Art, a Weapon of the Weak?

by Michael De Anda Muñiz

As part of preliminary research for my dissertation, I have been working with local artist Maria Gaspar, who is part of a public arts project that is focused on the Cook County Jail. The aim of the project is to use art as a way to spark a dialogue and reflect on the jail’s effect on the surrounding predominantly Latino, low-income neighborhood, Little Village. Part of the project is to transform the physical space around the jail’s 25-foot-tall, 800-foot-long wall. What effect does the presence of one of the country’s largest pre-detention facilities have on Little Village and its residents? This question has various aspects to it. The jail, the largest infrastructure in Little Village, not only affects the physical landscape, but also the emotions and psychology of local residents. Residents must contend with the physical infrastructure of Cook County Jail, but many have also visited friends and family who have been incarcerated there. This project is a collaboration between Enlace (a community-based, non-profit organization in Little Village), the Chicago Public Art Group, and local artists, educators, and community members. The Cook County Sheriff’s Department has expressed support for the project, but the county must approve any temporary or permanent art pieces. The project is currently in the planning stage.
I have had several conversations with Maria and recently attended a steering committee meeting. This project is an agglomeration of various individuals and organizations, all with various, sometimes contradictory interests. Enlace’s economic development specialist, Dahriian Espinoza, has expressed his hope that the project would be used to make the jail less of an eye sore, which would increase economic investment and help local businesses. Additional funding from the Special Service Area #25, a tax district designated for beautification and other improvement project in Little Village, also reflects this goal. However, some of the smaller projects planned by steering committee members are intended to incite dialogue about, even critique of, the jail and criminal legal system’s relationship with violence and other issues in Little Village. The state, through county government, ultimately has the final say in the content of any public art instillations around the jail. The County Sheriff would likely be more in favor of a beautification project, than a critique of the criminal legal system. However, those involved in the planning do not want this to be a beautification project.
This project could be an interesting case of what Sarah Soule calls “weapons of the weak” (2012:1724). Local community members and artists might have different visions for this project than the non-profits and the state. How will these community members, who may recognize that their interests will not be supported by the more powerful organizations, use this project as a form of resistance? How will the various project partners’ interests affect what this project produces? What will be the result of this ambitious project? The first installation of public art is expected to take place in the next couple years.

Soule, Sarah A. 2012. “Social Movements and Markets, Industries, and Firms.” Organization Studies 33(12): 1715-33.

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