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Women on the Move: Can Three Women and a Truck Quell the Tide of Sexual Violence and Domestic Abuse?

Truck - Vector Illustration

WOMEN ON THE MOVE mock-up. Credit: LOUDER THAN WORDS

 

Decades of neoliberal leadership exacerbated socio-economic disparities, diminishing individuals’ social and political rights at the same time that Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission expanded corporations’ “personhood,” giving them the green light to spend unlimited sums on advertising and liberating nonprofit corporations’ independent political expenditures. While the so-called “Washington Consensus” was no picnic, the proto-fascist regime to which it gave rise has installed a new level of widespread fear. The forty-fifth president of the United States was elected on a platform of white supremacy, xenophobia and misogyny, guided by an advisor hell-bent on expediting the apocalypse in the name of ethnic pride. The United States was founded on genocide and the commodification and fungibility of racialized others. It is ludicrous to imagine redressing our bad faith democracy with superficial, band-aid fixes and the inclusion of select individuals from marginalized groups in positions of power. Now the band-aid has been ripped off. People of color, Muslims, queers and women find themselves at newly heightened risk; as of January 2017, racially motivated brutality and domestic violence and sexual assault (DVSA) are morally and (de facto) legally condoned by the United States government. Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court appointment foretells the intensification of reactionary policies given, among other things, his “originalism,” defense of “date rape,” endeavors to block women from litigating discrimination claims and tacit approval of South African apartheid. Most recently, Fox News’s sluggish and ambivalent ouster of Bill O’Reilly mirrors the ethos of our new administration, begrudgingly slapping the hand of a rampant sexual predator and handing him twenty-five million dollars as he walks out the door.

Progressives are grappling with how to respond while simultaneously succumbing to paralysis. Concurrent with the alarming acceleration of state-sanctioned violence, we are witnessing a mounting wave of complacency and acceptance of Trump’s polices as business as usual. Many on the left have already been shocked and awed into a state of numbness, overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of appalling bad news. In the first weeks of Trump’s administration, critics of the regime tuned in voraciously to reports of the latest horror stories, attending the Women’s March and airport protests in droves in response to the so-called “immigration pause.” A few weeks later, the ever-so-slightly sanitized Muslim ban elicited virtually zero protest, nor have the shelling of Syria, the President’s 3.3 million-dollar Mar-a-Lago weekends and Trump Tower’s daily half-million-dollar security expenditures, the restriction of access to health care and abortions or Trump’s interminable tweets in language so halting that a high school applicant for the job of 7/11 clerk would be deemed incapable of communicating with customers. The dropping of the Massive Ordinance Air Blast (also known as the Mother of all Bombs, MOAB) on Afghanistan was the latest instance of what many are seemingly beginning to accept: given the global proliferation of nuclear arsenal, our president might even lead us into World War III. Friends semi-guiltily report that they need to check out for a few days. My Facebook feed, previously inundated with news analysis of the Trump regime’s ghastly new endeavors, is returning to its previous inculcation of fuzzy animal videos and vacation snapshots. Many on the left are worn out; of course, this is what the new administration is counting on.

In the context of the normalization of Trump’s tyrannical agenda as business as usual, two socially engaged artists and a young journalist have devised a retort to quell the escalating inertia. Can three women and a truck activate public resistance? The goal of their project, WOMEN ON THE MOVE (WOM), organized by the artist-activist collective, LOUDER THAN WORDS (LTW), is to transform a twenty-foot truck into a mobile billboard and resource center to demand action in the prevention of the never-ending crisis of domestic violence and sexual assault (DVSA). WOM’S project extends the perimeters of classrooms and museums to connect with those affected by DVSA in underserved neighborhoods that, as they observe, “cannot easily avail themselves of workshops and contemporary art of this kind.” Their billboard truck will intervene in the cityscape, navigating neighborhoods before stopping at schools, cul-de-sacs, parks, grocery stores and other public spaces where people gather. With every stop, they will generate “pop-up” events including intimate educational workshops and video screenings. Once members of the neighborhoods enter the truck, they will discover an artist-designed interior equipped with video, interactive oral histories, informational pamphlets and a library. Volunteers will periodically hop out of the truck to engage pedestrians in dialogue and hand out free posters designed by the artists.

The three organizers are of different generations and were born in three different countries. Moridpour is a thirty-three-year-old immigrant from Iran of Muslim descent, now a United States citizen. Bachman is a sixty-year-old Jewish queer born in Cleveland, Ohio. Bachman and Moridpour, the co-founders of LTW, are artists, educators and advocates with over three decades of combined experience generating grassroots public art projects that engage communities about the ongoing crisis of DVSA. With WOM, Bachman and Moridpour join forces with Ione Wells of the #NOTGUILTY Campaign, whose TED Talk, How We Talk About Sexual Assault Online, has received one million views. In the organizers’ words, “LTW is a cross-cultural, intergenerational art collective that targets sexual assault, domestic violence, women’s reproductive health and homophobia by combining activism with courageous art interventions. We examine the ways that capitalism and misogyny conspire to jeopardize women and the outnumbered while igniting civic dialogue, awakening the political imagination and unleashing inventive plans of action.”

Bachman and Moridpour first introduced elements of WOM in “Half the Sky” (2014), a first of its kind exhibition in Shenyang, China originating with China’s Luxun Academy of Fine Arts’s invitation to the International Women’s Caucus for Art. The impetus of the Academy was to generate cultural exchange between artists and essayists, referencing Chairman Mao Zedong’s famous pronouncement that “women hold up half the sky.” Their current project includes frilly baroque wallpaper that evolved out of the China exhibition. Bright red and inviting, closer scrutiny exposes something more ominous: weapons used to injure and maim, the most ubiquitous instruments of abuse including fists, pistols, shattered plates, knives and belts. The ostensibly homey wallpaper graphically reminds us that the majority of victims of DVSA are women and children terrorized by men they know within the four walls in which they live.

Bachman’s history of activist-interventionist work goes back three decades. Her first collective, THINK AGAIN (TA, 1997 – 2012), co-founded with David John Attyah, is self-described as “angry artists who lived through NOW Feminism, ACT UP and the Million Man March. We still wear too much black and have Gran Fury, the Guerrilla Girls and Sue Coe posters plastered over every inch of our walls.” TA sees political art as a medium for sparking conversation. Many of their projects prioritize face-to-face interactions with people of all ages and backgrounds in the streets of cities across the United States, instigating dialogue about current trends in HIV prevention, the economic and societal contributions of undocumented laborers and the intersection of race and class as it pertains to the socio-economic realities of gentrification and displacement, encouraging people to confront injustice and finesse their interpretations of political and cultural realities. Overtaking City Halls, television studios and big-box stores with mobile billboards, and passing out postcards and posters at Pride parades, TA, like WOM, has dispensed an enormous amount of materials for free. Over the years, Bachman estimates that TA distributed over fifty thousand print and digital posters, postcards and books to libraries and nonprofits mobilizing against the war machine, sweatshop labor and the disavowal of LGBTQ teen suicide.

As TA describes it, their final project, ACTIONS SPEAK (2008-1010), “is a multi-media endeavor featuring a sixty-seven-foot mural and an outdoor projection probing links between political brutality and public policy and reconsidering social crises like HIV/AIDS and violence against women. The photographic mural speaks to state-sanctioned oppression and sexualized violence, with one microphone violently encrusted in lipstick and another covered with a condom. ACTIONS SPEAK continues TA’s long conceptual interest in linking political discourse to the body, in this instance refracted through violence against women, hate crimes, sexualized forms of war crimes and global HIV transmission.” Their ECONOMIC BOOM FOR WHOM? billboards addressing income inequality and the insultingly meager minimum wage could be resituated in the skyline today, with Bernie Sanders and Amy Goodman giving them a thumbs up.

Protest optics have long been central to Bachman’s projects. TA’s PROTESTGRAPHICS.ORG (2001) is a series of downloadable click-and-print posters condemning the invasion of Afghanistan and challenging the Bush Administration’s increased militarization in the aftermath of 9/11. Nearly sixteen years later, much of TA’s work challenging discursive terms that legitimate acts of invasion – “infinite war,” preemptive strike, empire and superpower privilege — is still used in protests world-wide. Their images do not so much address specific acts of aggression but, rather, the belligerent ethos of United States exceptionalism. As Andrea Smith observes, “The United States is not at war; the United States is war.”

Bachman’s photographs and books analyze female roles within the domestic arena and, by implication, patriarchal culture. In her work, conventional white, middle class family relationships and gender dynamics in the 1950s United States are undermined by images of never-ending suburbanization and banal social rituals. Bachman scrutinizes the dissonance between lived experience and mass media representation, dissecting mundane quotidian interactions to expose sexism, white privilege, conformity and the politics of heteronormative representation. Her work uncovers the denial underlying the media’s construction of the white heterosexual family, destabilizing the vicious cycle in which the media, once establishing its false premises of normativity, projects these back onto society.

Bachman’s co-conspirator in LTW is Neda Moridpour. Born and raised in Iran, an acute understanding of gender discrimination, socio-economic inequality and state and media censorship are at the core of her work. After emigrating to Los Angeles in 2009 and completing her Master of Fine Arts in Public Practice, Moridpour began collaborating with Bachman, deriving much of her inspiration from her own life. As an Iranian woman growing up in post-1979 Tehran, she experienced violence firsthand as manifested through misogyny, domestic abuse and war. Engaging the public through art, Moridpour decodes the ways in which the oppression she experienced shaped her critical awareness. Her artwork conjoins thought-provoking installations and inventive large-scale public performances with provocative audience participation. The third member of WOM, Ione Wells, was the victim of an assault in 2015. The letter she published to her assailant went viral, freeing others to disclose their own experiences and fueling an outpouring of discussion about DVSA on social media. Wells is the founder of the international #NOTGUILTY campaign against sexual violence and misdirected victim blaming. The author of numerous publications, she has also hosted a wide variety of support groups and workshops for survivors of sexual assault. Throughout her work, she emphasizes how her personal story gave hope to others, delivering a powerful message against the culture of online shaming.

Combating widespread political apathy and hopelessness in the face of the Trump administration’s insidious project to “Make American Great Again,” WOM proposes an alternate politics of grassroots activism and agitprop in the tradition of ACT UP. They will begin their tour in NYC on June 15th, moving on to Cleveland, Los Angeles and London. While the NYC portion of their tour is fully funded, they are still seeking monetary support for their visits to the other cities. Donations to their Kickstarter campaign will be gratefully received.

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of numerous publications on the legacies of African enslavement and critical animal studies. Her forthcoming memoir, “Home Sick,” probes caregiving, dying, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.

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