Recorded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this Fresh Talk episode features Andrea Bowers, an artist from Ohio who’s based in Los Angeles. Our conversation reveals the depth of Andrea’s interest in addressing social and political issues globally. Curators of two international biennials in North America selected her work for their 2014 exhibitions. Her Courtroom Drawings appear in l’Avenir, the inaugural Montreal Biennial. Two of Andrea’s projects concerning environmental activism are on view in Unsettled Landscapes at SITE Santa Fe.
ANDREA BOWERS: I went to CalArts, and I didn’t take classes in how to draw. I took a class in how to secede from the country! I took a class on the Left and the failure of the Left. I took classes on not working as a radical political position. I mean I took amazing, crazy, political classes because it was kind of like a school founded by utopian, Marxist feminists. I think that had a lot to do with it.
CATHY BYRD: This is Fresh Talk with Andrea Bowers. As you just heard, Andrea’s studies were rather unconventional. But it turns out she was thinking like an activist long before art school.
AB: I was always, as a kid, really passionate about politics. George Bush’s presidency really made me rebel against him, and it made me really, like, whatever I can do to help change things, I’m going to do it! And so I started using what my skills are, which is art, to try to participate or help in any way I could, with activists and activist campaigns. I would lend my artistic skills, and I found that those groups of people were so excited to have me participate. It was a very welcoming experience, and so I’ve just become more and more courageous and involved. I don’t think of it as courage anymore. At the time, when I first started, I did.
CB: These days, Andrea shapes entire exhibitions around activism. Her art is a call-to-action that gives voice to concerns often ignored.
AB: I’ve been thinking about what art can do and what art can be rather than what it can’t do and what it can’t be. One of the things that art can do is it can bear witness. I think a lot about my role. I document these under-told stories of these incredible activists or these incredible activist events in a much deeper, long-term way than 24/7 news.
CB: It might not surprise you to hear that, a few years ago, Andrea made the news herself. The artist explains exactly how she ended up chained to a tree in the Arcadia Woodlands outside Los Angeles.
AB: My art practice has made me a more radical activist since I met the activist John Quigley, a famous American tree sitter that I’ve been following him for years. He stayed at my house for six months because he was traveling so much that he needed a crash pad. Also, because he’s an activist, he puts all his money into the cause. So, he had no money. He didn’t pay rent or anything for six months. I said, “John, you have to trade me something, so I want you to spend a day teaching me how to tree sit, and I’m going to videotape it as a kind of training-video-artwork.” Well, I loved it. I was a little cynical about it. I was like, “It’ll be goofy,” but I actually was really good at it! Then, six months later, he called me up. He’s like, “There’s a terrible situation in Arcadia. We’re going in, and we need you to go.” What they were trying to do was rip out this beautiful, pristine, urban wilderness area. It was unfortunately kind of bowl shaped. These trees were beautiful oak trees. There were like 250 of them. But they wanted to clear-cut this valley so they could dredge the concrete rivers, take all of the debris, soot, and dirt, and put it someplace. They needed a dumping ground. I attempted to stop that from happening. It did not stop it, but it did stop other areas from being cleared because it got a lot of media attention.
CB: Andrea wove artifacts of her tree sitting experience into the shimmering green sculpture that’s now on view in SITE Santa Fe’s 2014 biennial exhibition.
AB: As soon as I was released from jail (I was in jail for around two days, I guess.), I went out. I wanted to see what it looked like, and it was devastating. They were these beautiful oak trees and, instead of cutting them down and at least using this wood, they put them in wood chippers and turned them into little, tiny pieces. I didn’t know what to do. I had no ideas, but I thought, “I have this truck. I’m going to fill the truck up with woodchips until I can’t move anymore.” One of the neighbors helped me, and we filled up the truck with woodchips. I just saved them all this time. So, for this piece, I used all the climbing ropes that we use as tree sitters. You know you use climbing gear, and I’ve used the climbing gear to make this kind of beautiful. It almost looks like a chandelier, I think. All the wood pieces are tied in bundles at the bottom because I was really trying to pay homage to these trees and thinking, “Is there some way I can re-monumentalize them?”
CB: In a video she produced about the Arcadian Woodlands protest, Andrea remembers what happened in the late afternoon when her tree was the last one standing. Just before police officers climbed into a cherry picker to pluck Andrea from her perch, she had a surprising encounter.
AB: The weirdest thing happened. There were no trees left. All of a sudden, animals started to come into the tree we were in because it was the only tree left. We were suddenly swarmed by bats encircling us and all different kinds of birds. There were actually rats running into the tree. It was craziness because it was the last of the little bit of this ecosystem. It was devastating. It was depressing because you realized how many other animals’ habitats and insects’ habitats had been destroyed in an afternoon.
CB: I’m happy to report that at least one of Andrea’s stories has a happy ending. Her work about activist Tim DeChristopher celebrates his disruption of a land auction in Utah.
AB: I’ve started to think about activists who try to protect the land as heroic because they’re trying not to touch the land. They’re trying to protect it. Right at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, a month before he was to leave office, he had a private, quiet, little auction, that only a few oil and gas men knew about, to sell off much of the pristine wilderness area around Arches National Park there in Utah. This young, amazing activist, Tim DeChristopher, found out about it. Actually, he had been watching The Yes Men, which inspired him that he couldn’t just go hold a sign, that he had to do something else—art inspiring activism, right?
CB: Right. Exactly.
AB: He walked up to the auction not knowing exactly what he was going to do. It was like hundreds of thousands of acres of land.
CB: I was listening to him tell it. He thought maybe he would throw a shoe or shout.
AB: Right, he didn’t know. But they opened it up for him. They said, “Oh, are you here to bid?” He was athletic, outdoorsy. He didn’t look like some sort of traditional, stereotype of an activist. He thought about it for a second, and he said, “Yeah. Well, yes, I am.” He went in there, and he first thought to just bid up the prices because, first of all, they were all in on it. They were getting this unbelievable land that they were going to destroy for almost nothing because it was all rigged. Then he got courageous and started buying. Finally, they figured out that this was not for real, and he got arrested on the spot. But it canceled the sale, and they prosecuted him. Tim did two years in federal prison for this. I was actually the only person who went out and recorded the land that he saved. I found every parcel of land that he bought, and I videotaped it. But I not only videotaped it; I videotaped myself walking through the land.
CB: Andrea’s practice proves that art can make a difference. Tim DeChristopher’s lawyer showed Andrea’s film footage and photos as evidence during Tim’s federal Trial. You recorded the video in the winter.
AB: Yeah, it was cold. But I thought that kind of frozen landscape would kind of be amazing. It was really inspiring!
TIM DECHRISTOPHER: …All that, to me, kind of made this a really outrageous thing that was going on. It convinced me that it was something that we couldn’t accept, that we had to do something about. There were some folks having a protest outside while the auction was going on. I went down there for the protest, but at the same time realized that the protest wasn’t actually going to do anything. It wasn’t enough just to hold a sign on the sidewalk…
ANDREA BOWERS: Art has always been political. It’s better for the market if we aren’t like that because, right away, if you think about just in the States, I’m cutting out 50% of the people who might want to buy my work. But that’s not why I make art. I make art because I want to be in service of those political campaigns and activists that I believe in. That’s my number one goal in my work. But I think about art too and what important things can art do.
CATHY BYRD: And what art can do in the future. You’ve set a pattern for yourself; you’ve had this pattern. That’s who you are.
AB: Yeah, but you have to press yourself forward and try to do more and more, and take on more difficult subjects.
CB: Our conversation turns to Andrea’s investigation of a tragic high school incident in her home state of Ohio. She talks about what motivated her to get involved.
AB: Well, it became a very famous rape case and trial because of the [hacker group] Activists Anonymous who found out about this horrific rape, which was that it was the end of summer for all those summer, high school parties where they all drink too much. It’s all the football players. It was in the town of Steubenville, which is the number one high school football team in Ohio, and I’m from Ohio. Football is big. A 16 year old girl passed out from drinking, and a group of football players dragged her from party to party, treated her like a sex toy, and raped her. What was even more horrific about it was that they tweeted it and posted videos on YouTube. They spread it all over social media, bragging about it. That lack of a sense of humanity and ethics was one thing that I wanted to investigate in this project. But also, on a personal level, growing up in Ohio, one of the reasons I’m a feminist is because culturally it was so hard to be a girl and a young woman. It was understood that if you went out with a guy, they could to do whatever they wanted to you. It’s rape culture, right? I grew up in that, and it affects your sense of identity. It’s brutal, and we act as if this doesn’t exist in America, in the United States, but it’s a horrible thing. I just didn’t want this to just disappear into the 24-hour news cycle.
CB: When the case went to court, Andrea was there. She found a way to document the evidence that was presented. Her project, #SweetJane, presents the disturbing proof in a room-sized installation at the 2014 Montreal Biennial.
AB: I actually managed to weasel my way into the courtroom. They wouldn’t let me have a video camera or anything. They wouldn’t let me have my phone. They actually told me, because I was an artist, I couldn’t draw any of the images of the people. I was able to handwrite all of the text messages and Twitter feed. Well, they were almost all text messages that were used as evidence in the courtroom. It’s literally a document of the rape. It’s unbelievable. It tells the whole story. It’s so violent and so atrocious, but I thought it was important to not be silenced and to always be remembered. It’s very painful to look at, and I was really nervous because I was using aesthetics. I didn’t want to aestheticize a horrific subject, but I also wanted to give something to people that would be a motive. It was a really challenging piece and a really personal piece for me.
CB: Andrea is working on her current project in Paris, France, with Fantani Touré. The singer from Mali dedicates herself to young women’s rights. [Ms. Touré died on December 3, 2014.]
AB: I’m working with a woman from Mali, who is from one of the first families of Mali. She is an African princess, and she was raised in a polygamist family. She was forced into a child marriage. She was married off very young. She is one of most famous singers in Mali, and she is stunning. I’ve been recording her singing. She sings political songs. She has an organization that fights against genital mutilation. That’s a tough taboo subject. And she’s working against the forced marriage of young women—12, 13, 14 years old. I’m working with her right now. It’s a pretty phenomenal experience.
CB: Andrea is joining Fantani [Touré] to offer new, economic opportunities to women in Mali whose job is to perform the excision procedures.
AB: They make traditional African dresses and jewelry and all sorts of beautiful items to raise money so these women won’t perform these surgeries. They’re teaching them other trades. They’re beautiful. So I’ve recorded her singing on the roof of Louis Vuitton, with a view of the whole city.
CB: This is a video project?
AB: It’s in a video format right now. Also, the women in Mali are actually making some of my work. We’re working together through crafts. I’ve done this before. I worked with Native American beaders, like beading circles, to talk about climate change.
CB: What are they creating for you?
AB: Her name is Fantani Touré, and her organization is called Association Kolomba. “Kolomba” means “well,” because women carry water from the wells to their villages. She says something over and over again that I think is so beautiful. And she says it in French: “Don’t Diminish Me.” By “diminish,” she means, ‘don’t do these excisions on women.” To me, that term, “don’t diminish me,” is so powerful. It gets back to this Steubenville rape case, right?
CB: It means so much, yes.
AB: So, they’re making these beautiful, beaded wall works that say, in English and French, “Don’t Diminish Me.” I think it’ll be really beautiful—a small, but touching installation.