very grateful to my friends and, especially my family, that have been there for me every step of the way, and who have indeed been taking that life/art ride with me for a long time regardless of awards or recognition.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.