ART AND ACTIVISM: Talking Steubenville, ANDREA BOWERS In Conversation with Ashton Cooper
Several weeks ago, at the opening festivities for the Montréal Biennial, we had the opportunity to sit down with LA-based artist Andrea Bowers to talk about her powerful piece in the show—which centers on the Steubenville rape case—merging art, activism, and rape culture.
Ashton Cooper (Rail): These works are from a larger project called #sweetjane, which focuses on the Steubenville rape case of 2013. In this installation, “Courtroom Drawings [Steubenville Rape Case, Text Messages Entered As Evidence, 2013],” (2014) you specifically focus on the text messages exchanged between the men involved, Jane Doe, and other figures. You are from Ohio right?
Andrea Bowers: This project is particularly personal for me because I’m from Ohio. I graduated in 1983 and I was a cheerleader and my football team was one of the better football teams in the state, just like Steubenville is one of the best football teams. This project is my wanting for us not to forget and wanting to have a document of what rape culture is. I feel like things haven’t changed from 30 years ago when I was their age. I flew out three or four times. The last time, during the trial—because I am from Ohio and speak Ohioan I guess—I spoke to the sheriff and he allowed me to sit in on the trial. I was told I couldn’t even draw representational images. I was only allowed to write notes. My first day was the day these text messages were entered into evidence so I sat there and handwrote every one of them with Amanda Blackburn and Don Carpenter, two local independent journalists. The three of us wrote this group of texts entirely by hand. They really do tell the whole narrative of what happened. The violence of these words shouldn’t be forgotten. These stories come and they go, they keep repeating in our culture. One of the really beautiful things about art is that it takes a really long time. Art is slow in a lot of ways. It takes a while for a show to develop. If you can use that slowness to your advantage, it can also be about memory and not forgetting.
Rail: So you were transcribing these texts as they were being read aloud?
Bowers: Yeah, I was frantically writing. It would be like “L-M-A-O.” It was so insane. I was trying to make sure I was getting everything, even the “LOL.” Would they use a “u” or would they spell it out “y-o-u?” There was no way to know. The punctuation is totally off. It’s the three of us who did this. It’s our invention.
Rail: So this information doesn’t exist outside of this project?
Bowers: No. I don’t think they have yet released the court transcript. Up until a couple of months ago I was trying to buy the transcript. It’s supposed to be public. One of the things about this show is that it’s so much about mass digital information. But the fact is, so much of it disappears. While all of this was going on, I downloaded every one of the violent posts. It was insane. I was trying to immediately download all of this stuff. So when I went to get some of this stuff back, it had totally disappeared. We always think that it’s there forever but it’s actually not. It disappears more than, say, a newspaper article.
Rail: How do the aesthetics of the pieces relate to digital information?
Bowers: It’s all hand drawn with marker. I was thinking about the blue digital space of the phone. I was thinking of each being a phone. Each one of these is one conversation. Each time the color switches, it signifies a different text conversation. We used as many archival blue markers as we could find. There were six of us who did this for quite a while. I’ve never done anything with aesthetics where I wasn’t paying homage to the subject matter so I was really concerned with whether or not it would make these more emotionally poignant or if it would aestheticize the content too much and take away the harshness. But I was hoping that the aesthetics would make it more emotive: draw you in and shock you and make it more bodily
Rail: And so much of the text is really shocking.
Bowers: Well, Jane Doe, she says, “Tell me what the fuck happened. I need to know the truth.” “Why wouldn’t you try and help me?” She’s speaking to her rapist. It’s really complicated. He said, “You still mean a lot to me. Maybe we should take a break.” I think he still wanted to date her. Not only was this a rape case where she was passed out because she drank too much or perhaps was drugged—I think that’s still really unknown—but this was one of the first cases where, while it was going on, it was being posted on social media. Whether it be text messages, videos on YouTube, pretty much every social media site. It’s one of the first cases that is based on evidence from social media. That really fascinated me too. At one point the prosecution asked, “Why did you take pictures? Why didn’t you try to stop it?” and he said, “I thought rape looked violent. That didn’t look violent to me because she was passed out.” Ultimately, too, I was interested in the ethical moral effect. I think I’m posing the question: Does this obsession with social media and digital space affect the morality of a whole generation? I’m not sure if I can make that hypothesis, but I’m presenting that. Is that something that’s being lost through completely communicating on social media? Are we losing our sense of ethics?
Rail: Do you think our understanding of what rape is has anything to do with the use of social media?
Bowers: I think it’s a mixture of patriarchy and maybe social media. I don’t know. That is my guess. I think it has more to do with being treated so special as athletes, but I wonder if there is an aspect of it that is because this is the first generation that has grown up this intensely with social media. At the one point during the trial they listed the amount of text messages on their phones. There were hundreds of texts. All the adults in the audience, at the coffee breaks, were like, “How could they have time to do anything? That is an insane amount of text messages.” But, I think so much of it is believing that you have the right to have sex with whoever you want to. That’s rape culture—believing you have the right to do anything, to sexually abuse someone and to believe you were born with that right.
Rail: In doing this project, do you feel like you learned more about the ways in which rape culture is created and perpetuated?
Bowers: I don’t know if I learned anything about it. I think what I learned is that it’s such a silent subject matter. So many women are raped or sexually assaulted and they do not talk about it and it affects their lives forever. Even someone like me, who is such a devout feminist, still has so much to learn. I’ve been working with a lot of young campus groups and in their brochures and pamphlets, they discuss issues of consent and I realized how clueless I am to all of this and how much I have to learn in my own life in terms of how to ask for consent. There’s so much work that has to be done. It’s such a silent abuse of the patriarchy. Rape culture is all about believing that men have a right to rape women, but it’s not just about men or women. Men are raped all the time too. It’s an issue of power.
Rail: Do you ever feel powerless when confronting these huge systemic issues?
Bowers: I always see myself as an activist, but one of the key things is that I don’t feel like I have to do everything. All I have to do is my part. I’m part of a huge network of people working together on the same cause. I don’t always have to be on the front line, I don’t have to be the organizer. All I have to do is step in and do my part. So I do as much as I can do with the skills that I have. One of my main skills is making artwork. There are a lot of ways I do that. When an artwork sells I give money back to an organization. Any video footage I shoot, I lend to an organization. I’ll make fliers, posters. I’ll connect people. Whatever I can do. I’m just doing my part and trusting that there are a lot of other people who are doing their parts. I think the most rewarding thing is when I go to the meetings and volunteer at some of these organizations and meet people who are on the front lines and learn from them. I’m just trying to be involved in any way I can without feeling like I have to change the world singlehandedly. Realizing that I am part of a group of people that are working towards the same aim, the same goals, makes it a lot more fun and empowering and worthwhile to me.
Rail: What is it like circulating within both an art world and an activist world?
Bowers: Both are my worlds. I find comrades in both worlds. The art world is a bigger mouthpiece for me. It’s a way to historicize people’s actions. The funny thing is the art world seems always concerned whether politics and activism fit in, but activism see artists as integral parts of their movements. For me, when I’m involved with activists, my roles switch. I’ve been arrested and will be again no doubt. I’ve been on the front lines protesting. I have an office, too, because as an artist so often the office becomes a place of activism. I really do believe that art is an integral part of activism and so I just function from that position.
Rail: What do you think of Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress project?
Bowers: I actually got in a debate at dinner the other night about it. There were some artists who were more cynical. I’m super cynical on a personal level, but when I think about politics and activism and nonviolent civil disobedience, I’m totally optimistic. I am very impressed with her courage. Studying with Suzanne Lacey like I have for years and collaborating with her, I know that getting media attention is part of the art practice. She’s incredibly successful at that. It’s incredible that a whole campus, everyone, is helping her carry this mattress. I’m really impressed with her. It’s activism and art simultaneously.
Rail: When did you start to identify as an activist?
Bowers: I grew up in Ohio in a very working-class community and everybody was in a union. My dad and mom and all of their friends worked in car factories. They were all in unions so there was a lot of union talk in my kitchen. I was a feminist ever since I was a little girl. I think it came from my mom. It’s two things: I was in an all-girl band and we were doing radical performances and getting in a lot of trouble when I first came to California in my 20s. I knew that this was what I cared about but I couldn’t figure out if it was okay to make art about it. I was worried that it was hard enough to be a woman and have an art career, that to be overtly political was going to destroy any potential.
My mom was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer 12 years ago and to see her I had to drive about three and a half hours north. I was making this trip all the time and I found out about this tree-sitter who was trying to keep a 400-year-old oak tree from being cut down from suburban sprawl. It was on the way to visit my mom so I would stop and get out my video camera and hide out. I had a little guilt that I was kind of objectifying this activist and it was maybe an immoral thing to do. After my third or fourth time being out there, a walkie-talkie was shoved in my face. I’m like, “Oh, no. I’m in so much trouble.” It was this activist John Quigley, we are still friends today. He was like, “Who are you? What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m an artist.” I was really embarrassed and thinking he would be really angry at me. He was like, “That’s cool. We need you to get involved.” The next thing I knew I was in the tree, collecting flashlights and getting food and fundraising and out there every day.
I couldn’t imagine my mom dying at the same time that I was looking at this 400-year-old tree and I couldn’t imagine that its life was going to end. It was this parallel that was overwhelming for me and something hit me. Life is short. I’m passionate about these issues and not everyone is passionate about these things. I’m just going to go for it and make work about a subject matter that really means something to me.