Nothing is neutral: an interview with Andrea Bowers
As I entered the gallery on the day before the opening of Andrea Bowers new solo exhibition at Kaufmann Repetto, my eyes fell on a small and beautiful photorealist drawings of a smiling women with butterfly wings on her back. The image contrasted with that on the invitation of the show, depicting a fierce women wearing a vest made of bullets.The more I looked at the works in the show, the more I noticed that same contraposition between moments of fury and moments of joy: a large sculpture made of barbwire cast was hanging next to a huge painted monarch butterfly with the slogan “Migration is beautiful” stenciled on it; a black & white cartoon depicting police brutality was hanged next to a wall covered with bright and colorful posters that read “Dream!”, “Equality”, “Stop The Hate”.
“The show is mainly about the relationship between different strategies, different tones, different approaches towards the same issues,” Andrea Bowers herself suddenly said, as she walked towards me.
I turned my voice recorder on.
Nicola Ricciardi: Can you elaborate on that?
Andrea Bowers: Well, the thought that different generations belonging to the same movements are using such different strategies, and slogans, and languages is profoundly interesting to me.
NR: What are you referring to by “same movements”?
AB: Most of my shows start with a political campaign that I’m involved with. Much of the archival material included in this show comes from my participation in several local activist movements, such as “Immigrant Justice”, “The Dream Act”, and “Fight for $15” campaigns. I’ve been designing a lot of the graphics for these operations, and funnily enough, now when I take a picture of, say, a protest in Los Angeles, some of my own graphics often pops up.
NR: And how do you feel about that?
AB. I like it a lot! Because it is literally a cancellation of the separation between art as representation and me as an activist. It shows how clearly art can be involved in activism. That’s one of the thing I try to prove with my practice: that art and the activist movement are intrinsically connected.
NR: Can you elaborate on how they are connected?
AB: I’m always asking myself, ‘what can I do as an artist?’ If you take this giant wall work, it was a matter of recovering an under-recorded part of history—that of Carlos Montes, one of the founders of the Brown Berets, who has dedicated his life to human rights and the anti-war movement. Something I really feel close to.
NR. How did you get to know him? and how did you get involved in his campaign?
AB: I met Carlos through several talks and projects I did in the past. Then I interviewed him in 2012, just after the FBI raided his home—where he was then arrested and charged with six felonies for a student action that took place around forty years earlier. He told me the compelling story of his activism and the neglected history of the Brown Beret movement, and I found it super-interesting. Then we talked about all the newspapers, all the photographs from his early campaigns. I immediately asked him if any of that material was scanned or on the internet and he said no. I had to do something, and I think I spent days and days scanning all that raw material so I could give it back to him in digital form. Now, when you Google his name, much of that material is finally popping up.
NR: I can see how in this case activism and art are connected. But do you think that every form of art is political?
AB: I think it is obvious: art is insanely political. Even abstract expressionism has always served a really specific political agenda. Nothing is neutral.
NR: It is quite interesting that you’re mentioning abstract expressionism. That is something one doesn’t easily relate to your work.
AB: Years ago I taught painting theory classes and I’ve been obsessed with abstract expressionism since then. In particular, by the notion of mark-making.
NR: Now that I think about it, the way you “reproduce” political slogans is a form of mark-making after all…
AB: Yes, I think that to use someone’s hand to say something is both really political and really powerful. In the same way one celebrates a Jackson Pollock mark, I’m celebrating—and critiquing at the same time—modernism.
NR: Which aspects of modernism are you critiquing specifically?
AB: The celebration of the white euro-ethnic male subconscious voice— which is modernism, per se, and still dominates the art world today. But don’t get me wrong, there are many things I love about modernism, and there are many aspects of it that are embedded in me, for example, the aesthetics.
NR: Do you think is there a way out of modernist aesthetic?
AB: Not for me, probably. I’ve been trained that way, and I can’t think aesthetically in other terms. But I always try to imagine how to do that. For instance, I just made a work featuring slogans from a group of women in Africa who are fighting against female mutilations: I’ve been working closely with the activists organizing the campaign and we came up with a series of slogans together—but in the end I let them decide the aesthetic of the pieces! The formal aspects of modernism are so much harder to overcome than the philosophy of it.
NR: You seem particularly interested in the aesthetic aspect of politics…
AB: Yes. I think that the most successful political campaigns are the ones with great graphics. It’s funny because I teach in a program that is mainly about socially engaged works, and one of the things I often hear the other teachers in the faculty telling their students is ‘if they ask you to make a political poster, don’t do it’—while I’m always saying ‘do it, do it!’
NR: And why is that?
AB: The way activist movements work is pretty simple: you come in and ask what you can do. Not everybody is a front-line activist, not everybody wants to chain themselves to a tree; a movement needs the media people as well, needs people that bring in the food, that raise funds or design the posters and slogans. Political campaigns, activist campaigns—they all need a slogan. You know: “Je suis Charlie”. It’s not just words, there’s a graphic and a font. This show is full of slogans, with different levels of meaning. Political slogans have lots of meanings, they are like poetry, in a way. Like “Radical hospitality”, or all those slogans from the “Dream Act” campaigns, that are all so positive: “Don’t be afraid to dream”, “Dare to dream”, “Dream, Rise, Organize”… They go beyond any particular movement. Many of the questions I keep asking myself are inevitably tied to the aesthetic of politics. As I said earlier, art cannot be removed from politics, or activism.
NR: Can I ask you how do you feel about the term “activist artist”?
AB: At first I felt uncomfortable with that title, but only until I got arrested, on January 2011. [Bowers was arrested along with four other activists while participating in a tree-sitting protest in the city of Arcadia, on the outskirts of Los Angeles]. And I feel even more comfortable with the title after the Frieze campaign in 2013 [when the Labor union representatives opposed Frieze New York’s use of exclusively non-union labor, which allows them to pay their workers $15–18 an hour, compared to union wages of roughly $75/hour].
NR: Right, I remember the “Don’t Frieze Out New York Workers” poster you displayed in the Kaufmann Repetto booth. And I also remember people criticizing the fact that you were taking a stand against the fair while showing your work within it. What was your reaction to that?
AB: I remember that I found out about the union issue two days before the opening of the fair. So I called the Teamsters Union Joint, where Bernadette Kelly [who was running the campaign at Frieze at the time] answered. The first thing I said to her was ‘I have to pull my work out of there!’ and she said: ‘we are a labor organization, we want people to make a living, we want people to make money, we want people to have equality: you have to sell the work, that’s what we promote, you are an art worker!’
NR: That was probably the first time the movement felt they had a voice “on the inside”.
AB: Correct. And I think that that was crucial to the strategy of the campaign. Just by hanging a couple of posters in the booth the cause finally got a lot of media attention. But it was very tricky because on the other hand I didn’t want to hurt the people that were showing my work. We are talking about three female dealers that work mostly with women: Francesca Kaufmann, Chiara Repetto and Susanne Vielmetter. And keep in mind that it’s only 30% women in the art world! No matter how much one disliked these fairs, if because of my actions these women don’t get in, I would feel horrible. We need their voices!
NR: Do you think that the Frieze campaign was successful?
AB: At first I thought there was no potential for actual change, and that it would take radical patience to see any change at all. But honestly I think that things have already changed. And I mean, positively! Unionizing the fair: that was shocking! And now there’s a domino effect: now you see all the art schools in LA unionizing. I’m actually currently making t-shirts for CalArts faculty members—and it’s pretty fun since all my teachers are still there. Moreover, now the same people are going to attempt to unionize USC too. I never thought I would see that. Part-time faculty make about the same wage as a bar waiter/ess—it’s hard to make a living. And for me it’s immoral: I’m teaching at a school where if my students were to graduate and get my job they would never be able to pay off their student debt.
NR: I guess it’s a matter of giving back to the community.
AB: Right. To give back is very important to me. And it is what I also do every time I work with a gallery: the deal is that if we sell any work we are going to give money back to the organizations we’ve worked with. In the case of this show, for example, that would mean to sustain the “Dream Act” kids. And Carlos Montes himself, who’s still trying to pay off his legal fees.
NR. You started this conversation by saying that you’re always asking yourself, ‘what can I do as an artist?’ I guess fundraising is another possible answer to that.
AB. Precisely. And as I said before, activist movements need the people that design the slogans and the posters as much as the people that raise the funds.
From: Mousse Magazine, Issue 47, February 2015