It was a couple of very busy concluding weeks for Gregory Sale’s social practice residency/exhibition It’s not just black and white, which officially closed on Saturday, May 14. Led by the artist, individuals came together through artistic gestures, gatherings and programs that have figuratively and literally broken down walls, working toward dismantling often blindly accepted and stereotypical power and victim structures in our society that are consistently unspoken or brushed aside. They are the difficult conversations that need to take place in an open society to move forward in positive directions, yet they often do not occur because of our biases, preconceived notions and unwillingness to listen in respectful ways to opposing viewpoints.
The ASU Art Museum has a long tradition of providing a safe venue for community discourse – including Francesc Torres’ Too Late For Goya (1993), a real-time analysis of the first Iraqi conflict, Desert Storm; school programs collaborating with artists Brain Weil for his project AIDS Photographs (1994); public conversations and panels addressing civil war and conflict through the exhibition programs associated with Art Under Duress: El Salvador 1980 – Present (1995); social injustices presented by artist Sue Coe’s visits and programs in association with Heel of the Boot (1996); twenty-one Cuban artists visiting and directly engaging with our community through Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island (1998); and the numerous projects, panels and outreach programs addressing city growth and the responsibilities associated with such growth through the exhibitions Sites Around the City: Art and Environment (2000), nooks and crannies (2001), New American City: Artists Look Forward (2007), Defining Sustainability (2009) and Open for Business (2010).
It is this institution’s curatorial approach through a social practice mind-set that sets it apart from the majority of institutions addressing contemporary art in the United States.
We open the institution to the artist-driven ideas of social practice, rather than inviting the artist into the institution under the guise of social practice with the agenda of solving one of the museum’s problems, such as way-finding, age-group audience building, empty spaces or a one-off exhibition, as is the case with many of the institutions within the United States today. Dedicating a long-term initiative to social practice, the ASU Art Museum has fully committed to this type of artistic practice and, more specifically, to the artists and their vision. With that commitment, we find that artists often create what seem like new problems for our institution rather than solving existing ones, but we embrace their ideas and work to realize them to their fullest potential.
I provide this background to give a better understanding of what Gregory has achieved over the past three months and give you an insight into how much this overall initiative has developed through the experiences and research of this institution’s past projects. Gregory’s project definitely pushed the barriers for our institution, and we are much stronger and better informed because of his unbelievable efforts, vision and artistic practice.
As I mentioned above, it has been a three-month residency, but this post is just going to cover the last two weeks of the project. The project has concluded, and we are now in the process of sorting documentation, reflecting on what has happened, submitting reports to museum participants and supporters, and fundraising for a more expanded catalogue, which will document the entire project.
Any conversation about issues of criminal justice and incarceration in Arizona would be incomplete without the acknowledgement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s role in current policy. Yes, he is a polarizing figure — his Tent City Jail complex, the striped uniforms, pink underwear, immigration round-ups — but from the beginning it was important that this be acknowledged in a way that brought value to It’s not just black and white. At the beginning we stepped lightly, as a key component of Gregory’s vision was working with the inmates within the gallery space of the museum. The inmates’ visit had been approved by the sheriff, so we worked hard to avoid any conflicts occurring prior to the completion of the inmates’ visits. Once Gregory was set into the project and the inmate visits were complete, we began to brainstorm about best approaches for inviting the sheriff into the overall conversation. Gregory and I felt it was important that people have a firsthand opportunity to hear from the sheriff regarding his policies and programs, instead of the sound bites fed through media. It was an opportunity for individuals to hear directly, to ask questions in person and get past the media circus or shout-down that often occurs. We went to the sheriff’s office and met with him in person, inviting him to the ASU Art Museum for a roundtable conversation titled Considering Matters of Visual Culture and Incarceration, and he accepted.
On April 29, the gallery space was packed with individuals from all walks of life: students, museum staff and patrons, civic leaders, former inmates, activists and others. Prominent figures at the table with Sheriff Arpiao included Frantz Beasley, former convict and Director of Arizona Common Grounds; Barbara Broderick, Chief Probation Officer, Maricopa County Adult Probation Department; Jeremy Mussman, Deputy Director, Maricopa County Public Defender; Jerry Sheridan, Chief, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office; and Gordon Knox, Director, ASU Art Museum, as well as Gregory and myself. The conversation opened with an overview of the project, which I presented, followed by a presentation by Gregory on the history of the stripe in visual culture and incarceration, which included the forced wardrobe of 14th-century prostitutes who had been pardoned by St. Nicolas, Charlie Chaplin imagery from early films, Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, and performance artist Vanessa Beecroft’s Ponti sister project in Pescara, Italy.
Gregory then engaged the sheriff in conversation, asking him about his use of visual identifiers within the current Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, mentioned previously in this blog. The sheriff explained how most of these uses came to fruition within the structure of the system as guided through his vision. It was an insightful conversation, with audience members being able to judge for themselves the value of their use. The sheriff also talked about the programs within the system of which he was proud, including the ALPHA and Journey Home programs; individuals from both programs participated in It’s not just black and white activities. There were lots of questions and conversation on the topic of exploitation, but what I found most telling from the program was Sheriff Arpiao’s insistence that it is extremely difficult to attract press to the positive programs in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. After experiencing what I have over the course of this three-month residency with Gregory, I think the sheriff may be on to something. Yes, it is so easy to get press in our society for the over-the-top, often exploitive and morbid occurrences in society, but much more difficult to get the same amount of press for the positive. Think of your nightly news — it almost always leads with the sensational and graphic story, saving all positive stories until the last five minutes of the telecast. So when the topic came up about the sheriff’s posting of online “Mugshots of the Day” which viewers can rate, something clicked in my mind. I do find this an abuse. The sheriff stated that “media post such mugshots all the time,” but it still doesn’t make this activity right. What I find to be the even greater problem is that society engages these sites, makes them popular, visits and votes. It becomes a sort of joke — “how funny some of these people look, especially since they are someone other than us” — but people visiting the site might not consider the fact that many of these individuals are pre-sentenced and still presumed innocent by law, and that they may have mental illness issues or may be victims of abuse. These images become a part of the visual culture and perhaps desensitize us to the real issues we need to address as a whole society. So perhaps, in an effort to draw attention to the positive, programs such as ALPHA and Journey Home, which do appear to be having an impact, should be the featured spotlights on the Maricopa County Sheriff’s website.
That afternoon was capped off with a visit to the space by artist Mel Chin. Mel was in the Valley for a think tank on public art and is a friend of the ASU Art Museum. You might recall the museum’s participation in his Fundred Dollar Bill project last year and our screening of his animated film project 9-11/9-11. It provided us an opportunity to get an update on Mel’s project and to share with him the activities of Gregory’s over the past three months. It’s always great to have Mel here in town.
May 2nd marked the third and final visit by the high school students from Adobe Mountain and Black Canyon detention centers. Through temporary (escorted) furloughs arranged by Gregory, we were able to get to know these young people in amazing ways, working together through artistic discovery and practice. This day was packed with activities rooted in the promise Gregory made to them on their first visit, that they as a group would decide the best approach and work together to tear down the community grafitti wall. The wall had been written upon, first by inmates on day one, then by those who visited the space over the course of the three-month project. The students were handed small notebooks and asked by the artist to rediscover the wall, thinking about 12 specific questions and responding to those questions any way they wished in their notebooks. Upon completion of this activity, there was a group reflection and sharing conversation. The young artists were then provided disposable cameras, each with one of the 12 questions printed on it. The students were asked once again to rediscover the wall and document components of the wall’s collective gestures in photographic form based upon the questions, which they did. It was then time for lunch, so we all headed to a local restaurant for a hearty meal, returning to the museum to find all the photographs taken by the students developed and spread across tables within the gallery. Again, there was a group reflection and sharing conversation, leading into the discussion on ideas concerning the tearing down of the actual wall.
Then the tools came out — hammers, ladders, crowbars, drills. Working with Gregory, the students began on the back side of the wall, dismantling the drywall from the aluminum stud structure. Once the back of the wall was removed, it was again time for conversation. The students examined both sides of the wall and brought their ideas for best approaches to use in taking down the front side. It was decided that, if possible, the wall should come down in one large piece, with every attempt made to prevent it from splitting or cracking. The students worked to free the drywall from the vertical studs, hoping that the horizontal studs would still hold it in place, and it worked. Once the wall was freed, ladders were place on the back side so that the students could position themselves to push from the top. On the count of three everyone pushed and the wall came down in one large piece — success!
The remainder of the day everyone worked together to clean-up and then create an installation from the remaining materials of the wall within the space, before sitting together to enjoy bowls of ice cream and one last conversation about the overall experience. It was at that moment one of the young girls shared the fact she is getting out in a month and already had scheduled a meeting with the associate dean, based upon her meeting the associate dean on the students’ second visit to the museum, to talk about scholarship opportunities and the application process for attending ASU’s School of Dance.
A few days later, working with the collaborative support of ASU Project Humanities, noted scholar, activist and author Angela Davis presented a public lecture titled “Incarceration of Education? The Future of Democracy.” With over 600 people in the room and another 100 outside, Ms. Davis gave an inspiring hour-long talk focused on the industrialization of both the criminal justice and education systems, providing the background history on the development of these structures, their current state and the impact these approaches are having today in the United States. Her talk was followed by a brief conversation with Gregory and audience questions. The audience was then invited to join us in the It’s not just black and white gallery space for a book signing and powerful live dance/music/spoken word performance by Grisha Coleman, Eden McNutt, Sam Pilafian, Eileen and Monica Page Subia titled “Days/Months/Years.”
The final week of the project kicked off with a program of training for community volunteers working with the recently released, led by the National Advocacy and Training Network through Support, Education, Empowerment and Directions (NATN/SEEDS). The seven-hour training was conducted with mentors from the GINA’s Team’s Welcome Home Program and members of the public.
May 9th marked a wonderful day, which started with a meeting in the gallery of the Maricopa Adult Probation Division Unit. Immediately following that meeting we began to reunite with some of our collaborators who painted the original stripes on the gallery walls when they were inmates of the Maricopa County Jail. Now released, Joshua, Michael, Grayson, James and Erik (you might remember Erik from the previous post; he came back after release and proposed to his girlfriend in front of the graffiti wall) all joined us back in the space, coming on their own time to help Gregory and a few of his original students and community collaborators paint the black stripes white. It was a very symbolic dismantling of this space that had been visually charged by these stripes over the past three months. It was so great to reconnect with these guys and to see them in their personal clothing. They all mentioned how the ALPHA program helped them move forward and how their original experience in the museum space was their second best day of jail (the first being the day they were released). They are starting new jobs, reconnecting with family and moving forward in positive directions. Over the course of the final week, the guys came back for two additional visits, continuing to paint the black stripes out. It has been a pleasure to have them participate in the project, and I look forward to their continued engagement with the programs here at the ASU Art Museum.
The final Tuesday night presented the program Changing the Face of Re-Entry. AZ Common Ground and its partners, South Mountain Re-Entry Coalition, Kingdom Communities of the Valley (KCV) and Phoenix Police Department, presented the history, evolution and success of the community engagement model that is truly changing the face of re-entry. The program has been so successful in south Phoenix that it is now guiding programs in Houston and Miami. When you see the passion of the individuals, including members of the Phoenix Police Department, making a significant difference and affecting policy from inside the system, it gives you hope in our ability to find solutions to the current difficulties we face as a society. And to hear that AZ Common Ground came about through conversations among inmates within the system trying to figure out how they were going to survive on the outside with only about $75 to their names, it makes all that they have accomplished in such a short amount of time even more astonishing. A big shout out to AZ Common Ground’s Frantz Beasley for putting this together and allowing us the honor of hosting the event within the gallery space. A truly inspiring evening!
And as Gregory had planned from the beginning, the last week provided opportunities for reflection. On May 10th, Conscious Connections led a walking meditation from the space. The organization specializes in yoga and meditation study with at-risk and diverse communities.
During the afternoon of May 12, a group of individuals who are trained in association with the national organization Prison Visitors came together with Museum staff and Gregory’s collaborators for a conversation and contemplation. The individuals leading the conversation are specially trained and approved to visit federal and military institutions. For many prisoners, these visitors are the only contact they have with the outside world. Their insight and conversation during the afternoon transpired into a silent reflection period as we all concluded our day at the museum.
The last day of the project was marked by the revisit of our collaborators, who put finishing touches on the black stripes to make them white. The space was returned to a white box gallery of sorts, with hint or what had occurred still present. To conclude the project, collaborators and public were invited to join in a one-hour introduction to meditation, a very fitting way to conclude such a project and move forward from what we have experienced.
Thank you to all the individuals who participated in programs and activities, and to those who made this entire project possible. The project would not have been a success without the support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the openness and guidance of the ASU Administration and legal team, specifically Jose Cardenas, Art Lee and Bruce Hooper; Kwang-Wu Kim, Dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; ASU Art Museum Director Gordon Knox and Associate Director Heather Lineberry; Bill Hart, Senior Policy Analyst, Morrison Institute for Public Policy; Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and most specifically MaryEllen Sheppard and our collaborator SRT Officers; Dean of Humanities Dr. Neal Lester and Brittany Allcott of ASU Project Humanities; Choreographers Elizabeth Johnson and Teniqua Broughton; Lindsay Herf and Katie Puzauskas of the Arizona Justice Project; Dr. LaDawn Haglund and Dr. Alan Eladio Gómez of ASU’s School of Social Transformation (Justice and Social Inquiry); Ana Maria Tomchek, Elmar Cobos, Margie Lucas, Adam Henning, Laura Dillingham, Peter Luszczak of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections; Sue Ellen Allen of Gina’s Team; ASU Art Museum preparators Stephen Johnson and Chris Miller; artist collaborators Kara Linn Roschi, Matthew Mosher, Jason Dillon, Stephen Gittins, Ricardo Leon, Ashley Hare, Claes Bergman, Matthew Garcia, Brett Thomas, David Tinapple, Rebecca Ferrell, Cory Bergquist, Amariell Ramsey, Kimberly Haug, Nathan McWhorter, Kathleen Arcovio, Catherine Akins, Chris Santa Maria; members of Gregory’s Advisory Committee; and most importantly the fourteen adults and fifteen youths who took a chance with us while they were serving time, and were open to our process and willing to join us in efforts of move things forward in positive ways.
-John Spiak, CuratorClick to view slideshow.
It’s not just black and white is supported by grants from
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and
Friends of the ASU Art Museum.
Additional Blog Posts
Angela Davis, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Youth in Detention = Social Practice
Reconnecting – It’s not just black and white
Dream like you mean it: The Mother-Daughter Distance Dance
Another Active Week and the Schedule for April
Waiting for Release, Sentencing Reform & Welcoming Home
Invitation to Join Us for Volunteer Event – GINA’s Team
Inside & Outside – It’s not just black and white
More Similar Than Different + Tent City Jail Tour Opportunity
You can’t move forward until you know where you are
Olympic Gold Medalist, Gina’s Team and PVCC Students!
IT’S NOT JUST BLACK AND WHITE: Gregory Sale – Social Studies Project 6