Interview with Andrea Bowers

12 Mar

I had the opportunity to conduct an email and phone interview with the artist on Saturday and Monday, March 9th and March 11th, 2013. She answered the following questions, which further illuminate her position on the relationship between art and activism. Hopefully, after reading the artist’s responses, the viewer may be compelled to view her work with even a new perspective and understanding of her role in the tradition of nonviolent resistance.

1)    Have you studied the tradition of nonviolent resistance and leaders such as Gandhi and King? If so, how have they influenced your trajectory?

AB: I was definitely influenced by them but most of my influence comes from direct action training sessions I have attended given by young activists.  Lately I’ve been struggling with the blurry boundaries between violence and nonviolence. These definitions are not always clear. It’s a matter of degrees so I always try to keep this in mind. Is cutting a hole in the fence of a nuclear ammunitions factory, in order stop the production of nuclear weapons (like the Plow Shares), a violent act? Some would think so. Can trespassing be violent?  An act done for necessity of defense may have violent aspects but can still be more peaceful than a violation of greater injustices and human rights.  I have been very influenced by Barbara Epstein’s book, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution – Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Also I studied Gene Sharpe’s books on The Politics of Nonviolent Action.  I probably learned as much about nonviolence from the Black Panthers as I did King.  I was early on influenced by Dorothy Day.  Lately I’ve been trying to live my personal life in a nonviolent manner, something which is much harder than enacting NV strategies in my political life.  This is where Gandhi comes in (see his text “My Faith in Nonviolence” 1930).

I produce work in an archival manner.  I research and collect materials and then use the information to help make my work.  All of my ideas come from the research.  I often just shift the frame: I see readymades in the materials and actions of nonviolent protests.  I just enact these activists’ practices and put them in galleries and then that’s about it.  I add some tropes from the visual vernacular of aesthetics to elicit pathos sometimes.  Many of ideas particularly early on in my work came directly from the texts I mentioned above.   Literally the tree sitting platforms are made by a tree sitting activist.  He comes to visit me from northern CA where he has been living in a tree for the past 3 years in order to prevent it being cut down.  I have borrowed materials from actions, put them in exhibitions and after the show they are used for actions again.

2)    What role do you think art plays in the realm of civil resistance, and why is it important for art to be political?

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Andrea Bowers: Images of Assorted Pieces

7 Mar

The following images show more examples of Bowers’ artwork. By both reading the title of the work and looking at the image, one can further understand the role of the political context within Bowers’ work, and also her frequent attempt to portray the work of activists.
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Andrea Bowers: Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training—Tree Sitting Forest Defense, 2009

5 Mar

Following with her trend of making art purely about activists, in 2009 Bowers finished a video that documented her experience working with tree-protest activists to train for, and ultimately participate in, tree occupation. In her 2003 video Vieja Gloria, Bowers began documenting the first suburban tree sit-in over the proposed removal of a 400-year-old oak tree Old Gloria in Valencia, California. The video featured activist John Quigley, who soon convinced Bowers to train with him and prepare for future tree protests. Her 2009 video Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training– Tree Sitting Forest Defense presents her experience, which she later put to use at a tree-sit-in in Arcadia, California.

Tree sits - Canopy Camping, earth First! Direct Action Manual with Dreal Platform

Tree sits – Canopy Camping, earth First! Direct Action Manual with Dreal Platform

This video sets itself apart from the rest of Bowers’ work, as it focuses on her own experiences dealing with the practicalities of protest, rather than featuring the efforts and political context surrounding other activists or political victims. Nevertheless, the video holds a deep significance in the spectrum of Bowers’ work by demonstrating the degree of her dedication to direct action on her political beliefs that reach farther than using her artwork as a tool for mass exposure. “Focusing on the sheer amount of gear, skill, and stamina required of would-be tree sitters, Bowers produces a technical manual laced with the anxiety of operating alone.” (Five Acts: The Chronicles of Dissent)


Bowers was ultimately arrested following the 2011 tree sit-in.

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Andrea Bowers: Sanctuary & Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Drawing 2007

5 Mar

In a video and series of stills and drawings, Bowers returns to the direct recognition of nonviolent civil disobedience in her artwork and also to the controversial political issue of immigration which she frequently highlights (as in No Olvidado). The silent film features undocumented Mexican immigrant Elvira Arellano and her 8-year-old son, a US citizen. On August 15, 2006, Arellano entered into sanctuary at the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, IL in order to avoid deportation and separation from her son.  After following Arellano’s story for over a year, Bowers interviewed and filmed Arellano two weeks before her one-year anniversary in sanctuary. Through the video and accompanying drawings, Bowers continues exploring direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience by attaching a human face to a contentious issue. She not only presents a personal story as a way of commenting on the heart-hardening effect of a politically contentious issue, but also to consider the intersections between aesthetics and political protest.

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Andrea Bowers: Help the Work Along 2012

5 Mar

Many of Bowers’ earliest work feature staunchly feminist subjects and highlight the role of women in contemporary society and culture. Her 2012 exhibition “Help the Work Along” returns to the genre of feminist-centric issues that focus on the rights of female workers, and discusses the relationships between feminism, immigration, and workers’ rights– all political subjects Bowers frequently considers. Overall, the exhibit celebrates “workers’ rights movements, highlighting nonhierarchical labor organizing strategies and the use of craft, artistry, and pageantry as valuable political tools.” Through a juxtaposition of workers’ rights images and graphics from the early 20th century with contemporary political posters and campaigns, Bowers compels her audience to evaluate the notion of “emancipatory progress.” Suffering and exploitation of workers is not a historic event relegated to the past; it continues to happen on a daily basis in our own cities.

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Andrea Bowers: The Political Landscape 2010

5 Mar

In the artist’s own words:

“The Political Landscape continues my recent exploration of contemporary issues associated with the genre of landscape.  It focuses on contentious locations where countries and corporations are willing to cause environmental degradation or human rights violations for the purpose of attaining or maintaining power.  One of the earliest functions of the landscape picture has been to provide evidence of ownership; in this project I aim to reveal the abuse of ownership. For the exhibition, I have made two different projects that focus on two different sites in the American West: public land in the state of Utah and the Mexican/American border.”

In her 2010 show, the Political Landscape, Andrea Bowers demonstrates her relentless commitment to using her artwork as a tool in implementing social activism. Through this piece, Bowers draws attention to individuals within the political context of an ideological issue; the numerous pieces in the exhibit, both drawings and videos, document the lives of these individuals and consequently humanize a political issue for an audience that may not otherwise be able to appreciate its gravity. She elaborates: Continue reading

Andrea Bowers: Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training 2004

4 Mar

In 2004, Bowers presented a complex project that incorporated the use of various mediums of art. The centerpiece of the exhibit, Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training, featured a two-part video project, in which ten dancers in their 20s participate in a direct action training course taught by nonviolent activists and educators. In addition to the education portion, the video also features a dance performance, with photographs and a drawing accompanying the video project. Firstly, the education portion of the video is portrayed as a stimulating physical and emotional process that draws attention to the relationship between the content and the personal emotion of the dancers. Next, the dancing section further highlights the connection of aesthetics serving as a successful ally to the political theory.

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Plastic People of the Universe

3 Mar


The Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring of 1968 and the consequent Soviet occupation gave rise to an anti-politics movement established by cultural leaders who felt artistically oppressed by the government. The non-conformist rock band The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) was not created with the intention of challenging the political system, but soon drew a large audience united on the desire for freedom of expression and human rights. The band represented creativity and freedom of thought and asserted that their motives were artistic rather than activist, but their trial on the grounds of “disturbing the peace” instead suggested the political significance in the ensuing movement against an oppressive regime. Thus, in the post-Prauge Spring Soviet Communist nation, the underground music culture represented the group of dissenters articulating opposition to the political tyranny.  Eventually, the band became the leading catalyst for the drafting of a political decree Charter 77, which challenged the human rights and legal violations from the Communist government.

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ACTing Up against AIDS

27 Feb

“ACT UP, as much as any movement yet invented, has made self-conscious cultural struggle part of its core work. Those of us who now see culture everywhere, even in movements from earlier centuries, owe a great debt to groups like ACT UP, which have brilliantly highlighted the impossibility of fully separating cultural from political dimensions of movement activity.”

– T.V. Reed,  The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005.


In the late 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT Up established one of the most dynamic and successful social movements with the motive of instigating political change. ACT UP was established in 1987 by individuals “outraged by the government’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis” (Act Up NY). Through a commitment to direct but non-violent action, demonstrations, and creative exposure through the use of visual and performing arts, the movement challenged traditional media packaging of protest and trivialization of movements.

The "Silence=Death" logo  was created in 1987 by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

The “Silence=Death” logo was created in 1987 by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

As outlined in the above quote, the movement addressed political issues through cultural movements, and consequently broke the barrier between the two spheres for the future of art. As a result, the mass publication and broadcasting of aesthetically rich and moving images in addition to witty cultural slogans successfully reached and educated a mass audience that may have previously been numb or ignorant to the political context of the health crisis. Ultimately, ACT UP revolutionized the use of images, art, and slogans to bridge the barrier between the social and political realms and therefore demonstrated the drastic effectiveness of educating and appealing to a mass audience rather than specifically those most interested in the political.

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Artpulse Magazine: Art and Activism

27 Feb

Never Forgotten: The Art and Activism of Andrea Bowers 

Artpulse magazine, a leading art publication that specializes in contemporary art, is published quarter and often features extensive reviews of current exhibitions and artwork. Following Bowers’ large-scale exhibition “The Political Landscape” that portrays a variety of works of art covering images of women taken from immigrant rights marches, feminist rallies, gay rights protests and environmentalist actions. This article offers a comprehensive critique and review of the exhibit and further explains the motives and underlying significance of the political content inherent within this exhibit.