Duration: 12 minutes 35 seconds
Hello. My name is Rachel Nelson, I’m director and chief curator of the Institute of the Arts and Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and I welcome you today to the audio tour for Maria Gaspar’s Compositions. Maria Gaspar is an award-winning, Chicago-based artist who works across a variety of mediums from public actions, sound broadcasts, sculptures, paintings, to videos. Over the last decade, Maria has used these different forms of art to explore the roles of art and creative practices within the collective struggle against the United States’ carceral system. For Compositions, we’ve brought together a series of works that the artist has made particularly considering the Cook County Department of Corrections, the largest single-site jail in the United States based in Chicago. The artworks in Compositions engaged this jail not only as a site of violence, but also as a place of possibilities. Across video, sculpture, photography, painting, and performance, Maria performs acts of alchemy—transforming the material of the jail into that which can build a more just world.
At the center of Compositions, Maria Gaspar’s solo exhibition, is an over 60-hour time-lapse video called Clamour (2023). Clamour documents from beginning to end the demolition of the oldest building of Cook County Departments of Corrections, also known as Cook County Jail. The jail is located in the little villages neighborhood in Chicago and occupying 96 acres, is the largest single-site jail in the United States. 7,500 people are held behind its walls. This immense facility bisects the primarily Latinx neighborhood in which it is located, and where the artist is from. It has a similarly oversized impact on the neighborhood, which matches its scale. People end up behind the wall that separates the jail from the neighborhood because they work there, or because they have to go to court, or because they’ve been booked into the facility. It serves as a backdrop to life in the area running alongside a major transportation route, which for instance, Maria experienced daily on her bus rides to school as a child.
When Maria learned that the planned demolition of the division one building (built in 1926) due to its state of disrepair, she set up a camera across the street from the demolition. Over three weeks, she recorded the process from 7-4 p.m. every day while the crews were working. In the video, the building slowly disappears behind the concrete wall that surrounds the jail as cars and buses drive by and pedestrians stroll past. The sounds of the demolition reverberate in the room and as the building is shown being painstakingly pulled apart and turned to rubble, what emerges are questions of what could take the place of this jail in ruins; a jail disappeared from the landscape, other than more jails and prisons.
- At the Same Time One and Many
At The Same Time One And Many (2023) is a series of three sculptures of demolition attachments. These tools are seen in Clamour, the 60-hour video at the center of Maria Gaspar’s exhibition. In that video, they’re seen being used to demolish a Cook County jail building. For Compositions the sculptures of the bucket, the claw, and the magnetic grappler are scattered around the exhibition. Disconnected from the crane which guides their movement in the video footage, and rendered in white, the demolition attachments seem almost like ruins. In fact, the artist explains that she thinks of them of composing part of a boneyard of sorts. Through their ghostliness, their immateriality, the sculptures help create a site in which the history of incarceration and its impacts on communities can be excavated. The demolition attachments have become tools with which to unearth the harms that prisons, jails, and detention centers enact on communities and neighborhoods. Against the background of the video, a time based medium, the sculptures manipulate time (it’s made to stand still). In this experiential environment, it is not hard to imagine that the problems of incarceration are in the past, and we’re invited to consider what it would take to reach this moment.
- Invisible Things Are Not Necessarily Not-There (after T.M.)
Invisible Things Are Not Necessarily Not-There (after T.M.) (2023) is an artwork by Maria Gaspar named in reference to writing by Tony Morrison in her influential text “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”. The artwork is composed of 23 glass casts of iron bars and bricks, which were among rubble from the demolition of the Cook County Jail. While Maria recorded the demolition of the jail, she spent over 3 weeks standing outside of its walls. People began talking to her as they passed in and out of the jail to go to work or court. One of these people, a judge, came out and handed Maria an iron bar from the demolition as he said, “A memento”. For Maria, this was a striking moment–the bar, almost 100 years old, was from a cell, and as the artist explains it, “bears the imprint of all the hands that have touched it, and the violence of their incarceration over the century”. While she did not know at first what she would do with this weighty piece of history, Maria began to notice that every day, when the demolition crew left the site, a neatly arranged pile of bars and bricks were left outside the gate. She assumes for current and former people who worked at the prison to also take as mementos. She began taking some of these items daily, until she was told to stop by the guard.
Before you are glass casts of the 23 bars and bricks which she accumulated before she was told to stop. Unwilling to show the remnants of the jail in its original form, the artist here has instead transformed the iron bars and bricks into, as she puts it, windows. However, these are not windows to see into the prison system or even outside of its cells. Instead, they are windows into a world without prisons and jails. This work dematerializes the jail and destabilizes it as materials that seem immovable and permanent become portals.
- Cloud Outs
Cloud Outs are a series of five large-scale paintings by Maria Gaspar from 2023. Each painting is done on a high-resolution photograph of the Cook County Jail. These photos were taken over various stages of the demolition of the Division One building—the oldest part of the jail. In each image, the artist has found a moment where the sky over the jail was vivid and distinct with clouds and sunshine. In applying oil and pastels to the print, she’s brought the cloudy skies down to erase the jail. As the artist explains, this is a response to the many workshops she’s held and participated in with people outside of the jail and people who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Over the last decade, Maria has taught in Cook County Jail and worked with community groups extensively. These workshops have often led to discussions about what people would like to replace the jail with for the health and well-being of the community. As she learned, most people want a park on the 96 acres of land that the jail occupies—a place where they can sit under the sky with their family and friends, a place where children can play and fly kites. In these paintings, which recall the history of Euro-American landscape painting, which produced idealized versions of places, Maria brings that dream into sight.
- Disappearance Jail
Disappearance Jail (2023) is an ongoing archive poetically recording the eventual erasure of jails, prisons, and detention centers across the United States. This is a project which Maria Gaspar began during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to go into the Cook County Jail or Statesville Prison where she teaches and creates artworks with collaborators, she began searching out images of the 160 jails, prisons, and detention centers in Illinois, and carefully perforating the images with a hole puncher to remove the institutions. While at first she did these perforations by herself, overtime she began to invite community members and collaborators to participate.
Similar to the Cloud Outs (2023) paintings, by removing the institutions in these artworks, what emerges are the new possibilities of landscapes no longer centered around carceral facilities. The perforated images printed on rice paper are also made more delicate, some curl away from the wall on which they hang. As Maria explains, she wanted to disturb the idea of prisons as permanent with this work. She wanted to change the ways in which we perceive them as indestructible and to show them instead as something that when communities come together can be changed and can be taken apart. This idea will be illuminated over the course of the exhibition. On the right side of the installation, there are images of the 265 prisons, jails, and detention centers in California. This state has the largest population of people detained in the nation. Throughout the exhibition, workshops will be held inviting people to work together to also perforate and disappear that immense carceral state system.
- Short Videos (Radioactive: Stories from Behind the Wall, 2018; Not Just Another Day, 2015; Park, 2015; The Visibility Project, 2015)
Five short films which document public actions undertaken by Maria Gaspar and her collaborators inside and outside of Cook County Jail are on view in the screening room. Some of these films represent Maria’s 96 Acres Project, which took place from 2012 to 2016. Named after the 96 acres that the Cook County jail is located on, the project is composed of a series of community-engaged site-responsive art projects examining the impact of incarceration in Chicago’s West Side.
One video, Not Just Another Day, documents an intervention Maria organized with youth artists during which they power-washed texts onto the walls and sidewalks around the prison about how to enact systemic change. Radioactive: Stories from Beyond the Wall, 2018 documents the collaborative processes which led to a large-scale public art event at the north-end wall of the Cook County Jail in 2015. The artist worked with folks incarcerated inside the jail on sound recordings and drawings which were then broadcast and projected onto outside of the jail’s wall. Community members and passersby were able to experience these intimate and creative stories from inside jail outside its borders. These and other films provide context for Compositions, showing the processes through which Maria’s abolitionist art practice contributes to the movement to end incarceration through creativity and community.
Clamour, 2022, Digital video (60:20:00)
At the Same Time One and Many, 2023, Wood, foam, foam coat, paint
Invisible Things Are Not Necessarily Not-There (after T.M.), 2023, 23 individual cast glass sculptures
Cloud Outs, 2023, 5 archival pigment prints with oil pastel on Hahnemuhle paper
Disappearance Jail, 2021-Ongoing, 165+ perforated archival Inkjet prints on Rice paper
Short Videos (Radioactive: Stories From Behind the Wall, 2018; Not Just Another Day, 2015; Park, 2015; The Visibility Project, 2015)