Never Forgotten. The Art and Activism of Andrea Bowers
By Jeff Edwards
No Olvidado (Not Forgotten) is the title of one of Andrea Bowers’ largest and most well-known works, but the phrase could easily serve as a statement of purpose for a great deal of her artistic output. Covering three walls of her 2010 exhibition “The Political Landscape” at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, the piece consisted of a massive 10-foot-tall drawing that stretched for almost 96 feet. Against a smudgy graphite background, it portrayed the white ghost of a chain-link fence topped with coiled barbed wire, through which shone hundreds of names; each represented someone who died while trying to cross the Mexico/U.S. border. Although the format echoed that of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial Wall, the delicate materials and haunting imagery in Bowers’ piece provided a more subtle comment on the tenuous, shadowy lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Like many of her works, No Olvidado served as a deliberately fragile and transient monument to the marginalized and forgotten, a surrogate for voices mostly consigned to oblivion by a society that finds their presence unsettling and inconvenient.
Although Bowers’ works have been staunchly political for most of the last decade, the mood they reflect is generally meditative rather than contentious. Her art bears witness to the human cost of ideological conflict, often pointing out that even people who are on the same side of an issue can’t always see eye-to-eye and that good intentions don’t always ensure open communication. In the video Circle (2009), four generations of women from the Native Alaskan Gwich’in people speak about their ambiguous relationship with the activists who have come from elsewhere to help prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Shots of a vast Arctic landscape reveal what unites both groups while hinting that their occasional petty squabbles mean little in the face of such immensity. However, Bowers’ focus on individual voices humanizes what might otherwise read as pointless bickering over a cold tract of indifferent nature.
Even before her projects became blatantly political, they often revealed an unmistakable concern with finding the individual within the mass. Her 1997 project Spectacular Appearances consisted of a set of videos and drawings documenting the behavior of spectators at sporting events and other large public gatherings. Ostensibly a critique of mass culture, its real importance lay in the insight that each of us stands at the center of a private universe that is always in danger of being co-opted away from us through the glamour of pre-packaged faux experiences. A similar idea seems to lie at the core of most of Bowers’ later projects: the distractions of propaganda and mass ideology can serve just as easily to blind us to the plight of the marginalized as they can hijack our secret world of imaginative self-determination.
Openness and negative space are a recurring theme throughout Bowers’ works, often featuring them in subtle and unexpectedly potent ways. A compelling instance of this is found in a growing body of drawings Bowers has made over the years, based on photos of women taken at immigrant rights marches, feminist rallies, gay rights protests and environmentalist actions. In these images, individual figures and the signs they carry are removed from their original contexts and presented small and alone on a much larger field of white paper. Although this highlights the unique identity of each woman, it also creates a sense of isolation and weakness that points toward the reassurance we find in communal behavior. In Girlfriends (May Day March, Los Angeles, 2011) this feeling is particularly strong, as each of two smiling women is segregated onto her own sheet of paper, with a tiny but unbridgeable gap forever separating them. The placement of these drawings among much larger works in her last solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps in New York only served to reinforce the strangely ambivalent mood they evoke.
Bowers has also used space as a metaphor for openness and freedom, with a critical eye turned toward those who would constrain others for the sake of their own political or financial gain. In a video titled The United States v. Tim DeChristopher (2010) that was also displayed in “The Political Landscape,” environmental activist Tim DeChristopher speaks on camera about his sabotage of a 2008 government auction that made 150,000 acres of untouched Utah land available for oil and gas drilling. His account of deliberately fraudulent bidding is intercut with panoramic footage of the territory that was up for grabs; in each sequence, a tiny speck in the distance grows until the viewer can see that it is Bowers herself, carrying a slate on which she writes that location’s parcel number. At times, she moves forward until the slate covers most of the camera’s field of view, blocking the land from sight (and, symbolically, from public use). A simple gesture of interference becomes a comment on how easily open space can be transformed into a zone of private ownership and corporate exploitation.
In contrast to this, her 2007 film Sanctuary comments on the spaces that outcasts create as refuges against the immense cultural and political forces ranged against them. The silent film features Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant who sought refuge in Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist Church for over a year in an attempt to avoid deportation and separation from her eight-year-old son Saul, who is a U.S. citizen (she was eventually arrested and deported, just three weeks after Bowers met with her). As with so much of Bowers’ work, Sanctuary attaches a human face to a contentious issue as a way of commenting on the heart-hardening effect ideologies and entrenched political convictions can have on us.
Throughout the last decade, Bowers has followed a relatively clear path from observer and commenter to committed activist. This progression is documented in a series of works that go back to the 2003 video Vieja Gloria, which dealt with the first suburban tree sit in the United States. Vieja Gloria describes the clash between activist John Quigley and Los Angeles County authorities over the proposed removal of “Old Glory,” a 400-year-old oak located in Valencia, California. Quigley later convinced Bowers to undergo training in tree climbing and occupation, which she documented in the video Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training-Tree Sitting Forest Defense (2009); in early 2011 she took part in a tree sit in Arcadia, which she also documented.
Some of Bowers’ most fascinating works are those that attempt to erode the traditional barrier between the art world and the larger society in which it exists. Her tactic is simple but effective: She invites people who have a stake in the issues that concern her to enter the gallery space and directly engage with art-world regulars. Examples of this include a series of activist events that took place at Susanne Vielmetter throughout the run of “The Political Landscape,” and her decision to link the opening reception for her 2009 show “Mercy Mercy Me” at Andrew Kreps with an international day of action proposed by climate activist organization 350.org. At times, these intrusions of activism into the artificially tranquil white-box gallery environment have proved disconcerting to the usual art crowd, and Bowers has had to assume the role of matchmaker, gently guiding people into her temporarily radicalized gallery spaces and reassuring them that it was OK to mingle with the members of the activist community who had showed up.1
The latest iteration of this community-bridging tactic is the mobile installation Transformer Display for Community Fundraising (2011), created in conjunction with artist Olga Koumoundouros. Initially staged in Los Angeles, it consisted of a bricolage-based transient sculpture designed to raise money for and disseminate information about local activist organizations and neighborhood-based charities. In its most recent incarnation near Art Basel Miami Beach 2011 (under the name Transformer: Display of Community Information And Activation), it took the form of a cluster of activist kiosks and a replica of the semi-legendary Miami homeless camp Umoja Village, which burned down mysteriously in 2007 after the city’s efforts to remove it via legal means proved ineffective.
Despite its presence as an officially sanctioned part of Art Basel-or perhaps because of it-this latest version of Transformer stood out as a rare voice of political engagement in a year when nervous speculation ran high over the possibility of an Occupy-style disruption of business as usual.2 Though it was fairly gentle as protests go, Transformer provided a fascinating counterpoint to the aura of excess that often pervades the Miami fairs. If nothing else, its embrace of the Occupy movement’s spirit of local action and communal solidarity hinted at a model by which the art world might contribute to positive social change without co-opting activism or transforming its message into just another stream of precious and saleable objects.
1. Lawson, Thomas. “A Story about Civil Disobedience and Landscape: Interview with Andrea Bowers.” East of Borneo. Web. January 20, 2011. http://www.eastofborneo.org/articles/a-story-about-civil-disobedience-and-landscape-interview-with-andrea-bowers
2. Rosenberg, Karen. “Art Fair: Business Over Activism.” The New York Times. Web. December 2, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/03/arts/design/art-basel-miami-beach-review.html?pagewanted=all