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This week we meet with Maria Gaspar, an artist deeply invested in her community on the west side of Chicago. For her assignment, she asks you to engage with your community by adding yourself to the picture.

INSTRUCTIONS - Body in Place
1. Choose a location that is visible to you but seemingly invisible to others
2. Think about this location and what it represents
3. Use your body to create an intervention that creates a new story of that location
4. Take a photo + upload using #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode)

Learn more about Maria's work:

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
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Sarah: Today we're on the West Side of Chicago to meet up with Maria Gaspar, who grew up not far from here and who is invested deeply in this neighborhood through her work as an artist and an educator. Her practice involves installation, performance, sculpture, and sound and past series have included formal and conceptual installations of the color brown. But community engagement is at the core of her work. She was the lead artist behind the City As Site, a series of temporary, performative public art projects created with young people here on the West Side. And Gaspar is the founder of 96 Acres, a series of community engaged, site responsive art projects that examine the implications of incarceration at the Cook County Jail for those within its walls and those outside them. The jail occupies 96 Acres of the predominantly Mexican American neighborhood of Little Village, and the project presents alternative narratives drawn from the community that reflect upon the jail's reality, and how it affects daily lives. Gaspar's work has brought sincere and focused attention to something in her community that is so large and omnipresent that it's almost invisible to some. And she's gonna ask us to identify a place like that within our own communities.

Gaspar: Hi, my name is Maria Gaspar, and this is your Art Assignment. Early on, I was doing interviews with people just to get people's sort of initial stories around this project. A couple things that people said were really interesting. One woman, a friend of mine, was talking about how she never saw the jail growing up, although she lived a block away. To me, that was really fascinating- that one could live next to a 96 acre compound (that's equivalent of about 74 American football fields) but not really see it. Another person talked about feeling a sense of stigma because she lived near it. And so she wouldn't tell her friends where she lived because she felt bad about that. And so through that, I started to really think about the way we experience spaces is highly personalized and it's highly loaded with context. You know, it's about political context, a cultural one, a social one, and that everyone around it and inside of it is feeding the way we interpret a space.

So one of the first projects we did at the very beginning was called the Visibility Project. And it was a piece that was done by this group called The Visible Voices Ensemble, which is a group of women that are transitioning out of incarceration. And so they created a series of performances using image theater in front of the jail. So it's kind of interesting to see the parallels between these two places of power, in a way. And, you know, all of the poses that the women were enacting were positions of, I think, pride and power that were really opposing what that place represents.

So your assignment is: choose a location that's familiar to you, visible to you, but seemingly invisible to many others. Think about why it's invisible to many others and why it's visible to you. Also think about the context of the location. What does it represent? What does it mean to people? Using your body, create some kind of intervention that creates a new story about that place. Take a photograph of it and share it with us. So, extra credit: share the photograph that you took with people that are familiar with that location- could be your workplace, the local school, or community organization- and see what kind of conversation takes place.

Sarah: John, I think this is assignment is a perfect collision of two types of art: site specificity and body art.

John: Yeah, you know, the first thing that I thought about was that there was this tree in my yard when I was a kid that was covered in kudzu, and I felt like I was the only person in the world who knew what life was like inside of that tree.

Sarah: Oh, wow. So what might you have done as a kid to bring attention to it?

John: I don't know. Maybe like, pulled some of the kudzu away, revealing the sort of cave-like structure inside.

Sarah: Or, you could have climbed it.

John: I'm pretty anxious when it comes to heights... and other things.

Sarah: But there are a lot of really great precedents for this assignment. You can think of the artists Mierle Laderman Ukeles in her 1973 performance Washing, Tracks, Maintenance, where she actually scrubbed the exterior steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Connecticut, sort of bringing attention to what women are often expected to do and thinking about what is the nature of "work". 

John: I thought of the Chinese artists Tseng Kwong Chi who did this amazing photographic series in which he traveled around to typically American locations like Disney World and photographed himself wearing like a kind of cliche Chairman Mao suit. 

Sarah: That is a great example, but the artist I really want to talk about today is actually Ana Mendieta. Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba and came to the United States as a refugee in 1961 at the age of 12. She was settled in Iowa and eventually began making art, embarking on her Silueta Series in 1973 while traveling with fellow students in Mexico, creating what she called earth-body sculptures. Mendieta laid nude, covered in white flowers, in an open Zapatec(?) tomb at the Mezo-American site of Yagul. For another, back in Iowa, she made an impression of her body in a field of grass. For yet another, she formed a silhouette on the beach in La Ventosa, Mexico, filling it with red pigment and photographing it as it washed away. Her documentation shows us the trace left by her body, her absence. Displaced from her homeland, Mendieta's ritualistic actions symbolized for her a connection to the earth. She wrote, "I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb. My art is they way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe." These places were all not home, not Cuba, but they were all earth, nature, sites where she could dynamically restore her body's relationship to the world, if only for a moment.

Gaspar: I've done some stuff on my own where I was putting my body into old murals, and there's a lot of historical murals in this area called Pilsen that have been around since the sixties. I was interested in almost recovering them through the body, so I would take an image that was in the mural, use a prop for myself, and then insert myself into the mural as a kind of live action piece.

I think if people were interested in also attire and clothing and uniform as a performative element, then maybe even wearing a certain sort of colored clothing that would oppose that color of the space. If it's an abandoned place, I imagine it's deteriorated. It maybe doesn't have a whole lot of color in there, so what happens when you wear a, you know, all orange outfit in that space. What happens there, you know? So, I think people can maybe play with those kind of elements of the body: clothing, attire.

I think maybe there's a way one can use the natural landscape as its own kind of intervention. Are there, I don't know, plant life or is there detritus? Are there weird things? I mean, of course, be careful with some of those materials. But are there materials already there that one can begin to rearrange. That you can rearrange with your body to create a new kind of image of that space.

For me, it's always been about these oppressive spaces, you know. There's these spaces that exist in these marginalized communities. I think it's unfair, you know. And so for me, it's about how can the people that actually live there, that exist with it all the time, create a more fair space, you know? And how can we reclaim a power a lot of people feel that they don't have, you know, including myself? And so, I want to sort of reclaim that power and that maybe through those actions there's almost a move that sort of is inspiring, is transcending something. And that maybe that sort of eventually becomes a movement or eventually leads to something that creates change.

Sarah: The Art Assignment is supported by Squarespace.

John: If there's an idea or project that you want to show the world, you should. And Squarespace provides tools to help you showcase your passions with a customizable landing page, website, or online store.

Sarah: They also offer domains, hosting, and customer support. Start your trial today. Visit 

John: Quick PS: We're hoping that you can take a survey for us. PBS Digital Studios is looking to find out more about what you like to do and watch online.

Sarah: There's a link in the description, and 25 random participants will be selected to receive a PBS Digital Studios t-shirt, but, of course, you just want to do it out of the kindness of your heart.

John: Thank you so much.

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