BY Laurie Palmer in Reviews | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

Michael Piazza and the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Resident Youth

BY Laurie Palmer in Reviews | 02 JAN 97

Michael Piazza's ongoing investigation and critique of institutional power has led him to work in a number of collaborative situations with culturally disenfranchised people: individuals whose lives and identities have been oppressively/uniformly/monotonously defined by the institutions in which they find themselves supported or confined. At the Little City Foundation in Palatine, Illinois, Piazza works with developmentally disabled residents on collaborative projects that do not remain tethered within the confines of art therapy. Instead, they move out into the world as compelling and sublime artworks that speak about institutionalised living at the same time as they present unique perspectives on the world. At the Cook County Temporary Detention Center for Juvenile Offenders (Audy Home), Piazza has been working for three years with teenagers incarcerated in a Postmodern parking garage for an indefinite period awaiting trial, after which they will either be released or transferred to prison.

The pervasive cultural ignorance surrounding the conditions of incarceration, fed by the enforced silence of those within, might be altered by increased exchange between inside and out. 'Arrested Motion', an exhibition of artworks at NAME gallery produced in a collaboration with Piazza and Audy Home youths, presented projects created inside to an outside audience. A companion, one-evening event - 'Yard Art' - invited the public inside the institution. Both exhibitions offered ironic appraisals of things-as-they-are.

One of the oppressive functions of penal institutions is obviously to swallow the individuality of those they house and to project an image for the outside world that replaces self-awareness with 'hardened' objectivity. What's unusual about Michael Piazza's collaborative work is how eloquently the resulting artworks reveal the participants' understanding of themselves and their situations.

For example, last year some 'insider artists' won a year-long membership (free admission) to the Art Institute of Chicago as a prize for work submitted in a city-wide high school art contest. When Piazza informed the museum that the winners were incarcerated, museum staff suggested a 'field trip'. Stimulated by this naiveté, several youths responded to the problem of being given a present that they could not use. One response on display at NAME, Anthony W. (1996), used an elaborate ten foot diagram of the city sewer system (which Piazza managed to bring inside, no questions asked) to map out a route to the museum and back without ever having to go outside. This piece revealed an infrastructural link between the institutions, depicting them as oddly similar - the walls, the guards, the policing of behaviour. A full-size wall mural, Lorenzo J. (1996), described in detail another 'field trip' - by helicopter - from Detention Center yard to museum roof, complete with boxed lunches and guided tours. This response ironically extended to prisoners the type of treatment - isolation from crowds, special attention, no traffic or parking fees - usually given to VIPs. A third response, Darnell C. (1996), by a youth who had already been transferred from the Detention Center to a state prison 40 miles from Chicago, involved asking Piazza to bury the prize (which took the form of a small chrome trophy) exactly halfway between the prison and the art museum, an act Piazza documented on videotape.

Piazza's first artist's residency at the Audy Home culminated in 'Night at the Grand Court' in the spring of 1994 - the first time the Detention Center had been opened to the public in 70 years. Ushered through metal detectors, then through a series of hallways, floors and automatic doors, the audience was given an opportunity to experience from inside the sterility and limits of the 'home', against which the creative productions of the artists (book projects, video, and installations made from available and 'approved' materials) cast long indicting shadows. This year's 'Yard Art' was held in the Detention Center yard - an open exercise court surrounded by bands of windows, Jeremy Bentham-style. Some of the pieces exhibited at NAME were also shown here, and one of the most effective was a small-scale model of the building itself, constructed from foam core and tape, sitting in the centre of the Yard, surrounded by the very walls and windows it represented. This simple model presented an overall view of the institutional structure that is impossible to see from within - a parable of visualisation as empowerment. Another project depicted the building as an aquarium full of exotic fish, collaging glossy reproductions of fish onto a large-scale drawing where the dark bands of the windows would be, and striping an actual aquarium with tape. In another piece, a high resolution telescope aimed at a section of the windows that surround and look down onto the yard was focused on postcards of faraway places affixed to the upper windows.

The extent of Piazza's role in these collaborations goes beyond providing materials and guidance to foster creativity. As problem-setter, motivator and facilitator, Piazza's own sensibilities (aesthetic and political) combine and react with those of his collaborators. This blurring of authorship comes as a relief rather than a problem, and results in work that convincingly combines 'inside' and 'outside' experiences.