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?

AB: All art is political; it is just a matter of whose politics the work is serving.  As far as I am concerned modernist art serves the powerful, or a patriarchal Eurocentric colonialist model.  I choose to make work that is in service of a different agenda.  Emory Douglas wrote a text called Revolutionary Art and he said that art should be in service of the revolution.  I believe it is my responsibility to make artworks that express my beliefs and serve the issues I care about.  I play a role within activist organizations by using my work to help anyway I can. I love Chris Carlsson’s explanation of radical patience: “It’s not easy to proceed politically when we take seriously how difficult, deep and personal are the changes we seek. But pleasure, passion, and patience can bring real progress. Remember, the Americans you scorn today must be your allies tomorrow if you are serious about changing life.” I’m not trying to change the world with my work.  I’m just trying to do my part.  I see my practice as part of whole movement.  I am one member of a group of people working together for a common cause related to social justice.  Too much of art history has promoted the brilliance of the individual act vs. the production of a group activity.  See this great little youtube video from Lierre Keith of Deep Green Resistance:

3)    What is the goal of your work? Do you hope to expose your audience to the issues discussed in your pieces, or do you have a more radical motivation such as initiating political change? 

AB: Literally at this point I see my work doing three main things: bearing witness to political events and honoring activists of our time that are under-recorded; serving the activists and activist organizations I support through fundraising, creating graphics and recording actions on video; arguing for the importance of a lineage in art that comes out feminist and conceptual practices in the late 60’s and early 70’s that is inherently politically progressive, prioritizing the idea over the form of subjective individualism.   Also I am attempting to tell complex and in depth stories that are no longer reported in the corporate 24-7 news channels.

In general, I am working with others to progress social justice.  This can start with changing beliefs but I don’t believe changing people’s thinking is enough and this is where my responsibilities as a citizen come into play.  When I choose to participate in an action I will put myself on the frontline or in the streets.  At certain points I cease being an artist; it’s just me as a human acting for change. In the end I don’t really care about definitions of art and non-art.  I’ll do whatever I can.

4)  Are there historical examples of political protest art that have been particularly influential to your work? We have looked at the Berlin Wall, Act Up posters, and The Plastic People of the Universe (band) and political theater of Vaclav Havel as examples. 

AB: Sure all those things are influential but I’m also influenced by the Aids Memorial Quilt, actions of the women of the Radical Politics movement but also the writings of Adrian Piper, the work of Suzanne Lacy, Hans Haacke, Charles Gaines, Rick Lowe, Martha Rosler, the second wave feminists (all of them!), Emory Douglas, Corita Kent, WochenKlausur, etc. etc.  I’m sure I’m missing so many.

5) I watched a video from your piece “Nonviolent Civil Disobedience” that involved nonviolent educators in an informative session with dancers. This seemed like a more direct approach to addressing the tradition of civil disobedience — why/how did you decide to take this approach rather than the more subtle approach of your other pieces?

 AB: Truly I don’t think any of my pieces are subtly approach nonviolence. I am as direct as I can be. One of the underlying themes running through all of my work has been proof of the overlapping and inseparability of art and activism.  As if art and activism are one and the same body. In this case the movements of nonviolent training become choreographed dance. Also I have been making a series of videos that are both training videos and art works simultaneously.  This is the first of the series.  I have made 2 more and I’m thinking of making a 4th right now in Germany with a German activist.

6)    What are you working on now?

AB: Tomorrow I leave for Steubenville OH to videotape the protests around the Steubenville rape case.  Also I have interviewed Carlos Montes, one of the founders of the Brown Berets.  I still haven’t shown the video I shot when I was arrested for tree sitting.  I may show that piece in Germany in Sept. along with a crazy pirate ship tree-sitting platform, a little something to make fun of the barrel chested male artists.


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