Cook County Jail is the largest single-site jail in the USA, occupying a 96 acres site in the West Side district of Chicago. The 96 Acres Project was initiated to examine the impact of incarceration and the local area through creative alternatives and educational programming. As Maria Gaspard, lead artistic director of 96 Acres Project explains: “it isn’t about putting paint on the wall” to cover it, but about “revealing something new”. By gathering the stories, discussing the issues and developing engagement projects it enables the local community to consider alternative ways of dealing with incarceration.
What does it implies to have the largest detention facility in the country in your community?
What does it mean when you have a massive, impassable electrified wall at the end of your garden?
Is it a constant reminder of social injustice? Or a means discouraging the young to commit felonies, fearing to end up in that prison one day?
Is it included in the community or does it represent a separation, spatially as much as socially?
The local communities are the most likely to know the issues it implies because they live close to Cook County Jail and have a daily relationship with it. The events and interactions initiated by 96 Acres act as a citizen empowerment tool, inviting people to think and share thoughts about the impact of the jail in their everyday life. The documentation of this work might catalyse further discussion and inspire future urban decisions and justice policy.
For one project in August 2015 96 acres supported the New-York based artist and designer Landon Brown to present a data visualisation project named PARK. “If you’ve got a black, brown or white car, 96 Acres wants to borrow it this Saturday.” The concept was to park 100 vehicles along the property for one day: 67 black, 19 brown and 14 white colour-coded automobiles representing the racial statistics of today’s Cook County Jail inmate population.
Each car had it’s AM/FM stereo tuned on local public radio Vocalo, transmitting in unison the broadcast of B.B. King’s 1970 performance, Live in Cook County Jail. The participants were also encouraged to tell their stories about the jail, gathering several points of views of locals, former inmates or visitors who had a relative in jail… “We wanted this project to represent the multiple voices, to humanize the issues”
96 acres also involves young people, so the “scary field trip” to jail isn’t part of school programs anymore. Teens from Yollocalli Arts Reach (youth program for the National Museum of Mexican Arts) produced a series of “reverse graffiti” made with stencils and pressure washer – usually used to removes graffiti.
“There is something more”; “What is your role”? and more phrases were apposed around the Cook County Jail sidewalk with 96acres project, inviting the reflexion on what and who is behind the wall.
A good paper about the history of Cook County Jail linked to Chicago can also be read here
How can art installation can change our perception of public space? See the Agile-City article about The Whabash Lights Chicago