What does it mean to be free? Is it about being able to come and go as you please, or to feel like spaces were made with you in mind? Does it relate to your senses, being able to choose what you see, smell, taste, hear? For the better part of a decade, Maria Gaspar has explored the social constructions of space and the complicated interplay between body, place and power. Through sound art, video, installation, performance and community projects—often related to Cook County Jail—Gaspar asks us to interrogate our relationship to power, while at the same time inviting us to envision a more just world. Newcity speaks with the artist about working within institutions, the radical possibilities of art-making and what is needed in this national moment of crisis.
Has the pandemic changed art-making for you? How have you been experiencing lockdown?
In a broader way, it has had me step back and think about my values and the core of my practice, but also the core of my being. As a mother to a very small child, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how women, mothers are not supported within the institutions that I work in and with, and recognizing firsthand the inequity of that experience. Luckily, I have been able to connect with other women in arts and culture and that has been a godsend. The recent uprisings and protests, the anti-Blackness, the state violence that has been part of our culture since the beginning of colonization in the U.S., having witnessed one of the largest protests in Chicago, along with understanding the impact this pandemic, along with state violence has [had an impact on] mostly Black and brown communities, is on my mind everyday. Being an artist and a mother working in this process of abolition, it has confronted me with some really large questions about my role as an artist and as a person right now in Chicago but also beyond Chicago. It’s a crisis and a profound moment that gives us an opportunity for radical change. I’m looking to align myself along that trajectory. That is where I have to be.
Can you talk about the concept of spatial justice—how you define it?
My first art education, growing up on the West Side of Chicago, was spending time with muralists. They were usually local artists who were not invited by museums to exhibit, but were beloved in their community. These are the same people that were gracious enough to let me into their studios, to let me help out on a mural. They were very gracious and generous to me. I was maybe thirteen, fourteen years old. My understanding about art was grounded in this idea around do-it-yourself, around a kind of urgency, around responding to a site, a building, a wall—in a way that felt relevant to the people around that space. They were often creating images unseen in media. My understanding of art is rooted in these notions of creating our own monuments or memorials, image-making that counters what popular media was telling us about ourselves. That was foundational. Almost thirty years later, that continues to be a large part of how I think about working in a particular neighborhood or city. What does it mean to work with a particular material, what kind of history does that material have, what presence does it have, what meaning does it have, how can it be changed or altered? I’m constantly thinking about those things. It comes from Roberto Bedoya’s writing that deals with the spatial imaginary and the ways that people on a hyperlocal level are quite ingenious in the way they re-create a space. When I talk about spatial justice, I’m not only talking about a physical location, I’m also talking about the kind of power a space has and the way artists can subvert, interfere, interrogate that power. That’s what those artists were doing that taught me at the very beginning. That is especially critical now as we’re thinking about memorials and the taking down of these racist Confederate monuments and inserting images that are representative of people that have worked toward justice. It’s relevant for everybody to think about because it’s about how space creates a certain kind of behavior and affects the way we move through something and the way we feel. Do we feel like we belong? Or do we feel like we don’t belong? To me, those are decisions that are being made by state powers. Those are very intentional. We need to look critically at what those are and tear them apart.
You’ve done a lot of work around Cook County Jail. “Radioactive” was your first project inside the jail. What’s the transition like from making work outside the jail to going inside and working with detainees?
“Radioactive” was the first time I was formally going into the jail to develop a work. That was a one-year series of workshops. Prior to that, I presented a project in New Haven, Connecticut with an organization called Artspace. That took a couple of years, to get that one off the ground. But eventually I worked with detainees inside the New Haven Correctional Center. That was, in comparison, a much smaller jail. The max they may have had was 600 people, whereas Cook County Jail, in 2012, there were around 13,000 people, and now there’s half or a little less than half. Even with that decrease in population, it’s still significant. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the ensemble members, the participants in “Radioactive” go by the “Radioactive Ensemble.” One of the ensemble members is locked up in prison right now. We correspond through letter writing. One of the things he mentioned to me a couple weeks ago—a very nice, friendly letter, just catching up—he was like, “It also smelled really good.” I was thinking, wow, I didn’t put any scent on that letter. I didn’t spray anything. To think about a stark difference between a home smell let’s say, and the smell of a prison, was really profound. He appreciated that. I sent him another letter and purposefully put a scent on it. It really got me thinking about our senses: touch, taste, smell. Our connection to our senses is what makes us feel human. I’m thinking about Doug and his experience and the way that scent offered him something special. I’m so concerned about what’s going on in prisons and jails across the country with COVID. For example, last I heard almost 2,000 people had COVID in San Quentin. Conditions have always been disparate in places like this and now we are seeing the repercussions of that in greater ways, which should be concerning for all of us because we’re all living on this earth and we should take care of each other.
I’m interested in hearing about the process of working within the institution of the jail itself. In the “Radioactive” video, there’s a clip where you’re going over the logistics of the presentation and it seems tense. How do you navigate that?
It is not an easy process. It is very difficult. It can be very painful. When I do any kind of community-based work, I recognize quickly that the stakes are really high, which is different from making a discrete art object. Yes, maybe I’m taking a risk in my studio but it is not the same kind of risk I might take when I’m working with a group of people, especially a group of people that are marginalized. From the very get-go that has to be established. Then there’s mistakes that happen. I have had to cut myself some slack and give myself the space to evolve as an artist doing this work. One can feel a lot of pressure in different ways. I’ve had to work on keeping some perspective on that. It has to do with grounding, again, what are my values? What’s important to me?
Last night I was watching a really nice conversation with Patrisse Cullors from Black Lives Matter, one of the founders, who is a performance artist. She does lots of other art but performance art is what she came into as a young artist, and Black Lives Matter came out of that work. She really put some language to some of what I’ve been feeling lately in regards to institutions, whether it’s Cook County Jail or another museum in Chicago or beyond, she’s asking artists: what are you willing to negotiate and what are you willing to compromise? How are you being bold and courageous, especially in this moment? What are we asking institutions for? Institutions ask us for our work, for our time, they want to pick our brains—how are we holding them accountable? When I think about Cook County Jail and navigating that power structure, it’s not really any different than the power structures that exist in other institutions I work in. There are systems in place and one learns to move through them. Some people are more willing than others to move through them. I am willing to do it, however, I’m also not willing to do it at certain times. I have had to draw some lines for the benefit of the project. If the integrity of the work is being compromised then there is really no reason to do it. That does not give it justice and that’ll just be wrong. So I like the way Patrisse put those questions out into the world because I think all of us should be asking ourselves that. Especially as a Latinx artist, a first-generation person, I’m the first one to go to college in my family. My mom was a teacher’s aide at a public school in Chicago. It was hard. So I ask myself, how do I teach within my private art school? What do I teach? How am I connecting to my students?
I’m interested in this phrase I heard Fred Moten and Stefano Harney use at a Zoom talk the other day: radical complicity. There’s complicity and then there’s radical complicity. The way that I see my work at the Sheriff’s department or any other institution is that I have to see an opportunity for a kind of radicality. There has to be an opportunity to radicalize something in some way, criticize something, interrogate something, if that is not present then it is just complicity and I do not have to do that project. I feel evermore connected to that idea and I’m working hard to better understand it and better apply it to my life and my artwork.
What do you think art institutions or institutions like SAIC should be doing in the fight for racial justice, which many have pledged support for? Some groups, like the Teen Creative Agency at the MCA, have asked these institutions for specific actions. How can artists or educators working within institutions make an impact?
First, I want to say that artists and educators have been doing the work, not all, of course, but at least the ones I know. Chicago is fierce, between artists and artist-educators, they are some of the most radical people I know. Of course there’s work to be done there, absolutely. I am waiting for these institutions to really walk the walk. The thing with TCA is amazing. These young Chicago kids, Black and brown young people, are courageous and so bold to demand of this institution racial equity, divesting from police. If contemporary museums want to join in on that movement, they need to fulfill those demands. These young people are the ones leading the way right now. They are the pulse, the heartbeat. If institutions don’t respond in a way that is genuine and that is really doing the hard work that goes along with making radical change, then I don’t see how these places can continue speaking this language around being contemporary or radical or dedicated to social justice. It will be totally meaningless. I really connect with those young people because I was that brown kid going from La Villita to my free art program in River North, commuting, taking two trains, probably a bus, coming home late. That was very meaningful to me, to have that independence and to feel supported, but I know that that was meaningful to that arts organization too, to have me there. It’s about this mutuality. When things are totally off-balance, and one is taking more than giving, then we have a problem. I don’t know the answers exactly. My hope is that people in leadership will understand what they need to do to create spaces where people feel like they belong. Especially when we look at the city of Chicago and who lives here. My mom should feel welcomed at any of these art institutions, but she doesn’t.
You’ve spoken about how art-making can induce liberatory acts. You focus on collective projects in communities that historically have had less arts access—how does art fit into a larger goal of liberation or creating a more just world?
The experience of making art or seeing art has transformative power because it gets to the gut and heart of something. Maybe you cannot put words to it, but the feeling is transformative. I’ve seen that in different capacities, like working with families on my block or with youth or teaching at the Art Institute or at Cook County Jail, I see how it transforms someone or a group of people. I experience it through working with others, through making installations. We are living in a moment where there’s so much confinement and restriction that I think art allows for an openness, an opportunity to reimagine yourself, to reimagine a society, to rehearse. Augusto Boal says something like, theater is not the revolution but it’s the rehearsal for revolution. I love that quote because it’s so true. You can work out ideas through art-making. Or think about how that can be applied in your social life, your political life. Somebody said this to me the other day, artists are like first responders, which I love because we are bearing witness to what’s happening and then we’re translating it to objects or experiences or music. That then allows for others to see their story in that experience and that is a way we can connect as humans. That is a way we can go beyond the capitalistic, patriarchal, homophobic society we’re confronted with. And that’s liberation! I shouldn’t say that’s liberation, necessarily, it’s more like, that is working toward it.