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Mixed Media #sweetjane Opens at PCMA and Pitzer, Explores the Wake of Steubenville

The newest installment of the Project Series at the Pomona College Museum of Art (PCMA), contemporary artist Andrea Bowers' #sweetjane, breaks both artistic and spatial boundaries. Bowers investigates and comments on the Steubenville rape case in an exhibit that spans two campuses, with half the collection located at Pitzer College’s Nichols Gallery and the other on display at PCMA. The curators of both galleries collaborated in an effort to allow the work to speak across the colleges.

The centerpiece of these works is the well-known rape case based in Steubenville, Ohio, in which a 16-year-old girl was incapacitated by alcohol and repeatedly raped by two local football players. Much of the evidence included photos, videos, and text messages sent throughout the night the rape occurred. In the wake of the crime, the small town was divided by victim-blaming and the glorification of the local high school football team. As national attention came upon the case, activists from the group Anonymous, famous for wearing Guy Fawkes masks to protect the identity of their members, took to the town and social media to raise awareness and support Jane Doe, as the survivor was referred during the trial.

Bowers was provoked when she first learned about the trial. As a feminist artist who grew up in a small town similar to Steubenville, she was compelled to get in touch with the Anonymous protest movement, observe the town, and occasionally visit the court for the trial.

Bowers said she looked to emphasize the role art can play in documenting historical moments. 

“There is an importance in bearing witness," Bowers said. "As a visual artist, I can record things going on in our time, which I think is important. I sat in the courtroom the day that the text messages were entered as evidence. So I had a little notebook and a pencil in my purse and wrote every text down by hand."

Police took the personal messages between the rapists, Jane Doe, her father, the boys' football coach, and their friends from the four days surrounding the attack as evidence. They reveal the abuse, motives, and cover-up behind the assault. These messages are now on display in a large set of 55 panels spanning three walls across Nichols Gallery. The disturbing messages are set against a blue marker background to mimic the display of iPhone messages. 

“It's a reference to landscape, because she is formally interested in landscape as well as the political landscape represented,” said Ciara Ennis, director of the Pitzer Art Galleries.

These panels invoke a method of storytelling, giving a glimpse into Jane Doe’s desperation, the cruelty and lack of remorse expressed by her attackers and the authority figures protecting the boys, and the patriarchal victim-blaming rampant in American society. The enhanced scale of the messages makes the viewer feel powerless against the aggressive rhetoric and empathize with Jane Doe. 

“I felt like if I just reproduced the texts and Xeroxed it, it wouldn’t have the same impact,” Bowers said. “So it was an experiment to see if the labor behind the drawings or the scale or colors would have more of an impact.”

Opposing the 65-foot span of drawings is a small, framed hyperrealist pencil drawing of Anonymous members. Despite the piece's dramatic opposition to the forces of patriarchy and violence evoked in the messages, it also evokes a sense of retaliation and a community combating social structures through art and non-violent civil disobedience. 

“The Anonymous drawing is about my position on it," Bowers said. "I took a still that represents my political agenda." 

PCMA's core piece is a 30-minute long video that pulls recordings from media, Anonymous YouTube posts, and video that Bowers shot in Steubenville. On the walls surrounding the projection, multiple large video stills of masked Anonymous members are displayed. Viewers sit on a couch at the center of the room and are surrounded with the imposing images of the protesters. 

“The video is mainly a reinterpretation of the media and a reinterpretation of the text messages and posts," Bowers said. "It just tells a different story from what is seen at Pitzer because different mediums show different perspectives."

Though Pitzer and PCMA display different pieces, #sweetjane maintains a sense of continuity across the campuses. 

“It is one exhibit in two venues, but they really connect. They both compliment each other and are extremely powerful,” said Rebecca McGrew, the senior curator of PCMA, who collaborated with Ennis. “It’s really great for the two colleges and our two art institutions to work together.” 

Bowers' exhibit has also met a positive — and emotional — reception. 

“Every time during Art After Hours, there are groups of students who will just sit and watch the whole video," McGrew said. "One student told me that while she was watching the audience watching the film, people were talking back to the screen. She’s never seen art have that kind of an impact before." 

Given the sensitive nature of #sweetjane's subject matter, students have raised concerns over the lack of trigger warnings, McGrew added. 

Although the exhibit raises awareness of issues by depicting the harmful effects of abuse fueled by patriarchal ideologies, Bowers said she also intended to emphasize activism and consent culture. The collection at Nichols features a "Manual For Effective Consent" mural that Bowers created in collaboration with students from Skidmore College. 

Additionally, tables covered with pamphlets from 5C and local community activist groups and advocates stand outside each gallery. The tables, designed by Bowers, make resources available to students 24/7 if they desire to get involved or get help.

Students at Scripps College are also taking initiative to collaborate with Bowers and her student assistant, Estephany Campos, to create a zine in which Claremont students can contribute their own stories about assault and consent culture.

Winona Bechtle SC '14, who is working on the project, said she hopes the zine will capture the current concerns and collective experience of Claremont students.

“The zine is a way to collaborate with students of the Claremont Colleges while still maintaining privacy and the opportunity for students to freely speak what their fears, hopes, and concerns are as they relate to feminist issues and open discourse on campus,” Bechtle said. 

She said that the zine's centerpiece will be a fold-out map that displays the resources available to students from each of the Claremont Colleges if they ever face a sexual or domestic violence situation.  

Such instances of activism and awareness on college campuses are precisely what Bowers was hoping to promote through her pieces.  

“I believe issues of social media, sexual assault, rape culture, and consent are very relevant to a college campus," Bowers said. "When I was asked to collaborate with Pomona and Pitzer, I was excited to develop the piece because I want it to have an impact. I want to give people information about what happened, but also consider the community they live in and how to make that community a better place.”

The exhibit can be seen at the PCMA between Tuesday and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and during Art After Hours on Thursday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and at Pitzer's Nichols Gallery between 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. or by appointment.

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