According to Hans Haacke, “An artist is not an isolated system. In order to survive he has to interact continuously with the world around him… Theoretically there are no limits to his involvement.”
While a number of artists prefer to focus their talents for personal self-expression, there are others who employ their creative skills towards issues of public ethics. Although you can argue that all artists are activists in some way, artist-activists put social, political, and ethical issues at the center of their art practice and tend to include public interaction as a component of their process. Some artist-activists use satire as a tool and others create dramatic stunts or events to gain attention for their cause. The most successful artist-activists use both components and their message tends to reach the widest audience.
FORCE, a Baltimore-based art activist effort led by Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle, has become widely known for their viral panty prank, where they pretended to be Victoria’s Secret promoting consent themed slogans on underwear. More recently, FORCE tricked the internet into believing that Playboy had released an updated anti-rape party school guide dubbed, “The Ultimate Guide to a Consensual Good Time.” They have also received national attention for projecting “RAPE IS RAPE” onto the US Capitol Building and for floating a GIANT poem written by a survivor in the reflecting pool on the national mall.
FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture is their newest effort to upset the dominant culture of rape, and promote a counter-culture of consent. According to Force’s website, “We believe that a more difficult and honest conversation needs to happen in America to face the realities of sexual violence, and we envision a world where sex is empowering and pleasurable rather than coercive and violent. To promote this needed conversation, we create art actions to generate media attention and get millions of people talking.”
The Monument Quilt is a crowd-sourced collection of thousands of stories from survivors of rape and abuse. According to FORCE, “By stitching our stories together, we are creating and demanding public space to heal. The Monument Quilt is a platform to not only tell our stories, but work together to forever change how Americans respond to rape. We are creating a new culture where survivors are publicly supported, rather than publicly shamed.”
This summer, FORCE will take the quilt on the road to ten US cities and towns. In preparation for this large scale project, Brancato and Nagle have also been hosting workshops for participants to create quilt squares in their Station North studio space. As FORCE prepares for the next stage of the Monument Quilt, Hannah Brancato agreed to discuss the new project with BmoreArt’s Cara Ober.
Cara Ober: Do you remember the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall from the 1990’s? This is a very specific memory for me. Do you have any specific memories or inspirations that come from this original project which seems to have inspired yours?
Hannah Brancato: Force’s work is absolutely inspired by AIDs activism, including the Quilt, and ACT UP and more. The Names project was a platform for families to grieve and to remove stigma from people with HIV. Like AIDs activists, we know that art not only represents ignored perspectives on critical issues- it actually CREATES new realities. At the beginning of the AIDs crisis, mainstream culture blamed gay people for contracting the disease. Because a main problem in getting access to medicine and research was the stigma and dismissal of the problem, campaigns like Silence=Death and The Names Project were integral to changing attitudes and revealing the issue at hand. Efforts like these built on other organizing efforts and resulted in increased access to medicine. Just as removing stigma from AIDs slowed an epidemic, removing stigma from rape will decrease sexual assault.
CO: What made you want to create a project to “Upset Rape Culture”? Do you think this is a topic that should be discussed more in our culture? Is it an under represented problem?
HB: In the US, we don’t like to recognize that we have a problem. We are completely immersed in rape culture, so Force’s goal is to point out and make obvious the ways that attitudes need to change in order to really work towards ending rape. Though lots of people in the last 5 years have been TALKING about rape culture, which is important, that is different than creating an intervention that is immersive. Through our projects, people see and experience the kind of change that can be made in a much different way that they might when reading about rape culture.
There is some progress being made, with the current White House task force to end sexual assault on college campuses, but lasting change requires constant vigilance and multiple tactics. Prior to the 1970’s, not a single rape crisis center existed in the US; the idea that sexual assault can be prevented is a relatively novel concept that is finally becoming socially accepted. Still, the statistic that 1 in 4 women will be raped in her lifetime has not changed in nearly three decades. So though we’ve made some progress, much more needs to be done.
We think the next step is more public platforms to improve our ability to support survivors. Visionaries have created private spaces for healing, but rape survivors have no platforms through which to reconnect with community after trauma. According to Judith Herman, “The most common trauma of women remains confined to the sphere of private life, without formal recognition or restitution from the community. There is no public monument for rape survivors.”
New tactics are required to end the silence shrouding sexual assault. The next necessary step in the movement to end rape is to remove stigma from rape survivors by creating a highly visible platform.
CO: What exactly is Rape Culture?
HB: Rape culture is an environment in which the epidemic of sexual assault is minimized and trivialized, and as a result, condoned. This happens through legal systems that don’t protect or take care of survivors; media coverage of rape that sympathizes more with the perpetrator than the victim; myths about rape that cast rapists as monsters, when in fact, they are our brothers, friends, fathers, lovers; rigid gender norms that frame men as aggressors and women as submissive; victim blaming; rape jokes; and the list goes on.
People living in a rape culture tend to accept rape as a fact of life, instead of a problem to be solved. Rape culture makes sexual violence seem inevitable, so that even if everyone agrees that rape is wrong, people aren’t seriously trying to end it. Force picks specific examples of rape culture and flip them around so that people feel more empowered to change systems that seem too large to tackle.
For example, we reinvented Playboy’s party school list because they tend to highlight schools that do not protect or take care of survivors when they are assaulted. The question ends up being- this school is a good time for who- rapists? By giving these schools a thumbs up for being a good time, Playboy was condoning the culture of rape the schools were steeped in. So we made it clear: Rape is only a good time if you’re a rapist; consent is a good time for everyone. And instead of highlighting schools, we highlighted student groups that are activists, that are working to create change.
From Zerlina Maxwell’s hashtag and her article in Time:
- Rape culture is when women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing.
- Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, “Were you drinking?”
- Rape culture is when people say, “she was asking for it.”
- Rape culture is when we teach women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape.
- Rape culture is when the lyrics of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’mirror the words of actual rapists and is still the number one song in the country.
- Rape culture is when the mainstream media mourns the end of the convicted Steubenville rapists’ football careers and does not mention the young girl who was victimized.
- Rape culture is when cyberbullies take pictures of sexual assaults and harass their victims online after the fact, which in the cases of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons tragically ended in their suicides.
- Rape culture is when, in 31 states, rapists can legally sue for child custody if the rape results in pregnancy.
- Rape culture is when college campus advisers tasked with supporting the student body, shame survivors who report their rapes. (Annie Clark, a campus activist, says an administrator at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill told her when she reported her rape, “Well… Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback, Annie… is there anything you would have done differently?”)
- Rape culture is when colleges are more concerned with getting sued by assailants than in supporting survivors. (Or at Occidental College, where students and administrators who advocated for survivors were terrorized for speaking out against the school’s insufficient reporting procedures.)
CO: Can you tell me about some of your favorite quilt squares connected to stories of empowerment or connection?
HB: One square says “2 Drunk 2 Talk = 2 Drunk 2 Fuck,” which succinctly describes the experience of so many survivors. The bold clarity of this quilt completely dispels any notion that a drunk person is asking to be raped, and instead, puts the focus on the perpetrator.
As Senator Claire McCaskill said, it is just as criminal to rape someone at the gunpoint as it is to rape someone who is passed out. Here is a link to an interview where you can hear more from her and others about campus sexual assault and the white house task force.
Believing survivors, witnessing their stories, and listening without judgement is the most important thing that we can all do to create a culture of support. This quilt states, “Please don’t tell me it never happened or that I should be over it by now.” We need to become trauma literate as a society in order to help, instead of hurt, survivor’s healing process, and this quilt is such an eloquent explanation of the steps we can take.
Finally, one of the most important messages that we can send is that rape is NOT the survivor’s fault. This quilt is a narrative of a survivor’s story, which ends with the statement, “It’s not my fault. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.”
One person contributed a story describing how they support their partners, who are survivors. “Sometimes she can’t let me love her.”
Everyone who contributes is at a different place in their healing process. Some are writing their story of being assaulted for the first time. Some explain it in detail. Some are allies, writing messages of support. The stories give so many examples of how, by listening and holding public space for survivors, we can transform our response to sexual assault.
CO: Ideally, who does this project represent? How inclusive do you want it to be? For example, does it represent mostly women? As typified by the events a few years back at Penn State, male on male rape seems like an even bigger taboo than rape itself… How do you make this project accessible to all types of victims, or as a tool for empowerment for all types of people?
HB: In the US, the media and even the government tend to only want to talk about sexual assault that effects more privileged classes. If anything is going to change, the conversation has to extend to the most oppressed and vulnerable people in the US who have even less access to justice and resources. For example, Native American women living on reservations who are sexually assaulted by non-native people cannot prosecute their attackers, which you can read more about in this article. Our racist criminal justice system ensures that black women will not be treated the same way as white women who report rape. Trans people have a much higher rate of sexual assault than cisgender women or men.
And, you are right that male survivors do not have many platforms through which to address their trauma as survivors, not potential perpetrators. After the Penn State case, the FBI’s defnitition of rape finally changed to include all genders and to address consent.
Rape is a social justice issue that effects virtually everyone in the US. So having platforms through which people can tell their own stories and join with survivors across the nation is important, because often many are left out of the dialogue.
Through the Monument Quilt we are working to create a platform where survivors stories that are silenced and not recognized can be heard. In addition to building on our connections with crisis centers and colleges, we are specifically working to connect with survivors who are consistently silenced, including but not limited to Native American women, transgender people, survivors of childhood sexual abuse and male survivors.
Our goal is to provide one avenue for people to tell their story and then also to create a network of people across the country who are working to improve community response to sexual assault for all survivors. We need lots of examples that are culturally relevant to the many diverse communities in the US.
CO: How did you get access to the National Mall? This seems like a HUGE undertaking and also like a big responsibility, and opportunity for public visibility. As the artists and project planners, what did you have to do to have the project realized in this way?
HB: The National Mall is a free speech zone! We do not yet have the permit for 2016 but are in conversation with the National Park Service.
* To get involved, you can attend a FORCE Open Studio Party on Wednesday, May 7th, 7p-9p. More information about the event here. You can find out more about FORCE: The Monument Quilt at their website and their kickstarter page.
** Author Cara Ober is the Founding Editor at BmoreArt.