Interview with Andrea Bowers

Bad at Sports

Interview with Andrea Bowers

By Bad at Sports, Patricia Maloney March 26, 2014

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


On view through April 13, 2014, at the Pitzer College Art Galleries and Pomona College Museum of Art is the solo exhibition Andrea Bowers: #sweetjane, by the Los Angeles-based artist. In two distinct ways, #sweetjane explores the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case and the social media-driven activism that brought the young men responsible to trial. At Pitzer is a 70-foot-long drawing of the text messages sent between the teenagers in the 48 hours after the assault on the young woman, who is known in the media and throughout the trial as Jane Doe. At Pomona is a video installation comprising appropriated media footage and billboard-size photographs of disguised Anonymous protestors at the trial. Taken together, the installations create an incredibly damning document, not only of the events and of the young men, who were depicted sympathetically by the media, but also of the significant tolerance in this country toward sexual assault.  Bowers’ activities in creating this work reflect the fluidity between art and activism that is a hallmark of her practice, as well as her belief that art can bear witness to the individual gestures and commitments that collectively enact significant social change.

Listen to the full interview on Bad at Sports, Episode 447.

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Patricia Maloney: Let’s start with the large-scale drawings on view at Pitzer College. They are the transcriptions of the text messages that were used as evidence during the Steubenville rape trial. Writ so large, they are frightening in terms of the indifference expressed toward the assault that has taken place. How were you able to spend so much time with these words in order to make these drawings?

Andrea Bowers: The drawing is a really clear narrative of the story of this rape. It happened in a city in Ohio where high-school football is everything. It was the end-of-summer parties, all of these high-school kids drinking and going from one party to the next. This young woman—Jane Doe—got very drunk. A large group of the high school’s football players dragged her from party to party, while she was passed out, and they sexually assaulted her throughout the night. She found out about it the next morning when she woke up naked at one of the parties. She didn’t have any idea of what happened to her. Then she started seeing pictures that had been sent through social media—Instagram and Twitter—of herself being assaulted. There was one horrible YouTube video of a young man talking about it with another group of men and it’s just wild, the things he said. The callousness was so shocking to me.

The hardest part of making this work was editing the text I had transcribed during the court case. That was the most emotional and intense part of it: to sit in the courtroom, which held thirty-five or forty people, write those words down, and watch the parents [of the accused] trying to control themselves while listening to how brutal—for me it was just brutal inhumanity, what was being said.

Andrea Bowers. Courtroom Drawings (Steubenville Rape Case, Text Messages Entered As Evidence, 2014 (detail); installation view, Andrea Bowers: #sweetjane, 2014. Pitzer College Art Galleries, Claremont, CA. Courtesy of the Artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Nichols Gallery, Pitzer College Art Galleries. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

But then I didn’t deal with it for several months. I just let the notebook sit in a file in my office. When it came time to do the graphic layout for the drawing, I had to type my handwritten version of this text out. I became really numb to it and just shut down so I could draw. It became political for me. I had to do this, and I wanted to do it right. I became obsessed with the editing and making sure that it read the way I wanted it to read. It was really hard for some of the artists that were working with me, because they hadn’t previously read the text. I think the drawing part became harder for them than for me.

PM: The way the drawing is laid out in the gallery, you read the texts in the order that the events are unfolding, you see the first attempts to reframe and lie about what happened, and you start to realize the extent to which the pictures and the news of what happened are spreading [amongst the teenagers]. When I was about two-thirds of the way through the drawing, reading all of this, I had to sit down. Because that’s where it really hit home: On all sides, there was absolute unwillingness to acknowledge what happened as rape. It’s overwhelming to read their words and see Trent Mays becoming increasingly defensive. He’s prevaricating, telling one person one thing, telling another person another thing—blowing it off. He’s not worried. And that makes it that much worse. He’s not thinking about what he’s done, he just wants it to go away.

Andrea Bowers. Courtroom Drawings (Steubenville Rape Case, Text Messages Entered As Evidence, 2014; installation view, Andrea Bowers: #sweetjane, 2014. Pitzer College Art Galleries, Claremont, CA. Courtesy of the Artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Nichols Gallery, Pitzer College Art Galleries. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

AB: I grew up in a similar town in Ohio, in a culture where young men were allowed to do whatever they want to women. As a young woman, I felt like I was lesser than the young men, and thirty years later, the same culture of denial around the way young women are treated persists in America. Growing up in this type of environment is the basis for why I became a feminist. Instead of blaming myself and having low self-esteem, feminism taught me that these are cultural standards of behavior and power structures, so you move it outward and externalize it.

PM: And that brings me to asking you about your stance as a feminist, especially in the current moment where there’s so much confusion and unwillingness to claim that term among young women. What tenets of feminism hold true for you, both as a person and as an artist?

AB: I mean, it’s really simple: It’s believing in equality. And through teaching, I often see insecurity or doubt in young women—still—that I know is internalized inequality. Until this stuff changes, I’m going to fight for the rights of gender equality. That’s ultimately what feminism is about. I think the second-wave feminists did so much for women today and for gender equality today, but we have a long way to go. Look at Micol Hebron’s project where she’s tallying the percentages of women artists represented versus male artists in Los Angeles galleries; the average is something like 27 percent are women. We still have stuff to fight for. Women are underpaid in academia; women have far fewer tenured jobs. I have to fight for these things so I don’t blame myself. I don’t want women blaming themselves for not achieving what they want to achieve because there’s a whole system in place that’s trying to stop this.

PM: I feel that sense of personal responsibility in the content that I produce, and what I represent, and in the conversations that I have. I try to articulate my activities in very specific ways, so that it’s clear what I’m doing. But there is also that sense of motivation that comes almost out of guilt, which I try to fight, as if I am to blame if this doesn’t change.

AB: I don’t blame myself if it doesn’t change. I just don’t. I want women to feel empowered. I don’t want women to feel the way that I did, and so I’m going to do everything I can to try to change those perceptions. But I don’t feel any guilt about my responsibility to make that change. I’m doing my part.

PM: But I feel that part of my responsibility is to claim new terms around feminism, so that there can be broader points of identification.

AB: I think that feminism leads to pushing for gender equality, it leads to all sorts of diversity; that’s what’s so beautiful about feminism. It’s all-encompassing.

PM: In your 2011 show at your gallery, Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles, you focused on labor movements, the Occupy movements, bringing attention to immigration and women’s rights around issues of labor. There were several different types of drawings, including a series that depicts an individual protester on a large white field. Why did you choose to present those individuals isolated from a larger group of protesters?

AB: When I started off years ago, doing those drawings focused on individuals in the crowd, I was thinking about the Situationists and Guy DeBord, wanting to believe that no matter what, individuals could have a creative voice and an identity within the spectacle. They’re usually holding a sign, or the text on their shirt expresses their political positions, or there’s something unique about them. The negative space draws attention to the fact that we might otherwise not pay attention to these people because they’re just one of many. It’s about recognizing issues or important voices that are perhaps being disregarded.

PM: And especially because they’re positioned at the bottom of the page, there’s the sense of their marginalized position and the amount of ground that needs to be covered in order for that space to be filled.

AB: Absolutely. I was trying to, through those drawings, talk about what was left out—issues dealing with immigration, with ethnicity, with gender diversity—that feminism needs to embrace and confront and include today.

PM: Included in the show at the Pomona College Museum is a similar, small drawing of Wendy Davis’ pink sneakers. Facing her in the drawings is the bottom of the pant legs and black shoes of a man, presumably. I’m still trying to work out what is it about that image that makes it seem violent? The presence of the figure that’s facing her is intimidating, but you only see his feet!

AB: Everyone has seen Wendy Davis’ pink sneakers a thousand times. But I when I found that image, I thought, “Wow! That’s a microcosm of what she was up against in Texas.” I mean, those men are attacking her to this day, that right-wing, white male machine is just going after her. I wanted to show this type of patriarchy in another way. That man’s legs seem like a blockade, and it almost looks like he’s attacking her. And I just wanted to reference that it’s not just about physical rape. There’s a culture of oppression of women that takes many different forms.

PM: The video—which is on view at Pomona—is, as you mentioned, a collection of found footage from the media. Included in the space are these very large-scale photos of demonstrators who are part of the hacktivist group Anonymous and who played a crucial role in bringing this case to widespread attention and ultimately to prosecution.

AB: Members of Anonymous made it a national campaign. They wanted justice for Jane Doe; they wanted these young men brought to trial as well as teachers and parents who enabled this to happen. So they used social media to promote this case and ensure that it didn’t disappear. My work always focuses on activists, and I was excited to work with Anonymous. I was also interested in the way they used anonymity versus the way Jane Doe had to remain anonymous. Anonymity was an underlying subject, both as empowering and disempowering, throughout this case.

Andrea Bowers. #sweetjane, 2014; single-channel HD video (color with sound) with mural installation and colored lightbulbs; 33:08 TRT; installation view, Andrea Bowers: #sweetjane,  Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont CA, January 21 to April 13, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Nichols Gallery, Pitzer College Art Galleries. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

PM: Do you feel that it was disempowering for Jane Doe to maintain her anonymity?

AB: In some ways, yes, because Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond are very handsome young men. Their lawyers put them on the national stage; they were on CNN, they were on 20/20. And they’re handsome and they’re young and they’re football players, and the media fell in love with them and felt sorry for them. Because no one saw Jane Doe nor heard her speak, they continually re-victimized her.

Before the trial, I had avoided Anonymous. I had such a hard time with everyone wearing Guy Fawkes masks: a mask of a white man. It just didn’t click with my feminism. And then once I started going to Steubenville and to some of these protests prior to the trial, I realized how angry people were in the town. The future of their football team was being messed with, and they didn’t want this trial to occur. These young women protesting really needed to be anonymous. They had Guy Fawkes masks on, which protected them. They could speak out for Jane Doe and maybe not be recognized. That anonymity was important because it was dangerous to be in Steubenville in that time.

PM: My take on the masks is very different than yours. I perceive the masks as a reflection outward, a mirroring. The masks are all smiling. It’s such a hideous smile and so creepy, but the creepiness undermines that impenetrability that our dominant culture possesses.

AB: Yeah, I totally agree. An amazing aspect for me about why I do what I do is the opportunity to question my own prejudices or misconceptions and to be more open-minded. That’s a really beautiful thing about being around activists who are pushing boundaries, questioning the way our society behaves, and asking for a better world.

PM: There have been at least two New York Times articles subsequent to the convictions that delve into Anonymous’s methodologies and undermine those activities because they go against the standards of investigative journalism. But in doing so, the articles also, purposefully or inconsequentially, undermine the root activity itself; they undermine the need for people to speak out about the rape culture in which we find ourselves. They seem to just sweep that aside as inconsequential.

Andrea Bowers. #sweetjane, 2014 (detail); mural installation. Courtesy of the Artist, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Nichols Gallery, Pitzer College Art Galleries. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

AB: Anonymous is amazing because it’s leaderless. So it’s messy. It’s a beautiful and messy leaderless organization, and there are going to be problems with some of the members. But one of the things I tried to show in the video is that of all of the major national news outlets, the one person who told the facts and repeated what was said in the courtroom to the Anonymous members (and did it in a really articulate way) was a local independent journalist named Don Carpenter. Media critique is always important in my work because one of the things that art can do, and what I can do as an artist, is I get to tell nuanced, complex stories, and I don’t have to tell them immediately. I can take my time, I can do tons of interviews, and I can tell a story in a lot different voices. It can be interesting or it can be boring. But it becomes a historical record. Because that transcript of the text messages has not been released. Don Carpenter’s blog and my drawings are the only [public] records of that text-message narrative at this point. And that’s important to have out there.

PM: And indicative of a lot of your work is that it has this extension by which you bring in multiple groups to respond, not just to the work at hand but to the issues. And so the work about activism becomes a form of activism itself, or at least takes on activist tendencies.

AB: I’m always trying to prove that art and activism are inseparable. That art and politics are inseparable. I’m always trying to bleed those dividing lines and simultaneously do activist work through my artwork. What I have to offer is my practice; any way that it can be used, I offer my services. And then I get amazing artwork out of it. The lines have been so blurred that it’s really beautiful for me. I love doing that, because that’s what I’m passionate about. I love being involved with activists, and I feel like I am an activist at some level.

People always say to me “Isn’t it really hard to deal with failures?” Activists want their actions to be recorded, because they all fail. But I never see it as failure. I see it as generations of people all working together on these issues. Everything is a step and a process. At different times, different people step forward and take actions, and then the next group of people will take over.

PM: And there’s a key part of your work that is about creating an archive of these activities and teasing out these narratives that are currents in our culture, especially through the stories of individuals that don’t come to the forefront through any other forum.

AB: It was a big jump to be overtly political. I thought, “Is this the end of my art career and it hasn’t even begun?” I was working with a group of women who were supporting this tree sitter, John Quigley, who was trying to save a 400-year-old oak tree, up by Valencia, a mile away from CalArts, where I had just finished graduate school. They were teaching me—although I knew the word—about nonviolent civil disobedience. They keep talking about bearing witness, and it seemed like a religious term. It made me nervous. But over the years, I’ve realized one of the things that I can do is record and bear witness, and that’s important. I just really believe in the power of storytelling as an important historical document, and so I’ve been telling stories ever since. 

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