“How Do We Be Both Radical and Tender at the Same Time?”: A Conversation with Maria Gaspar

hello! we sat down over the weekend with maria gaspar, a self-describedinterdisciplinary artist born in chicago. using installation, sculpture, performance, audio, and community-engagement processes, her artistic practice negotiates matters of space, contested geographies, and authority. her action-based and performative interventions with youth and adults explore the social and political body through long-term processes. gaspar’s art practice includes founding major community-based art projects, such as city as site (2010) and the 96 acres project, a current series of public, site-responsive art projects that examine the cook county jail and the impact of incarceration on communities of color.”


— chicago artist maria gaspar: portrait by zbigniew bzdak, chicago tribune —

we talked about her ongoing work with the 96 Acres Project and how it connects to her deep investments in performance work, tenderness, and joy (lol same).

Helena Bassett: You talk about 96 Acres as being invested in “a community’s perception of living in proximity to a jail, how they are affected by it, and the impact of incarceration, mostly [on] black and brown communities.” A large part of this work seems to be archival to me, and I know you’re building an archive of audio work as well. So I was wondering what you see as the relationship between the work of archive and the work of transforming the conditions of violence themselves? How do those two things relate, or how are there breakdowns?

Maria Gaspar: I probably wouldn’t say that a large part of the work is archival. For the past three years, we’ve done a couple things. One thing is we definitely have a collection of audio recordings that we’ve been gathering from a lot of different kinds of people, like local folks in the neighborhood who talk about how they’ve been affected by incarceration, or children of folks who’ve been incarcerated, or just others talking about the perception they have about the jail. Our largest focus, though, was on developing site responsive projects that were meant to think about the jail wall as a sort of political frame, a kind of cultural and social framework. It’s about the ways that artists and community members can together creatively attempt to dissolve that wall.

A lot of the people who have been part of the project are folks who have directly been affected by incarceration. The primary stories that they bring are really important — what we do is about that most true voice that comes from those people, those communities. And so the way that we thought about the site responsive projects is that each of them was critically looking at the [relationship between] the institution of [that] jail to [the larger system of] prison itself, while also being sensitive to the communities that actually live around that jail. To create projects that were kind of intervention-style, you know? Like, how do we begin to push against the normal way that we see places like jails and prisons, and instead reimagine them? All of them except two involved a lot of performative elements like theatre, community-engaged processes that were very performative. So they were all kind of action based, and we always documented them through video because it felt like the most natural way of documenting those works. It was a way to get a sense of what it’s really about, which is that it’s a live experience. And the video helps you get a sense of the actions that were taking place and the responses that were being generated.

And the other part that happened was that there was a group of teachers that were part of the advisory committee, and they’re the ones that felt really strongly that they wanted to create curriculum in response to these art projects. And so they created zines and related curricula and started using them in their classrooms.

Wow, that’s so cool! Are those resources available online or anything?

MG: Yeah! Here’s the link, it includes instructions too, so people can learn. You have to fold them a certain way, so Silvia gave instructions as part of the kit [and here is what the zine will look like at the end, and some of Silvia’s thoughts about it!].

But in terms of just the archive of the audio work, I really believe that there’s community knowledge and community scholarship that communities all across Chicago have. And I feel very strongly about that scholarship that, to me, takes place every day in places like Little Village or North Lawndale. And I wanted to make sure that that work was archived and documented in a way that could be shared with others so that people can use it as they like. And we’re still building on it. And anyone can participate — I always have an interest in art that doesn’t feel like it’s exclusive. For example, I come from a painting background, I was a muralist and started out doing that. But often people will say things to me like “I can’t draw” or “I can only draw stick figures” — things like that. And so, to me, the various projects that we’ve done through 96 Acres employ different kinds of artistic tools and creative mediums that allow  many different kinds of people to participate so it doesn’t feel like only the artist can do it. A form of pluralizing.


I feel like what has been effective at least with 96 Acres is that people are also joyous, you know? [laughs] Like when we do the things, it’s like oh — we can laugh. And we can maybe ask each other hard questions, but then we can hang out afterwards, or we can go dancing. It’s like, how do you extend the work into one’s life too, so that it is really about building community, about crossing those lines that are often a part of our lives.

I love that idea, about joy being crucial to work that can dislodge anything that is long held in the body. Joy has something of the future in it.

MG: Yeah, I always use the word ‘tender,’ and I really feel that’s something that I’m trying to get to: how do we create spaces that are tender towards one another, but that are also really radical. How do we be both radical and tender at the same time? How can you be loving but also really challenging each other? How do we both?

How do you practice that tenderness, in 96 Acres?

MG: Experience tenderness? Let me think. There’s a couple examples. I think I’ve talked about some of the teachers. We did a couple of workshops at the Hull House and we did a couple of workshops at Gallery 400 last year. And we invited different facilitators…. And some of the workshops were around surveillance and power, and some of them were about radical play and community organizing. That was led by Coya Paz from Free Street Theatre who’s just a badass, Irina Zadov from the Hull House Museum, and other equally amazing human beings like Silvia Gonzalez, who’s a teacher at Village Leadership Academy (who’s also just an amazing educator and brilliant human being). And so they facilitated a workshop for youth and adults, and it was about “how do we incorporate play into the way we think about radically reimagining the world?” And it was such a beautiful workshop. What I loved about it was there was a lot of moments in which they had people partner together and do exercises by people like Augusto Boal for example, from Theatre of the Oppressed… and they did adaptations of that. There were also moments of just sheer playing,  of playing games together. I often feel that when people are talking about really difficult and heavy things, that sometimes we just “get to the thing.” But what I loved about how they were creatively thinking about it was in that question, how do we create spaces for ourselves to be creative, to be playful, to be just silly? Because if we create those silly, creative spaces, then maybe that also allows us to tap into creative alternatives for prisons and jails. That leads to a process of really like, “Let’s think really big about what we would want to do.” So I really liked the ways that the message that they used really demonstrated that process: of doing something highly political, and highly radical, but also something that was so, so fun, and tender, and creative.


I know that one of your questions is what’s up next for 96 Acres. One of the things that’s next… involves developing a radio or podcast program. The idea is that it will be located physically in Little Village, very very close to the jail. We are proposing to work with detainees in doing a project where we are able to communicate between the inside and the outside through audio and sound projects. You spend so much time on the outside doing these works, and it’s exciting to think about what a program could look like by doing something that’s about both sides of that wall. And sound is important here. Sound, to me, is a really great medium because it truly transcends borders. If it’s radio it gets broadcasted out, and if it’s podcast it goes all over the world. It can do multiple things. There’s a lot of logistics about what that program will look like, but I’m excited about those challenges and about what problem solving will look like with the committee of 96 Acres.

Now for something a little more personal — what’s your antidote to winter depression?

MG: Oh man! I feel like movement around, like my body needs to move. So dancing is my antidote.

I love that too! Do you dance in your house? Where do you dance?

MG:  I’ll dance in my house, I’ll dance in the studio, I mean if there’s a really good house music DJ somewhere, I am there and I’m just gonna dance it out! Dancing is my thing. It’s important – once my body feels static, my brain feels static. There’s a lot of 96 Acres people on the steering committee that share this and so it works out — we try to meet up on the dance floor.

meet you on the dance floor,

e + h


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