In certain neighborhoods in Chicago “going to California” means going to jail. That’s because the Criminal Courts Building is at the corner of California Avenue and 26th Street, with the Cook County Jail starting behind it and spreading for blocks around it.
It’s a somber, sometimes sinister area to be. I used to pick up and drop off lawyers, witnesses, plaintiffs, and other functionaries here in the cab. Not once was anyone eager to go there and most were relieved to be leaving.
I’ve only been inside the court building twice. Both times for jury duty. I never made it as far as interviews but got a watercolor of the parking structure and a few sketches done in the hours of waiting.
Last Tuesday, Marc Fischer (of Public Collectors/Temporary Services/many other art concerns) picked me up at 31st and Halsted and we went to California. I am the fourth visiting artist in a residency he’s set up to observe the machinations of Chicago’s criminal court system. One of the reasons I applied to be part of it is that people have said that my sketchbook drawings often resemble courtroom art, so I thought I’d try my hand at the real thing. Another reason is that watching and listening to people as they go about their work is one of my main preoccupations. Courtrooms are fraught environments but what occurred to me as Marc and I spent time in three or four of them over this morning is that to most of the people we observed this was just their workplace.
A lot of the proceedings were hard to make out because many of the voices were unamplified and we were sitting too far away to hear. I don’t know that this wasn’t by design. I spent most of my time trying to catch the postures and gestures of clerks, stenographers, and litigants. I also tried to make note of the carts of file folders, the empty chairs where juries might’ve sat, and the odd architectural details of these rooms—such as doors between windows which seemingly led to open air.
Every defendant we saw was black or brown and most of them were taking plea deals. Everybody involved acted like they were going through motions they’d repeated hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
The last two rooms in which we spent time were circular, had no windows, and the spectator gallery was separated from the judge’s bench and lawyers’ tables by thick tinted glass. Periodically, people would go in or out from where we sat, as their cases were called. Here voices were mostly amplified, but having thick glass between us and them gave the feeling of watching fish in an aquarium. There was an unreality to it which was broken from time to time by the very real pronouncements of sentences and other judgments from the bench. They snapped me out of the dull banality of much of what was happening.
Sitting there as an observer it was easy to forget that people’s lives were being directed and altered through the recitements of often clinical phrases. The drama and consequences was nothing like the exaggerated version most of us are familiar with from TV, movies, and airport novels.
There is probably no way to relay the gravity of what I saw and heard during these hours. I tried to note the unusual details. In the last courtroom the walls were decorated with many portraits of notable African-American figures like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman and several inspirational portraits. The one which stuck with me was an idiotic illustration of a black basketball player holding a ball in one outstretched hand and a stack of books in the other with a caption reading “Knowledge is Game”. A couple pictures down there was a female version. I didn’t catch it, but Marc told me the caption on that one read, “Knowledge is Game 2”.
Read Marc’s account here. He’ll be printing a booklet featuring the first four residents of this program soon. I’ll link to it once it’s available.