What documents constrain, narrate, or liberate subjecthood?
Dan Paz’s multi-disciplinary practice is an inquiry into exposure and the conditions of embodiment. Using vernacular image production, Paz’s work brings a critical and aesthetic lens to the architecture of space, demonstrating how foundational techniques of image-making are inextricable from the environmental politics of racialized subject-making. Select exhibitions include: Hayward Gallery London, UK; the 12th Havana Biennial at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Havana, CU; Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam, NL; The Media lab, NYC; Lee Center for the Arts in Seattle, WA; Holding Contemporary in Portland, OR; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Gene Siskel Film Center, and The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago, IL. Paz will host a series of Live-Mapping Workshops as part of the exhibition “Deliberate Acts: Art and Incarceration,” curated by Alejandro Acierto at Vanderbilt University in Fall of 2020. Paz’s exhibitions have been generated out of residencies with El Centro Desarollo de Artes in Havana, Cuba; The Studios of Key West; Chicago Artist Coalitions’ Hatch Residency; The Luminary in St. Louis, MO; ACRE in WI; and the High-Resolution Media Arts Residency at Seattle University. Selected Awards include: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur’s Connection Fund, The Multnomah County Cultural Coalition, The Ann Metzger National Award for Prints, The LinksHall LinkUP Grant & Residency, Open Practice Committee Grant, University of Chicago Arts Council, the Claire Kantor Foundation Grant, and The Wyckoff Milliman Faculty Endowment Grant.
In August 2020, over a Zoom call between Indianapolis, Indiana and Seattle, Washington, artist Dan Paz talked with Aaron Counts, writer, educator, and co-director of Creative Justice on working with youth and the building of the Creative Justice program.
Dan Paz- So you were talking about where we are right now.
Aaron Counts- It feels like people who were not activated before are seeing things with new eyes and doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise think of to support equity and eradicating anti-Blackness, and holding systems accountable. This morning there was an email from a hotel manager downtown offering a staycation for organizing folx. People are motivated to look at the extent of their reach and use their leverage for the movement. Not everybody is going to show up at a rally, not everybody is going to paint a mural, or negotiate with a politician. It’s exciting and I hope it’s sustainable. It’s exciting for us at Creative Justice because we have always held the vision for the program to be sustained by community. We built it in that way, we wanted all of the staff to be of the community, through lived experience, or by proximity to what the youth are facing. Against the system. To see the outpouring of support, I hope it’s not a flash in the pan or flavor of the month support. People have been stepping up and subscribing to donate small amounts on a monthly basis. Recently, we had a bakery that said they were going to sell cupcakes and the proceeds were going to Creative Justice. People are figuring out how they can help the movement from their space and in their lane. I think that is super important. Shout out to individuals and individuals who represent institutions who are saying this is who we are and this is something we believe in as a community.
DP- Absolutely. A huge part of this is becoming informed, what kinds of influence one has, big or small. I think one of the many important things about Creative Justice is your approach to relationship-building through art practice. I hope for that in teaching art.
AC- We were just talking about the reach and power of art with the Youth Leadership Board. I don’t know that I believed it before Creative Justice, I didn't really see the extent of that power. I don’t know who said it, if I read it, but they talked about social justice movements in a wave. So here is this wave cresting which is the direct action and protesting and policymaking, and we are the undercurrent in the cultural spaces; artists are the unseen forces like the tides and shifting land. All of these things that we don’t see, but are essential for creating that wave by imagining what we want to move towards. One of the big lessons that we try to get across with the young people at Creative Justice is that social change and movements are like a science fiction in an artistic sense, that we are dreaming up this place that we want to be in. We’re doing that artistically, it’s less threatening for folx that might be threatened by those ideas. Everybody learns differently and maybe someone will understand it a bit better if it comes in the form of an artistic work? It really is like a speculative fiction, and so art and social change are inextricably linked in that way.
DP-I feel really grateful to know Creative Justice. Can you talk about the history?
AC- It was an interesting time; the community was really activated against the building of the new youth jail. 4Culture wrote a grant to the NEA with this idea of a program that used art as one of their diversion processes. I think some of it was probably because they didn’t want to get caught up in the politics because 4Culture manages the public art money for the county, some of which is percent for art dollars so capital campaigns stretch to 1% of that budget and goes into public art. Traditionally that means they commission folks to paint a mural or sculpt or they purchase paintings to go inside. Because the community was so dedicated to stopping the new youth jail, and 4Culture has this obligation to use public funds in this way, they had the idea, “what if we tried something like this,” and so the NEA came on board to support. Then 4Culture had a call for artists to lead the shaping of the program which is how I came on. From that point, we started negotiating with the courts and all of the systems players. What does this look like—what does art as a diversion program look like? They called it an incarceration alternative, diversion programs have been in place for a long time but we were insisting that it can work not just with those first-time offenders or those kids whose family have wealth and resources. We wanted it to be for youth that was actually looking at jail time. All of the research shows that all of us are better off when youth stay home in community and are surrounded by folks who understand and love and care about them. Contrary to popular belief it really is increasing public safety in that way. We’ve always wanted to highlight the fact that when we talk about public safety we’re excluding some of the public from that, this youth is the public too. So, if we're talking about public safety and we're putting them in unsafe situations then maybe we're not doing what we say we're doing. So, holding the line that we’re all in community together. We all deserve to be safe, even if we're mad at this young person, or afraid of this young person. If we provide additional support to them we’re all better off. We continue to build that vision in holding that line.
DP- It really is evidenced in the work that you do that you put the youth first. If all of this work is about them then they have to be in the conversation. I’m wondering about the bureaucratic roles Creative Justice plays within the courts system as both a liaison and to become a space of support. How does King County recognize this advocacy work for youth?
AC- When we started, Jordan Howland at 4Culture was managing the program there, and we had a community consultant Diana Falchuk and myself. We put together an advisory board. So, someone represented probation, someone who represented the prosecutor’s office, someone representing defense, we had the chief juvenile judge around that table and other community folks that were involved in arts or youth development work to hammer out the case criteria. We wanted to have something tangible in writing that defense attorneys could then go to the courts and say, “we agreed to this” and that time we did have some success in establishing new criteria. These are the youth who are eligible. When a youth comes to the court one of the first things they do is a risk assessment––which is problematic in itself—this determines the likelihood of their reoffending. How could you begin to measure some of these things in a first meeting? We wanted them to start thinking about youth that they wouldn’t otherwise refer to any of these other programs because they were too worried about them being in community. Making sure that we had an agreement in writing that the prosecutor’s office signed off on and the chief juvenile judge signed off on so then after our time together we didn’t have the same debate of what that meant for them. None of us were attorneys in the first years. The first year and a half the youth come to Creative Justice for 12 weeks and then moved on. At the end of the 12 weeks, we assess what we’ve done together, what we’ve learned about each other. The attorneys would then take that assessment, sometimes I would go to court and speak on their behalf. I would always include a summary of their involvement, an exit letter I guess. I Included all of the total hours that they were with us, some of the artwork they made, and what we learned about them. We tried to frame it as a community member working with them, these are the things that we see. I always tried to end those letters with a reminder that this is what we can expect when we put a supportive community around them. It has always been my mission at Creative Justice to turn that camera back around on the system in the end. In most youth programs, people still want to talk about what we do as rewarding because we get to see a change in young people. I try to remind them and myself always that this is what we should do anyway. The reason we’re doing it is because these are our people. And together we can ask the system to behave differently. We’re always asking youth to do things differently but we don’t give them different resources with which to do it. We wanted to have clear case criteria, so we can say this is what you agreed to. We have seen that flip a little bit. They change their methods and some criteria come and go. Seems like recently there’s been more negotiation. Luckily at the end of year one, Nikkita Oliver was our teaching artist and she was also in law school at that time and I recognized the energy and the wisdom that she could provide and at the time, soon she would be a lawyer. Out of all of the artists we worked with in year one, it felt like her skill set was necessary for Creative Justice to become what it needed to be. I’m really grateful that she has stayed on with us. So now, in addition to any case criteria, we have someone with a law degree who then gives an extra muscle to flex. Going to court and advocating become one of her primary responsibilities and it left me better able to shape the artistic side of curriculum development. We have slowly grown what we do and how we do it. I think both of us really want to stay in the lane that is right for Creative Justice and know that is the right space for us to exist in.
DP- The label of offender is truly traumatizing. It is so meaningful that you assess participation by using criteria of love and community involvement, without labeling, and to affirm that every step of the way.
AC- I’m remembering now, in year one we spent a good amount of money hiring a behavioral psychologist to create a pre/post survey. There is a push for new initiatives like Creative Justice to become “evidence-based practices” and these studies are one step along that path. I got to work with this person to determine what are the things we want to measure and how do we go about measuring them but in the end, it still felt like, in my first meeting with a youth I’m not going to put a questionnaire in front of them and in the end, all we find out is how their attitudes have changed. We did that for a year and stopped doing those pre/post surveys because they just didn’t feel right. Unless we can develop a similar survey that looks at the change with those system representatives that are interacting in those spaces, the study wasn’t not really helpful to us at CJ. We want to have the judge, probation officer assigned to the case and maybe the vice principal at their school take that survey and see how they have changed because of what the youth have done with Creative Justice. Otherwise, we’re not interested in becoming evidence-based. We don’t need that, we don’t need our youth poked and prodded and studied as if they are the problem that needs solving. We’re just going to keep doing what we do with the people that we know and love and with the people that we’re getting to know and getting to love.
DP-That is the difference, continually prioritizing relationship-building over who sees what and determines it as what. Can you talk about some of your favorite or most impactful projects?
AC- The first public exhibition of work was a project called “We Still Live Here.” It was in the vein of Mary Ellen Mark’s Streetwise projects, people that are challenging the idea of everyday. Martha Rosler did a series on the Bowery that didn’t include any people at the time when a lot of photographers were doing portraits and hanging their work in galleries and getting acclaim off of the lives of people who were often in horrible situations. There was no remuneration for those people. Inspired by those ideas, we know that Seattle is changing so rapidly, and there is so much wealth, and we know that not everyone is a beneficiary of that newfound wealth. The youth of Creative Justice who originally came from Delridge, or Highpoint or Central District or Rainier Valley or north of the city. We asked them to take their phone, it was all mobile photography and we asked them to take photos of the construction happening in their neighborhoods. And then to also take pictures of their daily existence in those same neighborhoods. We mounted it first at Gallery 4Culture and it was a juxtaposition of those images of construction and then the pictures of these young people trying to live their lives. Just as a reminder that, ‘Hey we’re here and were not going to let you push us into history and then put up a mural with people that look somewhat like us afterwards’. We did a week-long pop-up at Gallery 4Culture. At the time, here in the Central District, at 23rd and Jackson there was a grocery store, subway restaurant in a little strip mall, the subway closed in advance of the whole block being razed. A couple of folks from the community started “Shelf life Stories” where they had people come in and tell stories about what they remember of the Central District as it was changing, to record some of these things. So that photography show moved to the “Shelf Life” exhibition space and stayed there for a little while. Then the Museum of History and Industry caught wind of it and as they were highlighting Al Smith’s photography who we best know from Jackson Street After Hours photographs, taking photos from the jazz clubs. He had a lot of history of the Black community in Seattle especially from the ‘40s and' 50s. So, they were showing his work and then asked Creative Justice to remount “We Still Live here” Just to watch those little photos taken on phones get a wider audience and pay attention to what some of the young people are experiencing as we get this great economic boom here in Seattle. That has been among my favorite projects that we’ve done because it had a reach that we didn’t expect. Then the project that we did with you at Hedreen Gallery was so ambitious. We sourced so much of that work from the community and I think that was a big step for Creative Justice, we tend to stay in those rooms and we talk about what is going on outside, but then asking outside to come in, to source fabric from people who lost lives to the justice system, or stories from who are lost, and the community portraits but to remember that as were losing people to the justice system there is a lot of happiness and joy, love and support. To capture that whole spectrum and have the art not just represent our own ideas and ideals but also that of this wider community and that responsibility to do so. It was a big growing moment for the program for me as an administrator and artist, it was the first time that I ever worked in sculpture and then to figure it out with a group of young people was an amazing process. We had a great time. And they are still really proud of that.
DP- It was an incredible show. Such thoughtful work, also Molly Mac was such a force of support working as a curator on the project. There was such tenderness in those community portraits. To see images of yourself loving someone else is very powerful. Also, to feel safety in sharing your story. There was so much risk-taking on the part of those young people.
AC- As you’re saying that, that is one of the most surprising things. Most people don’t get the opportunity, I guess you can do it with social media but not with an audience that isn’t self-curated, but to say ‘This is how I see things and how I look at the world. Any questions?’ It is really a brave thing to do. I think we forget that. I hope as long as I’m working with young people that I don’t forget that, because it can be scary and it’s not a usual thing. Most of the time we are in an echo chamber and we get to say what we think and believe without any real consequence, to present work to the public is a bold act that I try to honor every time.
DP- It never stops being bold. How are the youth doing with COVID?
AC- We just finished our summer session. We were in session in March when we had to close doors because of COVID. It’s one big blurry long session. For those that were in CJ before COVID and were able to meet in person, trying to do everything virtually is not the same. The power of what we are doing is not always making stuff, maybe we’re eating together and talking about issues and getting to trust and know and support each other. So, we can’t do that in the same way. Especially folks that have been marginalized are like, here’s more shit coming our way and dealing with it. At the same time, they are feeling isolated and uncertain about the future. If you’re in this for one year, and for me that’s a small percentage of time I have been on the planet. So, trying to remember a year or five or six months to a teenager is much longer. So, the same cyclical things of holidays and school don’t mean the same thing. Folks are feeling anxious and depressed and maybe they’re stuck in homes that they’d rather not be in, and to provide moments of respite when we can in the safest manner possible.
DP- What about with the new youth jail and Dow Constantine’s announcement?
AC- We took a tour of the jail before it opened, and they were so proud and it’s just another shitty space. There’s some great art on the first floor, cool murals downstairs in lockup, but it’s still a jail. Just as we were feeling disheartened, and CJ is in the shadow of the new building down the street, and then 2020 happened and people started listening and hearing in a different way. For those people who want to talk about peaceful protest, non-violence, whatever folks did this year worked better than what they have been doing. Regardless of tactics including this announcement. I am a healthy skeptic about it. The announcement of the jail closure for the community that has been doing this work since 2012, 2013, moving and organizing. And saying it was the wrong thing for us to do. I want to thank and honor those people who were tireless. There would be no Creative Justice, there would be No New Youth Jail Movement, and there would probably still be plans to fill that jail up. I feel with Dow we will have to wait and see. It was an important and big enough announcement to make a splash but the timeline is such that he may never have to be held accountable to that. If they close it by 2025, he’s up for reelection in 2021 and even if he wins that election he’s gone in 2025. It’s a pretty convenient timeline. So, we will see. I hope the people can stay active. We don’t need to move on to the next issue, we can support this movement and whatever movement reaches the people next, because it is all the pursuit of freedom. We don’t have to leave the rebuke of anti-Blackness behind in order to attack criminal justice reform, or forget criminal justice in order to support our trans brothers and sisters.
Folks feel like they can only be activated in one space at a time. Hopefully people can be educated enough to see how the struggles are linked and to continue to keep the snowball rolling so that it grows.
DP- I remember I was talking with you and Nikkita about people needing to know that the jail was built with taxpayer money, money that has already been spent. Kids from marginalized communities being dollar signs for this new facility is a very real thing. I’m relatively new to Seattle and trying to fish out information around the youth jail has been really hard. Any information on social services that were boasted about with this new and improved “Family Center” has never been available to the public. I watched last week’s Council meeting on voting for defunding the SPD. The breaking down of that proposal in amendments seemed, in large part, to not address that need in entirety. All those amendments feel too incremental and also similar to anti-protest tactics to break down and separate.
AC- It’s interesting who does or doesn’t get called to the table to be the voice of the community which organizations are fit to contract under which conditions. Money is always a disorganizing tool, which is another reason that we have tried to build CJ in a way that is eventually supported by the community. That’s who we are by and for, and we don’t want to be at the whims of any governmental entity.
DP- Can you talk about that shift in affiliation for Creative Justice?
AC- For the past year and half one of our biggest funders has been the county, they have “Best Start for Kids Levy” which includes stopping the school to prison pipeline track. There are huge grants to communities in the vein of supporting their commitment to zero youth detention. I’m not sure how committed they are to it, given the 232 million on this new youth jail. We were careful in the early stages to not ask the courts, even though we are providing a service to the courts, we didn’t want any money that had strings. So, we didn’t ask and they didn’t offer and then when they started to suggest that they wanted to support CJ we decided that we would rather build Creative Justice in as radical a way as we could. Even under 4Culture we were able to do some things that we were otherwise not able to do and say things the way we wanted to say them. Once we felt like we were established enough in best practices then we felt like “Best Starts for Kids” money was safe enough to accept. There is still money that we won’t accept. Money that is a shield for folks. For example, the Vulcan building at 23rd and Jackson, if Vulcan is displacing hundreds of families and contributing to their misery we are not going to take a few thousand dollars from them so they can say look at the great stuff we’re doing for the people. We would rather not take the money and continue to call them out for their practices, even if it means we have fewer supplies. Whatever it means for us. We just have to remember what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it and avoid participation in the non-profit hunger games. We don’t ever want to be in competition with folks doing the work nor do we want to sit at the table if someone else who is more radical can’t sit at the table. We try to be as radical as we can so maybe we are the last to be invited to the table, or maybe not invited at all.
DP- Maybe it’s not the table you want to be at?
AC- Right, I feel like because Nikkita is so involved in community organizing and Creative justice stays in coalition with other organizations that we’re at the table whether they like it or not. And we might show up in different ways, bringing that spirit in other ways. We go back and forth especially if we’re talking about money from the city budget and the county budget. To remember that money is ours in the first place. That balance. This is our money and this is how it should go back into the community vs we don’t want your money because it comes with extra work or conditions. Its delicate
AC- Since May, since the national movement and rallies started we have seen an upswing. We have a donor box on the website and folks can just pop in and donate. They can donate on a monthly or one-time basis. We have seen a huge outpouring of support, it’s really been humbling. Sometimes in nonprofits that work with youth we don’t talk about money, but in this case, it has been such a part of the overall picture of what’s been going on that they should watch those donations come in. So as a reminder to them we want them to see all the people that believe in what we're doing and the power of community. We don’t know what the next flavor of the month will be or if we can enjoy that flavor along with the current. Trying to figure out how to stay in relationship with the people who want to be in relationship with CJ, and also respect those people that have money and that is the way they want to be in support of what the community is doing and saying. It’s a new place for us to be, and it’s a much greater place than trying to write a report for a grant we received last year.
DP-Redirect those funds away from that jail and put it towards those people’s lives. Can we just redirect the funds?
AC- If you spent 232 million dollars on the facility, what if you took the 100 so-called worst offenders in the whole county and divided that money up amongst them, and not just cash, but resources and housing, job stability. You probably would have done much more than you did with that building.
DP- It would also be great to hear how the Youth Leadership Board developed.
AC- It is important to the story of Creative Justice in that originally, we envisioned Creative Justice to be youth as referred by the court, they stay with us for 12 weeks and then they return to whatever life they were living minus some court charges. There are some youth that connect to what we’re really trying to do and want to stay involved, so we relaxed that and said It’s not about anything that we are teaching or learning in a 3-month period, but it’s about the community that we’re building together. In a real community, we don’t just work on a project and say I’m glad I got to know you and peace out. So, we realized we had to figure out how to keep youth around. So, youth would stick around for two or three sessions, we wanted to build additional steps, so that was when we started saying yes to facilitating discussions outside of creative justice or putting together art shows.
DP- Designing shoe-wear!1
AC- Yes, Ha!
AC- So then, for the youth that was sticking around we wanted to create additional responsibility. And we needed a mechanism to steer Creative Justice, and it definitely should not be me making those decisions. So, we built the Youth Leadership Board for those youth that had been in the program for a couple of sessions that wanted more. Any partnership opportunities, they decide what happens, any workshops the community is asking us to facilitate they design and facilitate themselves with support from myself and Nikkita. I think in 2017, three youth and myself went to Chicago and presented at the Open Engagement Conference, they’ve led workshops for the City of Seattle, library, schools. It’s off-putting where I’ve seen people come in and want to partner with Creative Justice and well, you have to pitch it to the youth and whatever they want to do we will support. Sometimes that’s the only tell that we need is how they come into the room and talk to the young people. It’s been great because we want to be a youth-driven program, so as we have grown and have been able to step-up incrementally. This last year we added two youth staff positions, program assistants and then this year we are adding two additional. They are extremely part-time, at a decent wage. We’ve also added peer mentor artists, we want to grow in that way. We have these very experienced mentor artists that lead workshops but we’ve also added some youth in the 18-22 yr. old range to get them some experience under someone that has been doing it for a long time and they have the ability to be the translator to the younger participants to us old 40/50 yr. old people. To build an inter-generational arts collective as opposed to a mentorship program or intervention program and what does that look like to foster that all the way through. How do we get all the age groups in the same room working on the problems and solutions, together?