Gabi—wicked curly hair, not tall, and not apt to be seated for very long—will tell you more about this herself, but we’ve known each other for years, ever since we worked and lived together in Atlanta during the Summer Olympic Games. She lives in Edgewater now, with an amazing rescued pit bull named Blue.
While she’s always claimed to be the sort of person who can’t get her life together, she’s also usually the only person in the room with a plan. A mutual friend once described her similarly. The two were in a class together, and would get together to talk over the concepts they were learning about. Gabi always started off by complaining how much difficulty she was having in the class but, the friend told me, “her understanding of what was going on was always so far beyond mine I had no idea what to say.”
I came to Chicago in 1996. I was living in Minneapolis and sort of hating it, and I wanted to get involved with community-based art-making and public art, and I was interested in the labor movement, and Chicago seemed like a place where I could look into both of those things. I knew some people here, so I got a part-time job and moved to Chicago.
I had like three or four jobs at that time. I remember a cat-sitting gig at some point, but I was pretty much squarely focused on trying to get sponsors and logistics for Conversations at the Castle in Atlanta that summer for the Olympics. I was an artist assistant. I’m probably in a weird way the wrong person to ask about it because I can’t remember what the formal thing was [laughs]—like what the actual project was supposed to be—but it was basically to bring artists together from around the world to Atlanta during the Olympics to do art around which communities were being left out of the Olympics. So who was sort of being rendered invisible by this highly visible event, by this sort of mega-event.
I was asked to work with a couple of artists who were doing a project because I had some interest in prison-reform issues, and they were doing a project both in the juvenile prison and in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and it was sort of using art to communicate between those two populations. Conversations at the Castle was sort of a series of these projects, so there was that project, there was another one with the Boys and Girls Club, there was another one that was with a woman who collected stories online and then wove those into an art piece. So the job was supporting these two artists in the prison project all day long, and then going to the gallery space at night and piecing together the bigger meta-picture of the project and working on that with a bunch of other assistants, and that included everything from running to Home Depot to buy Ralph Lauren paint, to having dinner with people. There were kitchen runs, there was a lot of that sort of intern-y stuff—you know—just weird, weird things you had to do too [laughs].
It just seemed like you were constantly working, and at so many different things, and I just had all these weird memories. I was supporting these two artists, doing things for them, doing things for the curator, and then doing things for all these super-famous people that came to talk about all the things that everybody was doing for each other [laughs], and it was an intensely alienating experience, given that it was all about community and connecting and that. The hypocrisy of it was really, really difficult for me to stomach. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to articulate at that point that we were working with people in prison and sort of using them as art objects more than as participants.
Leaving the prison and going to the gallery space—there was an incredible divide between those two spaces. The ignorance at the gallery around the fact that, here we are working on a project that was about who’s being left out, and we’re not even engaging with the material reality of that. My problems were more on an emotional level. I felt incredible discomfort. I remember distinctly that we were given access to the federal penitentiary which was highly unusual, and we’d go in there, it’d be this very elaborate process to get in there, and we brought these boxes, these cardboard boxes, and we would put different liquids on the inside and there was a hole on the top and we asked the participants who were prisoners to be blindfolded and to put their hand inside of the box. It kind of makes me breathless to think about it right now, because they were prisoners, and we were blindfolding them. It was such raw ignorance on our part about what risk could have been involved in that for them.
There was this one guy who stuck his hand into what was chocolate pudding, and he kind of yanked his hand out and told us this story about having had a job cleaning out porta-potties and falling into this big vat of the waste. He was sort of tearing up as he was telling us this. It was really only years later that it struck me how incredibly irresponsible an act it was to go in there, in an environment that’s stripped of texture, and stripped of smell, and stripped of human contact, and to give him something like that. And then there’s no space for him to have his feelings, you know it was just like we left.
At that moment, I had this sort of undeveloped feeling of like, Wow, I’m an asshole. It just felt wrong. I think I chickened out in a lot of ways. I walked away from it, ‘cause I was like, I don’t know how to do that in a way that I can feel OK about.
I never actually ended up doing anything in Chicago around public art making [laughs]. I wanted to somehow figure out how people were making art of politics and politics of art and I had no idea how to do that and the project in Atlanta seemed like a good chance to do that. And then the experience was so intense, and in a lot of ways didn’t square with my own politics, that I came back to Chicago and went back to secretarial work and never got involved with community-based artwork again [laughs].