Articles

On a Block in Chicago, a Participatory Project Visualizes Jail Data

The scene at "PARK: 96 Acres" last Saturday. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The scene at “PARK: 96 Acres” last Saturday. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — It was a broiling Midwestern day, the kind Chicago is famous for. A huge portion of the city was down at the waterfront, taking in the spectacle of the annual Air and Water Show, but on the deep west side of town, another kind of gathering was in progress, on the stretch of Sacramento Street that borders Cook County Jail (CCJ).

This massive facility houses approximately 9,000 inmates on any given day, a population which draws about half its number from the surrounding residential neighborhoods. The 96-acre campus sits directly across the street from single-family homes with reasonably maintained front yards — and views of long stretches of chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire and hemming in the tired, monolithic correctional facility. What, one wonders, does a view like that do to the psychic airspace of a neighborhood?

"PARK: 96 Acres" organizers Maria Gaspar and Landon Brown
“PARK: 96 Acres” organizers Maria Gaspar and Landon Brown in front of Cook County Jail

Designer and activist Landon Brown wondered, too. That’s why he teamed up with local artist, activist, and 96 Acres founder Maria Gaspar to stage the event last weekend on Sacramento Street. “PARK: 96 Acres” crowdsourced dozens of black, brown, and white cars and their drivers, who were invited to park along Sacramento Street facing the jail. Brown, who often works with dynamic forms of data visualization, structured the call for cars to roughly reflect the racial demographics of the incarcerated population at CCJ, making a flattened pie chart along the line of the street — in essence, “amplifying a simple statistic with heavy connotations,” he explained. Gaspar’s organization, which she considers less a nonprofit and more a kind of administrative support system for her social art practice, has worked since 2013 to create art experiences that reflect on and interact with the presence of the jail in the West Chicago and Little Village neighborhoods, where she grew up. Gaspar can recall her first visit to the jail in sixth grade, as part of a “Scared Straight” program. “The guards kept talking to us about cleanliness,” she said. “It was confusing.”

She’s not the only one with personal recollections of CCJ. Over the airwaves of the radio station Vocalo (90.7 FM), interspersed with B.B. King’s 1970 performance Live in Cook County Jail, ”PARK” broadcast residents on the street sharing their stories about the jail in real time. “Hi, I’m Jennifer Gonzales, and my boyfriend has been there since November of 2013,” said one woman. “As a parent, I think it’s not really somewhere you should take children.”

Vocalo DJ (left, with parasol) interviews CCJ warden Nneka Jones Tapia.
A Vocalo DJ (left, with parasol) interviews CCJ warden Nneka Jones Tapia.

The broadcast was the element that tied the whole project together; audible through the radios of the cars parked along the street, it created a quasi-stereophonic effect that permeated the space. And hearing B.B. King’s inimitable guitar riffs floating in the same airspace where he performed over 40 years ago left one to wonder: what has actually changed in the intervening decades?

“Of course, I recognize the gravity of that conversation,” Brown said, of US incarceration statistics, “and this has been a great opportunity to embed the tools that artists use in that conversation.” This ties closely to his professional practice at VisionArc, a design think tank that attempts to address systemic problems (under Brown’s direction, VisionArc has consulted for the World Economic Forum through the Global Agenda Council on Design). Ultimately, Brown sees the issue as one of scale — the people affected by policy-making on the ground have few mechanisms to comprehend the scope of those policies on a large scale, while the policy-makers have little ability to connect with the consequences on an individual level. Additionally, he thinks a kind of violence is inflicted through what he calls the “hegemony of data” and tries to use projects like “PARK” to make data a participatory and accessible activity. “Why are we representing a piece of data without showing the physical impact?” Brown asked.

Inmates represented by black cars form approximately 70% of the Cook County Jail population. (click to enlarge)
Inmates represented by black cars form approximately 70% of the Cook County Jail population. (click to enlarge)

Though ultimately “PARK” drew only half the participation it hoped for, the organizational efforts of Brown and Gaspar, as well as their media affiliate, Vocalo, were Herculean — and the event would have been impossible, Brown was quick to point out, without the help of the Cook County Sheriff’s office and the jail itself, under the direction of new warden Nneka Jones Tapia, who was on the street and interviewed by Vocalo. While efforts to organize through social practice art can have mixed results and raise questions about representation — does a black car really stand in for approximately 900 prisoners better than a statistic? — the efforts of 96 Acres have a homegrown authenticity; they are clearly seeking to address a major force that affects many lives in West Chicago. “PARK” was successful both in developing a scalable, elastic framework for social commentary on an institutional issue and in simply creating a different feeling in the air on Sacramento Street that day. As Brown said, the audio component led participants in “passing through intensities.” Indeed, the physical presence of such a facility is effectively a monument to the pain of the surrounding neighborhoods. By contrast, the music and stories shared by “PARK” created a viable contrast. Of these instances of audio resistance, Brown commented, “They are ephemeral, but they are forces to be reckoned with.”

PARK: 96 Acres” took place at 2600 S Sacramento Ave, Chicago, on August 15, 1–3pm.

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