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Open Invitation

If you have participated in the project and would like to contribute to the blog, please contact Gregory Sale.

Notes on Gregory Sale’s It’s not just black and white (blog # 3)
A blog by Arthur J Sabatini, Associate Professor of Performance Studies, ASU

Though in certain ways it is obvious, there are not many discussions about the visual culture and aesthetic dimensions of the criminal justice system. Or, to be more precise, for all the novels, works of theater and performance, as well as films, television series and documentaries that relate the dramas of crime and punishment, law and order, policing, criminality and incarceration – something about the physicality, viscerality and “look” of the subject often seems unknowledged unless it is as aspect of high drama (as in the series, Oz). What I am getting at – and what It’s not just black and white engages most directly – is that there is a formalized, public aesthetics to the order and actions of the agencies of the State and Nation that defines space, time and relations of people and the agencies of governmental power.

As for the everyday law enforcement system, when it comes to buildings and other sites, the citizen knows immediately – and is meant to know – what to expect. In any ordinary type of interaction with the police, courts or jails, everything is peremptorily framed by the architecture, signage and the expressions and body language of the officials in any given place. Walk into a national or municipal building and the signs, postings, furniture and décor, along with uniformed and armed persons, establish a stage set for verbal interactions of statements that involve personal identification and a declaration of purpose. This is accomplished with the necessary, but always present non-descript, standardized business props: sign-in sheets, clipboards and pens, filled-in or printed out temporary id tags. Video monitoring systems may or may not be visible. When it comes to witnessing or doing “official” business, the rules of the environment are constraining (which is why when violent disruptions occur in the courtrooms it is palpably disturbing). Invariably, official buildings are also with roped off walkways, waiting areas and more benches than just about any other space you ever visit. The atmosphere and postures associated with sitting and waiting create a tone for bodies and expressions that all but defines the physical experience public encounters with bureaucracies. Everything is proscribed to be orderly, predictable and impersonal. Signs of ambiguity, emotionality, individuation are not valued, though some people act out their anger or grief at being there. Interaction between or among individuals is regulated and, if it involves someone in legal custody, mediated by appointed guards. Of course, if you are a judge, lawyer, police officer or work in these places in any capacity, your clothing, demeanor, awareness of the other personnel and layout of the building as well as your expectations of others are adjusted (somewhat like people who work in hospitals)

Now, we expect certain visual qualities and a general sense of how people are supposed to look and behave in official public spaces, just as we have an idea of what it is like to be in a hospital, museum or classroom. To disrupt or conflate or invade that space – say, if you were to a clown costume to a courtroom – puts employees and officials in a position to react – and enforce – their rules and to exercise their authority. In these times, there are police or security personnel in every government building who often carry weapons and/or communication devices like walkie-talkies. The reality of normalized office life is – maybe even should be – bland.

What It’s not just black and white accomplishes as a project is to physically transport people, imagery, attire and gear and (some of) the mechanics and performances of jail to an art museum. Said another way, the look and experience of incarceration moves to a site dedicated and empowered to authorize symbolic display, creative and aestheticized production, free conversation and movement, public interaction and unfettered reflexive examination and interpretation. The project announces itself with the stripes painted on the ASU Art Museum Wall and relies on multiple written texts, photographs, video tapes and recordings, and a succession events (and the blogs on this website). Art museums, as in all bureacurcies, are also places for archives and they value the retaining of individual works, collections, documentation and records. Art museums are both related to the communities they serve and are part of a worldwide collective of not only other art museums but museums in general.

The important point to emphasize here is that It’s not just black and white is not simply an effort to represent the facts and experiences of the criminal justice and incarceration system by artists and the institution of the ASU Art Museum. It revolves around activities largely by non-artists, including inmates, families, and state employees (although, of course, it is organized by an artist, Gregory Sale). The numerous events, meetings, panels and conversations – including tours of Tent City – are not by definition artistic or aesthetic. However, as It’s not just black and white takes place in the ASU Art Museum and through its agency, the symbolic and aestheticized aspects of the events and the criminal justice and incarceration system are privileged, with the implications that: a) the seemingly unremarkable everyday life of law enforcement and bureaucracy can become or may have inherent aesthetic qualities; b) the art museum can re-present far more facets of human life than it has previously; c) the arts, artists and arts institutions are capable of certain types of social and political activity, if not activism; d) the arts, artists and arts institutions have the potential to operate with external rules and boundaries of other areas culture. That is, the arts and artistic work can investigate, engage, represent, present, organize all or any subjects or actions, or, as in It’s not just black and white, multiple, eclectic, discontinuous and simultaneous projects – even with very few actual artists or art involved. Since such work is not explicitly constrained by an economic, political or ideological agenda – it is essentailly neutral except insofar as it is about art and aesthetics and a determined content which, ultimately creates what is said or shown and its forms of media.

In short, It’s not just black and white does not itself state what is not just black and white, nor does it deliver an interpretation of the central themes of the project (criminal justice and incarceration in Arizona). Rather, it initiates and creates a space – as, arguably, no other activity or institution can – for activity, discussion, and response and significant dialogue.

A blog post by Arthur J Sabatini, Associate Professor of Performance Studies, ASU

In the previous entry, I asked: “how is a project that includes prison tours, readings, meetings of criminal justice professionals, and a series of wall painting activities for selected, current inmates from the Maricopa County Jail Detention Centers actually understandable as art? What type of art might it be? What aesthetics are involved?”

When I use the term aesthetics, I mean it in a way that is current in recent discussions and radically different from the usual connotation of aesthetics as the philosophical discussion of beauty and the effects of the experience of art. (Though there are equally strong on-going discussions of those subjects). Some versions of today’s aesthetics have emerged as a response to the numerous forms of artistic practice that appeared throughout the past century. I am thinking of artistic events and performance work from as far back as the antics of dada around World War I to the street events of The Situationists in the 1960s. I would include performance art and other projects that can be characterizeds as: temporary, conceptual, non-material, open-ended, performative, participatory, autotransforming, extra-spatialized or extra-temporalized, interactive, or otherwise different from traditional or recognized artistic forms. Artists working in new media and installation genres have also created work that resists being an object, self-contained or essentially presentational.

I am also thinking of the many types of public or communiarian work where artists and groups create new texts or objects, reanimate spaces or create events of indeterminate duration. (The Social Studies Series at the ASU Art Museum specifically engages such projects).

One of the thinkers who are addressing the questions surrounding aesthetics today is Jacques Rancière.
In an essay in a collection called, Aesthetics and its Discontents, Polity Press, 2009), he considers how we are in a new period (he calls it a “regime”) in the arts. Aesthetically, in his terms, there is a widening of the sphere of what we call art and it needs to be recognized with different categories than previously used. Rancière writes that

“art consists in constructing spaces and relations to reconfigure materially and symbolically the territory of the common. In situ art practices, displacements of film toward spatialized forms of museum installations, contemporary forms of spatializing music, and current theatre and dance practices – all of these things head in the same direction, toward a despecification of the instruments, materials and apparatuses specific to different arts, a convergence on the same idea of art as a way of occupying a place where relations between bodies, images, spaces and times are redistributed.” ”

The quotation bears particularly upon It’s not just black and white, which significantly alters time and space and involves a variety of events and actions, texts and experiences. By transposing and conceptually and actually integrating the site of the ASU Art Museum with the systems of incarceration in the State of Arizona, It’s not just black and white attempts a recontextualization of the relationship between public spaces and institutional settings. If an art museum can be a place for inmates and guards and the usual constituents of both places intermingle, the suggestion is that this is plausible for other types of socio-political-aesthetic boundaries to be crossed. Furthermore, such an arrangement – with all of the scheduled events and activities – proposes that the human beings involved have encountered a shared and newly organized framework and emergent discourse for interaction. It is one that is at once aesthetic/artistic and legal/criminal/correctional/political/local/social. The very fact of this ‘definitional’ difficulty and the ambiguity of subject matter and discourse, even conversation, is positively disruptive and yet creative. One knows what to say, or what can be said in an art museum or prison, in a classroom, in a newspaper article, in an arts journal – but in the situation where art, artists are simultaneously present with the living fact of others in the context of an overarching, multidimensional ‘project,’ calls attention to a need for recognition, in Rancière’s formulation, not only a novel distribution of time/space/bodies and community, but for a language and rationale to account for the meaning of the event(s). To put it is a few words, what does it mean to talk about (or critique or assess) an artistic/social event – and to whom? And, who speaks?

For me, the title, It’s not just black and white, is a clue. The project does not resolve itself in a clarity that allows for judgment either on aesthetic or socio-political issues. Since both have to be considered, it is arguable that there is a way of thinking and, perhaps, social organization, that discloses the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of the socio-political realm of our lives and, conversely, the socio-politics of the aesthetic and artistic…which is a subject to think about more.

Blog by Arthur J Sabatini, Associate Professor of Performance Studies, ASU

Last Spring, I ran into Gregory Sale, whose projects and performance art pieces have always seemed to me to be engaging, inventive and often subtly provocative. With over a decade long history of work and lots of connections in the world of public art, Gregory takes on ambitious, open ended visual, verbal and performance and interactive projects that insistently raise questions in order to uncover personal, local and localized desires. Working by himself and with collaborators, he mostly asks questions and creates modest objects or texts that disclose unexpected perceptions and implicate deeper social and political undercurrents. In a 2009 project with poet Kimi Eisele, Go Ahead, Wonder, residents of Phoenix were prompted to respond to the query, “Ever wonder about the future of this place?” In Touching Revolution (2010), Gregory set himself up at a table in the Phoenix Art Museum called individuals in countries that had recently experienced political revolutions and asked them how life was going. Other work centered on a Phoenix neighborhood and food, being an “AIDS widow” and attempts to call Yoko Ono. (check out

When Gregory told me about a new project through which he intended to address Arizona’s prison population, jails and the State’s criminal justice system, I was intrigued on many levels. It was more overtly political than anything I knew of that he at worked on previously; and it also seemed far ranging and very ambiguous in terms of its scope, practices, aesthetics and politics. I knew he was not interested in “representing” the legal system or conditions of incarceration, or, say, daily life in Sheriff Arpaio’s jails. Nor was he likely to directly confront the harsh data concerning the 40,000 inmates currently in the correctional system or the traumatic experiences of some individuals. But, I wondered – given the volatile issues in Arizona – how could these subjects be avoided; and, why should they be?

In addition to inevitable questions about the very theme and subject of the show, there were – and are – other complications for  Gregory. Since he was not going to “represent” prison life or dramatize issues – as would a photographic exhibition, collections of writings, or a theater or dance production – what could he do? What exactly could it mean to create an installation, performance, visual or text or video art work that explores the law and incarceration, yet not “represent” the subject matter and human beings involved, especially if a primary site of the project and collaborator in it is the ASU Art Museum? How could the project avoid being either sympathetic or contentious? Or, worse, condescending and exploitative? How could it have a significant content and also make a statement?

Now, as Gregory is a social artist and a practitioner of what is variously called process-based art, community arts and aesthetic research, he has considerable skills and clearly has something to say. Incredibly energetic and unassuming, he is more than capable of bringing people together, organizing activities, and framing events. He can create designs, books and videos. And he can talk. He has enlisted a number of assistants and has produced this website.

Even so, how is a project that includes prison tours, readings, meetings of criminal justice professionals, and a series of wall painting activities for selected, current inmates from the Maricopa County Jail Detention Centers actually understandable as art?  What type of art might it be? What aesthetics are involved? How is it part of the functions and practices of a museum? Who is it for? And, ultimately, what does It’s not just black and white mean, not only for those involved with it but in terms of the very subjects it focuses on?

I do not know the answers to these questions and, at this point, I am not sure Gregory does either. But we have talked about them and he has asked me to blog about It’s not just black and white for its duration. For my part, I want to comment on some of the remarks above in more depth and respond to queries that might come up along the way. Overall, It’s not just black and white not only presents a rare opportunity to discuss issues of public policy, community life, and local and state politics in the context of the arts and performance, museums and the university, the roles of artists and curators… More on all this next time.

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