Highlights: Against All Odds
Against All Odds
A practicing video artist, documentary maker, and Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation, Tirtza Even points her camera at individuals affected by social bias, neglect, apprehension, and alienation. Her latest (work in progress) documentary, Natural Life, tells the stories of juveniles who have received a sentence of life without parole. She will preview a segment of the work at the Sullivan Galleries from October 8–December 21.
Tell me about your practice and work.
I am a video documentary maker and video artist. I make works that revolve around social and political situations. I’ve made work in a refugee camp in Palestine, and with people here in the United States who are labeled homeless. I’ve made video installations and single channel pieces, interactive and non-interactive projects. The content and the goal of each project dictate the format the piece ends up taking.
In the last few years I have been working with prisoners of various types, most recently on a feature-length documentary that has to do with juveniles who are sentenced to life without parole, specifically in Michigan state prisons. The project started with an encounter I had with a young man—Justin Gibson—who was incarcerated for life when he was 15. We were working together for several years on a 3D animation/experimental documentary that told the story of his incarceration. When I moved to Chicago two years ago to take the job at SAIC, I felt that I was abandoning him. I was moving on and away, while he was left behind to spend the rest of his life in prison. I decided that I would make a piece that would have a more immediate and direct impact on the issue of juvenile sentencing, and that would engage with the topic more explicitly. I started working with Deb LaBelle, a lawyer that is very active on that front, and together we proceeded to produce the current project.
Your exhibition in the fall at the Sullivan Galleries is part of a larger theme of socially engaged art. How do you see these different exhibitions talking to each other?
I think the theme of incarceration is what connects the pieces in show. It will be interesting to see the take each artist will have on the topic. The juxtaposition of the many and different interpretations will hopefully allow the subject of incarceration to come across as complex and multifold as it is.
Can you talk about the course you are teaching at Cook County Jail?
I will be bringing a group of students to collaborate with a group of inmates on video projects they will produce together. The class will divide into teams of four, two students and two inmates in each team. The students will have to shoot and edit the projects at SAIC because there’s no equipment in the jail, but they will conceive, generate scripts, critique, and supervise the making of the pieces together with the inmates.
What is the goal of that course?
I hope to expand the students’ ideas of what criminal or criminality is; expand the threshold of what they conceive of as their community; and allow them to see people they might have been otherwise stigmatizing, as people, like them. For the inmates I hope it will be an opportunity to express themselves in ways that are perhaps more complex and loud than they would have had otherwise. When I ran a similar workshop elsewhere in the past, it generated lasting friendships for some of the people involved.
How do you see SAIC as a potential vehicle for social change and social justice projects?
I don’t see the class at the Cook County Jail as an instrument for promoting social justice directly. For me it is mostly critical as a tool for expanding the horizons of the students. SAIC seems to be composed of people who are very curious and invested in social issues, but often without immediate experience of the people that they fight on behalf of. So for me, the main target of this course is to have that immediacy happen—not so much as a vehicle for understanding the bigger picture, but as a tool for allowing a direct encounter with the minute detail or the ordinary in people that are otherwise deemed “different.”