Criminal Justice System Explored Through Art

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It’s not just black and white is an art project that explores Arizona’s criminal justice system through the eyes of those who experience it. Artist Gregory Sale and ASU Art Museum Curator John Spiak talk about the project.

José Cárdenas: There is an art exhibition in the valley giving people the opportunity to explore and examine Arizona's criminal justice system. The project is called "it's not just black and white." And with me tonight to talk about the exhibit is artist Gregory Sale and ASU art museum curator John Spiak. John, let's talk about the background of the project. This is one in a series of presentations, projects that your department's been working on.

John Spiak: The museum started an initiative in 2007 called social studies and we bring in a artist in residence from another country or community to engage with our community for usually a six-week period. This is the first time we invited a local artist to participate and we've extended that project from six week to a three month project. And this is the first of a series of the social studies initiatives funded by the Andy Warhol foundation for the visual arts.

José Cárdenas: And in terms of the series itself this is number what?

John Spiak: This is the sixth in the series.

José Cárdenas: And the idea behind this particular project?

John Spiak: The idea behind the particular project, we invited Gregory sale, who has been involved with all the social studies project to date with his classes to propose to us an idea about a social engagement practice he wanted to participate in through this project.

José Cárdenas: And Gregory, you have done other kinds of social practice art that fit that description but never anything like in?

Gregory Sale: That is correct. I was feeling a real urgency to sort of run a test, to run an experiment to see if I could bring together my various skills as an artist, as a person who works well in government and public policy areas and social networks to engage some very difficult topics and discussions that I felt needed to happen in our community. And incarceration was just one that mattered to me a lot. And that's why I decided to champion dialogue and sort of host conversation around this topic.

José Cárdenas: One thing about this exhibition, it's not static in any sense of the world.

John Spiak: No.

José Cárdenas: It's not the kind of thing somebody could go in on Friday and somebody goes in a few days later and sees the exact same thing.

Gregory Sale: That is correct. I can talk about the structure how that plays out. But I wanted to begin with a sort of environment or backdrop, an installation that could help focus a dialogue around this topic. And so I went and built a relationship with the Maricopa County sheriff's office, because I thought they had been very effective at using visual signals or visual language to communicate some of their messages. And I invited in inmates participating in rehab reentry program called Alpha, to work with me and some of my students and artist collaborators to paint the walls of the gallery in black and white stripes.

José C'ardenas: We have a video that we want to run now that shows this process that was going on and what are we seeing right here? Is it the beginning of the whole thing?

Gregory Sale: Yeah, the beginning of our time together was that we -- we -- I really wanted everybody to feel comfortable in the environment and we had interviewed and spoken together at jail and we began by having everyone go on a tour of the museum. Here, you have us beginning to paint the stripes, we did other activities with them, we interviewed, we worked together on another series of different artistic gestures to create this environment where the other activities will unfold.

José Cárdenas: Now, one the things we saw in the video was writing, in addition to the black and white stripes.

Gregory Sale: There's one wall in the gallery I decided would be nice to tear it down and I said to the inmate, this wall is going to be torn down in two months. You can read it as a metaphor for the wall in the institution coming down, it could be the institution of the criminal justice system or any other -- let me give you a cue, and let's say, is it lock or key that keeps us free? If the system were more visible, would we change it? How? Write, draw or record your thoughts. This wall will be torn down in April, 2011. And so the inmates were the first to make a mark on it, to draw on it, to make their own expressions.

José Cárdenas: And John, as Gregory says, the inmates were the first. But they're not the only ones contributing to the wall.

John Spiak: The general public comes in, the text for that visual cue is there and anyone is welcome to write and add their contributions and there's a phone system that they can record and it has a recording and a playback device so people can listen to previously recorded message, an audio graffiti piece.

José Cárdenas: Have you had much audience participation with the respect to the recordings?

John Spiak: Definitely. The first day we invited inmates in, there were five drawings on the wall. The wall is completely covered now and there's overlapping and actually the conversations occurring where people are commenting on others' writings and they're being commented back upon.

José Cárdenas: I'm sorry, Greg?

Gregory Sale: I think it would help if I explained the structure of interaction with this project. You know, when you go to a conference and they'll have tract tracks of activities, there are three in this project. The first are these collaborative artistic gestures of which the painting and wall are two of the four or five that will happen. The second track of activity are factually based tours and panels and forms, calling those research and that might be that you can sign up to go on a tour of tent city jail. We have five lined up. We've done two so far. And then the third is open bookings, that's where an organization or group that can demonstrate a sustained engagement in civil justice or practices of law and order could book the space to use.

José C'ardenas: And are you seeing much oral conversation by people there? You talked about the messages going back and forth, written and oral, but as people are there, are you hearing dialogue?

John Spiak: I think we're definitely hearing dialogue and it's a diverse dialogue. Organizations come in and they're meeting at the same time or in the space engaging at the same time, and the diverse organizations, somebody from Maricopa County, somebody from adult probation, somebody from a nonprofit organization to social justice and these individuals have never met and new they've come together and in a conversation, a sustained conversation about similar practice, but different approaches to those same practices.

José Cárdenas: Now Gregory I want to talk about you what you've gotten out of this and what others have. Before we do that, the video of male inmate, but there's also a female inmate component. I think we have a picture of one aspect of this we're going to show on the screen. Describe that to me. There's the picture I'm talking about.

Gregory Sale: OK there is -- Within those collaborative artistic workshop, I call pearls, one is a mother-daughter distance dance and collaborating and supporting a choreographer, Elizabeth Johnson and a dance instructor, and we've gone in to Estrella Jail, it's has a program called journey home. Reentry and the women who graduated from that program were eligible to continue in a separate program which is a mother-daughter distance dance workshop. And so they've taken a certain number of dance classes at jail, arranged through their families for their daughters to take dance lessons at the museum, and then we're going to do a sort of virtually connected workshop where the daughters and mothers get to dance for and with each other.

José Cárdenas: We've only got a little bit of time left. Two things, one is that what people have gotten out of it question I have for both of you and I want to talk about the research aspect and speakers you've got coming up. John, first in terms of what people are learning from this.

John Spiak: I think people are learning a lot about visual cues. The stripes are used in our community to a way that's recognizable, you see the stripes and you know there's a connection to that visual culture but yet we never examine or question that. By putting them into the museum context, it allows people to contemplate what those stripes are actually about. What it means to wear stripes.

José Cárdenas: We've got some information on the screen. And I'm afraid the only time we have left is to ask you about the upcoming lectures, particularly Angela Davis.

Gregory Sale: Angela Davis, it's in the works, looks like it's going to happen in may. Done with the dean of humanities and other folks around that. And she will come to campus and give a lecture on are prisons obsolete and do a book signing and reception in the gallery and we have a number of other activities, so you may come on one day when there's something interesting happening and the until day, looks like a empty classroom.

José Cárdenas: And with that note, we're going to have to end. Thank you both for joining us on Horizonte.

Gregory Sale: Thank you very much.

John Spiak: Thank you very much.

Gregory Sale:artist;John Spiak:Curator, ASU Art Museum;

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