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 http://www.gregorysaleart.com/).
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.