Who Profits When Pain Becomes Art?

A survivor writes about seeing her story reproduced without her consent in Andrea Bowers' #MeToo installation.

by Dilara O'Neil
Jun 19 2019, 6:13pm

Last Tuesday morning I opened up Instagram and viewed a friend’s story to see a snapshot of a single canvas panel that was part of a larger art installation. Black font over a red background made me pause as I was clicking through, because it contained my name and was accompanied by an image so familiar to me it could have been my own. The sentence containing my name referenced Jezebel article that came out in November 2017 about a serial rapist named Michael Hafford. It read, “Another woman, who tweeted about Hafford by the name ‘Dilara,’ said that in June 2015, the writer demanded she remove her dress in the stairwell to her apartment,” which was a slightly factually incorrect interpretation (it was in his stairwell) .

The whole panel was an account of a series of assaults of four women, mine included, along with Abby, Deirdre, and Helen, who I’d come to know after realizing we were all assaulted by the same man. The image accompanying the entry was a collage of four pictures Helen had posted to Twitter in October 2017, depicting the bruises that bloomed the morning after she was raped. The image brought out all the old questions from that autumn, like: why did journalists put my name, “Dilara,” in quotes when it’s actually my name? Why was this story so interesting to so many people and why were they viewing it and re-transcribing it, over and over? It was strange to see the story stand in real life, not on a computer screen, and I didn’t know why this existed, so obviously I asked, which is how I found out an artist named Andrea Bowers made an installation about #MeToo that originally premiered last year in Los Angeles and was now being featured in Art Basel’s Unlimited section.

The installation gathered almost 200 prints that describe instances of sexual assault, whether or not the perpetrator had given a public apology, and where they were now. I screenshotted the post on Instagram and sent it to the three other women in a pre-existing group chat. Helen posted it to plead for its removal, which brought back all of the flashbacks of the #MeToo movement and how it feels when a part of your past so personal to you takes on a life of its own.

Bowers’s $300,000 artwork, titled “Open Secret,” is meant to serve “as both a physical manifestation of patriarchy and a monument to the courage of survivors who are speaking out against sexual harassment and assault, thereby making public what many repeatedly said were "open secrets.”” The series of pictures Helen posted that landed in the installation depicting her injuries headlined the initial story in 2017, and must have struck Bowers for the same reason it struck journalists. It’s a picture of abjection, so inarguably vulnerable and so undeniably defined as an aftermath of cruelty and violence. The images and stories themselves becomes stilted, frozen in time as it is mounted for some of the wealthiest people in the world to view at Art Basel, as if my life was a bad Black Mirror plot, or as the kids would say, “the simulation is glitching.”

In the press photo, there are several office chairs set up facing the installation, so viewers may comfortably sit down while they read the allegations and recounts of abuse on each panel (and move around from panel to panel, each chair appears to have wheels). In an interview with Andrea Bowers about the piece, she said, “Where I take the most creative licence is with the images—that’s where my subjectivity is, choosing the photograph that needs to illustrate these testimonies is an abstract process.” This is not the first time Bowers has used reported evidence of a rape in her art, typically portraying or engaging with the perpetrators rather than victims. In a 2012 exhibition titled #sweetjane, Bowers illustrated text messages sent by the attackers of “Jane Doe” in the Steubenville rape case that were later used as evidence in court. Each message, jarring in its casual cruelty, is drawn by hand over a soft, dreamy blue background. Bowers herself wrote in Artforum, “It’s an experiment: Will I fail because I am aestheticizing atrocity, or will it work because it’s more than just a mechanically reproduced image?” But in this case, Helen’s picture was a reproduced image, first retweeted thousands of times, and then reposted on several different websites, an image that has become open to the public, mounted on a wall.

‘Open Secret’ and Bowers’s #sweetjane both center around the perpetrators and not the Jane Does of the story. Not that any of us featured in ‘Open Secret’ are Janes—our names are fully attached—but the artwork treats our words and stories as public domain, as if they aren’t our own, which is the nature of social media. But it is also the language of the law addressing the accused party, those famous words “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law,” which means your words are now not exactly your own. Our stories were reported on, and Helen’s pictures—which were posted in good faith to spread information about a harmful man—were treated like dry documents without acknowledging the vulnerability of four grief-stricken women who wanted to avoid the triggers and trauma of dealing with the law. Instead it landed in the hands of a different power—the gatekeepers of the art world.

As if aiming to be a parody of itself, hung up on the conjoining wall is an LED sign, also part of Bowers’s artwork, that says “TRUST WOMEN” in all caps, each letter an alternating primary color, as if asserting signage onto an object solves its vaguely sinister, wholly tacky contents. Andrea Bowers’s Twitter display picture, before being removed, was a black and white picture of her holding a sign that says “Who Profits?” According to the Times, Bowers and the galleries presenting the art have decided not to sell the Basel work, “out of respect for the ongoing conversation between Andrea Bowers and the survivor.” The panel has been removed, and Bowers has since apologized. Nonetheless, Bowers’s actions have consequences she can’t erase; social media has captured it all.

A CMS error resulted in an unfinished draft of this story being posted. The correct version is seen above.

Andrea Bowers
sexual assault