We are living an era when the arts are increasingly defunded. Our secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who herself does not have an advanced degree, and whose sole stake in education is what she considers the pressing need to promote guns to fight bears, has openly articulated her mission to gut the public school system. The deepening of policies hostile to cultural production and intellectualism is not surprising given the current regime’s rise to power on a platform of white supremacy, xenophobia and the candid promotion of sexual assault—a white male privilege not coincidentally concurrent with Trump’s declaration that Mexicans are rapists.
Women and queers are among the most vulnerable targets of vitriol. With twenty-seven trans people murdered last year—almost entirely women of color—the first two months of Trump’s presidency saw an acceleration of such violence, with a string of murders in January and February 2017. A Trump supporter was accused of assaulting a gay couple in Key West on February 27, 2017; he used his scooter to knock one of the men off his bicycle while screaming homophobic slurs. In December 2016, a group of queer arts activists in New York were brutally beaten by assailants chanting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and “Blue lives matter.” The victims urged a police office to go after the assailants, still on the scene, but the officer refused, merely insisting that the victims, bloodied and trampled, return to the art gallery.
Women and queer victims of violence have long been terrified to make their abuse public. When they do come forward, they are frequently held responsible or disbelieved. African American/Black women are especially unlikely to report sexually violent crimes because of their fraught relationship with law enforcement and the criminal justice system as well as stereotypes regarding African American/Black women’s hypersexuality, which include assumptions about their promiscuity and toughness. For every African American/Black woman who reports her rape, at least fifteen do not. Even when the assailants are convicted, their sentences are woefully inadequate. Pressure from activists for state intervention have little hope of moving their cases forward. It is ludicrous to imagine that the KKK-absolver Jeff Sessions is invested in quelling the escalating tide of violence, hell-bent as he appears to be on resisting the expansion of rights for gay and transgender people.
In the context of this dismal climate, the LOUDER THAN WORDS (LTW) collective, founded by S.A. Bachman and Neda Moridpour, initiated WOMEN ON THE MOVE (WOM) as well as the #NOTGUILTY Campaign to redress domestic violence and sexual assault (DVSA). WOM will renovate a twenty-foot truck into a gallery, library and classroom on wheels. With three sides covered in artist-designed billboards and a fully equipped resource center inside, the truck will be enveloped in red wallpaper, an ostensibly decorative symbol of domestic space and safety. Upon closer examination, however, viewers confront images of common instruments of abuse: fists, guns, knives belts. Lead By Example, their sardonic video mimicking television news, will be broadcast on a loop on the exterior of the truck. This deft “mockumentary” imagines a world in which male politicians and religious leaders solemnly summon men to join in the prevention of DVSA. The video presents dogmatic leaders like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, as well as more sympathetic figures like Barack Obama and the Pope, in undivided agreement about the importance of men’s participation in the struggle to prevent gender violence.
Every demographic has compelling reasons for concealing DVSA. Given the degrading treatment of African American/Black people by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, WOM features an oversize poster inspired by Black Lives Matter. The image centers on gun violence and Angela Davis’s admonition: “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.” All dimensions of LTW’s projects recognize the unique struggles faced by women of diverse ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. While LTW’s primary focus is men’s violence against women, their ventures encompass DVSA in its diverse forms and are particularly attentive to the fact that non-queer organizations situate sexism, homophobia and racism as addenda to what they see as the primary work of challenging economic imperialism, demanding local control over economies, fair labor practices, and multilateralism.
Driving to underprivileged neighborhoods to confront the crisis of DVSA, the collective will invite participants inside the truck’s resource center to share their stories. While it may be surprising to expect small groups of people who don’t know each other to talk openly about intimate subjects like DVSA, LTW has a history of successfully facilitating dialogue between strangers in public parks, student centers, and shopping mall parking lots. Defying the cultural stigma surrounding DVSA in Iran, Moridpour conducted similar workshops in Tehran. Discussions will focus on the legal and social definitions of consent, why victims are blamed, things men can do to prevent gender violence, why women stay, how to support survivors and the loved ones of survivors and the reasons rape is under-reported. In addition to organized workshops, volunteers will exit the truck in areas with foot traffic to engage people on the street in conversation, distributing free artist-designed posters and educational materials. WOM belongs to a long line of queer and feminist public practice collectives and artists including ACT UP, Lesbian Avengers, Gran Fury, DAM (Dyke Action Machine), David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzales-Torres, the Guerilla Girls, Group Material, Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker.
WOM is informed by Bachman’s long history as a socially engaged artist, beginning with THINK AGAIN (TA), a collective co-founded in 1997 with David John Attyah, a queer artist. TA’s guerilla activities include projecting video confronting NAFTA and free trade on city buildings, swapping holiday greeting cards in Kmarts and grocery stores with their own subversive cards addressing welfare “reform,” “Peace Among Men, Poverty Among Women,” and plastering antiwar posters on city streets. TA seeks to convert consumers into environmentalists, gays into queers, carnivores into vegans, and television executives into human rights advocates – “reveling in moments of rupture and awareness such as when a teenage girl looks down at a plate of bacon and pictures the pig.” As Bachman and Attyah put it, “our political imagination challenges the determination of consumerist culture, mainstream media and ‘patriots’ to obscure our sight from the real conditions of violence, labor and suffering, undermining myths about uncivilized Arabs, irresponsible welfare queens, lazy homeless people and fears of anyone black or brown.”
Through public agitprop, TA and LTW grapple with the increasing disappearance of physical space for activism, the proliferation of ubiquitous advertising and the pervasive censorship of racism, xenophobia and DVSA by media companies. The collectives undermine the surveillance of guerrilla interventions by law enforcement and, since 9/11, the rising acceptance of federally produced propaganda. As in TA, WOM distributes much of its printed work in face-to-face encounters. As Bachman and Attyah see it, “We employ queer as a conceptual touchstone, situating homophobia as a set of cultural myths about sex and bodies that masquerade as truths about human nature.” A queer criticality compels them to dismantle state-sanctioned and mass media propaganda that disseminate myths about people of color and queer people threatening to unravel the logic of the “American dream.”
Bachman’s co-conspirator in LTW, Neda Moridpour, was born and raised in Iran. Growing up in post-1979 Tehran, Moridpour experienced violence as manifested in sexism, abuse and war. She approaches public art as a means for decoding the violence she herself endured, exploring the ways in which it marked her, stimulated her awareness and made her an artist. Moridpour’s oeuvre includes intimate installations, video, photography and large-scale public performances actively involving the public. In WOM, Bachman and Moridpour are joined by Ione Wells of the #NOTGUILTY Campaign, whose TED Talk, “How We Talk About Sexual Assault Online,” received one million views. In 2015, Wells was the victim of an assault, and she subsequently published a letter to her assaulter. It went viral, prompting others around the world to share their own experiences on social media. She has written about sexual assault for numerous publications, spoken on radio and television and hosted support groups and workshops for survivors of assault.
Now is the time for three women and a truck to do their work. If more people were educated about DVSA, it wouldn’t take fifty-eight women’s testimonies before Bill Cosby’s aggressions are taken seriously and deemed believable, or Fox News’s fifty percent loss of paid national advertisements and the defection of more than eighty companies before the channel finally decided to fire Bill O’ Reilly.
WOM’s truck will kick off its tour in NYC on June 15, 2017 and then move on to Cleveland, London, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. While the NYC portion of their tour is fully funded, WOM is actively seeking to raise additional monetary support to complete their tour of the other cities (http://www.louder-than-words.org/donate). Donations are tax-deductible.