Interactive art project on campus challenges how we frame sexual violence

They Did
One side of the canvas asks visitors, “What will you personally do to do better for the victims?” Participants write their responses as students make their way to class outside of the Allen libraries. (Photo by Lucas Boland)

via The Daily of the University of Washington

Parent. Coworker. Tinder date. Classmate. Priest. Dentist. Teacher. Colleague. Boyfriend. Manager. Stranger. Grandfather. Police officer. Cousin. Doctor. Best friend.

People from every corner of American society were featured on canvas panels outside Allen Library last week, as survivors stepped up with marker in hand to answer the question “Who perpetrated sexual violence/harassment against you?”

The question, one of three posed to participants in last week’s interactive art installation “Active Voice: They Did #MeToo,” was part of an effort by UW senior Charlie Shih to refocus the #MeToo conversations on the perpetrators of sexual assault and give survivors a break.

The idea, Shih explained in an interview ahead of the event, was partially inspired by a TED Talk from 2012, in which Jackson Katz, co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, breaks down exactly how culturally-embedded passive language allows aggressors to avoid accountability.

“The way that we think, literally the way that we use language, conspires to keep our attention off of [aggressors],” Katz said. “It’s all unconscious; our whole cognitive structure is setup to ask questions about [victims] and [their] choices, and what they are doing, thinking and wearing.”

In the example Katz gives, a statement of fact with an active verb like “John beat Mary” becomes the more passive “Mary was beaten,” when removing John from the equation entirely.

“I feel like [it’s] the same thing with #MeToo,” Shih said. “A lot of people were posting about how the onus should be on victims to help themselves.”

Using her background as both a researcher of sexual violence and an artist who actively engages in the topic through her work as a musician, Shih designed an offline interactive experience that reshaped the #MeToo conversation.

She hoped that “performativity of writing” would provide survivors space for catharsis while also challenging her audience to consider a culture that enables sexual violence.

As far as UW freshman Daloun Inthathirath was concerned, it worked. Inthathirath was part of a group of friends who braved the snow Friday afternoon to leave their mark on the show’s final day.

“It’s not just stories anymore,” Inthathirath said after contributing to the canvas. “Seeing it out here makes it really personal.”

Answers to the piece’s second question, “Who was in a position to intervene and support you but did not?,” clearly demonstrated, as Shih wrote in her mission statement on Facebook, “the magnitude of the problem and … the need for our communities to respond to, hold, and heal victims.”

Participants listed “everyone I know” and “everyone at the research conference” as people who had failed to help. This included passersby, teachers, best friends, prosecuting attorneys, coworkers, and college counselors. Some turned inward with comments like “I didn’t realize I was violated until years later.”

Suzi Henriot, a 20-year veteran of UW IT, said that even though she didn’t really experience much sexual harassment when she was in college in the 1970s, news of Ted Bundy’s crimes made the threat of violence a pervasive presence in her life.

“My gut told me to fear, not go to places, and not do things,” Henriot said. “When I was growing up, we didn’t even have the words to explain what was going on. I’m remembering stuff that was right under my nose that I wasn’t even aware of [at the time].”

She described how it wasn’t until the allegations against her childhood parish priest made Seattle headlines two years ago that she realized the clues had been there the whole time.

In a voice that cracked with emotion, Henriot explained that her own #MeToo contribution wasn’t for herself, but “out of a sense of solidarity.”

“And I saw it happen, but I didn’t…” Henriot stopped mid-sentence, her voice trailing off as tears filled her eyes.

The inspiring entries below the canvas’ third question, “What will you personally do to ‘do better’ for victims?,” were powerful juxtapositions to the heavy emotions evoked by the first two questions.

Here, writer after writer promised to speak up, support each other, believe each other, be more situationally aware, hold space in particular for trans people of color, and apply for jobs where they can affect positive change.

As the last day of the weeklong exhibit neared its end, Shih shared a few initial observations. Most people chose to interact with the canvas silently, though she did have a fair number of conversations.

The only complaint Shih received all week was from someone who wanted to argue the semantics of her choice to equate sexual harassment with sexual violence in part one.

Ultimately, she knew it would take her some time to get a handle on the experience. “I think there’s a lot to process, and I don’t think I’ve done that yet,” Shih said.

But, when asked if she felt the art installation was a success, Shih responded with an immediate, albeit exhausted, “Yeah.”