Art and activism have a long history of interrelation. From 19th century Paris, to Weimar Germany, to New York in the 1980s and ’90s, artists have participated in the shaping of political discourse. Often, artistic modes of activism have involved interventions into existing practices of dominant visual culture. It goes without saying that artists understand the power of images. In 1976, Victor Burgin, in response to a call for publicity posters for an upcoming show at Fruitmarket Gallery, produced a work that at first glance may have resembled a perfume ad. A couple dressed all in white embraces, and the text, “What does possession mean to you?” is displayed above them. Below, however, another text reminded viewers of something else: “7% of our population own 84% of our wealth.” The posters were then prominently displayed on the streets of Newcastle.
Other projects take the form of a variety of performative and interventionist actions. The artists associated with the group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), engage in what they call “Tactical media,” and define on their website as, “situational, and self-terminating” projects using any media that, “will engage a particular socio-political context in order to create molecular interventions and semiotic shocks that collectively could diminish the rising intensity of authoritarian culture.” This has included many actions related to biotech. For example, one project where audience members brought food to CAE, and the group tested it for genetic modification.
Notions of what art and activism actually are can both be perceived as nebulous at times. It is a truism of conversations that attempt to define art that, “art is made by artists,” or “art is made with the intention of being art,” which leave the confines of what artists can actually do to make art quite open. The same could be said of activism, and artists are therefore uniquely poised to take advantage of an intersecting set of dissolving boundaries.
Two Baltimore-based artists, Rebecca Nagle, and Hannah Brancato, in their efforts as the collective, FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, are doing just that in a series of recent actions that take on issues of consent, rape, and rape culture. Continuing in a robust history of feminist, activist art, the group calls itself, “[A] creative activist effort to upset the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent. We believe that a more difficult and honest conversation needs to happen in America to face the realities of sexual violence, and we envision a world where sex is empowering and pleasurable rather than coercive and violent. As activists, we are here to force the issue.”
You may be familiar with their action PINK Loves CONSENT, a web-based intervention where they set up a mock Victoria’s Secret website promoting a sex-positive message of consent, pleasure, and power, ostensibly through a new line of panties. A corresponding action, “Operation Panty Drop” saw the panties from the website actually produced and placed in Victoria’s Secret stores alongside thongs produced by the company with messages such as “Unwrap Me.”
Last Thursday, on February 14th, FORCE performed an action on the National Mall involving forty-four painted styrofoam letters, and a call for the creation of a national memorial for survivors of rape and abuse. The letters spelled out a quotation from a poem by a survivor, “I can’t forget what happened but no one else remembers,” highlighting the often private torment of victims of sexual assault and violence. Tied together to create four lines of text, the letters were cast out onto the surface of the Reflecting Pool, and for the time of their presence there were the source of a powerful provocation. Tourists and other individuals who happened by the temporary monument stopped and took photographs, and were engaged in conversation by members of FORCE. Overall, the action was a contemplative one, devoted to respect for the memory of victims and the attempt to spur a dialogue around the topic of rape.
Experiential Surprise attended the action and afterward contacted Rebecca with a few questions about FORCE’s relationship to art and activism:
ES: On the website for Upsetting Rape Culture, there is mention of the fact that you are a group of artists. Why is it important for you to emphasize this fact, and to do actions that engage visual and material culture?
FORCE: We are interested in changing culture. As we say it, we want to agitate the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent. A lot of our culture is image-based. To the air-brushed images in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue to the perfectly symmetrical pilars of the Lincoln Memorial, images in our culture are very loaded and carry a lot of coded meaning. The National Mall is laid out to tell us that the United States is important and what parts of our history, what parts of our story as a nation, are important. By inserting a temporary memorial into this symbolic landscape, we are saying, this is part of our story. This is important. I think the difference between just saying, “We think there should be a memorial” and actually installing one and having the photograph that people then post around on facebook, is that when people see this image they have an experience. They experience what a memorial could be. What a nation that openly supported survivors of rape and abuse could feel like. It was the same with PINK loves CONSENT. People experienced what it could feel like to have products marketed toward women’s bodies with women’s bodies that actually promoted the health, empowerment and love of those bodies.
ES: How do your individual practices inform and enrich your work in activism or vice versa? Is there any separation or distinction between the two?
FORCE: Both Hannah and I were working on these issues as individual artists before (and after) we started collaborating as FORCE. Hannah was an artist in residence at a domestic violence shelter and was doing advocacy and story telling with women there. I was writing and producing an experimental, satirical play about sexual violence called Darb TV. I think what we have both found in FORCE is that we are able to do the work we were doing as individuals on a bigger scale and have a bigger impact. As FORCE, we’re really focused on what message we are getting out into the world and how our messages are affecting the greater culture. We’re trying to add to and challenge the national conversation around women’s bodies and sexual violence.
In a country where on average there is an estimated 207,754 victims of rape and assault each year (statistic from RAINN via the U.S. Department of Justice), and where 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are the victims of rape and attempted rape, it is well past time for such dialogues and challenges. Keep your eyes on FORCE for their continued efforts.
Thank you to Rebecca and Hannah for taking the time to answer our questions.