In the continuous discussion on the effectiveness of activist art, Andrea Bowers provides a strong case in its favor. In her current exhibition, Mercy Mercy Me she focuses on nonviolent acts of dissent that raise awareness to the direct consequences of climate change and manmade environmental disasters. Although she references activists from Nigeria to California, she appears to have been primarily inspired by her visit to Northern Alaska in August, where she spent time at Arctic Village – a town inhabited by the Alaska Native Gwich’in community.
The exhibition is comprised of drawings, videos and ephemera that recount environmental disasters and resulting activist practices. At its core is the human cost of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. This calamity changed the lives of thousands of residents who are dependent on subsistence and commercial fishing. At the fore of the gallery space, Bowers displays a bound color copy of a key document, The Day the Water Died (2009)—a transcript of public hearings conducted in November 1989 by the Wildlife Federation with Alaska residents who suffered from the spill. By offering this historical document as an introduction to the exhibition, Bowers sets the urgent tone that follows visitors as they walk through the gallery.
One does not have to look far to locate the measures that can be taken to alert to such disasters. On an adjacent wall, Bowers hung drawings copied from the seminal radical eco-activism handbooks Earth First! Direct Action Manual and Eco Defense; Field Guide to Monkey-Wrenching. They illustrate and quote triumphant calls to action in order to motivate individuals to rise up against environmental ruin. The video Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training – Tree Sitting Forest Defense (2009) follows Bowers as she performs one of the tasks included in these guidebooks. Screened on a monitor that rests on a swing originally used in a ‘tree sit’ at South Central Farm, CA, we witness the environmental activist John Quigley instructing the artist on how to occupy a tree destined to be demolished.
Aside from an overview of civil disobedience acts, Bowers provides intimate views of the Gwich’in community that has suffered greatly from oil drilling and global warming. The video Circle (2009) conveys the great importance the environment plays in Native culture, the dire effect climate change has had on the community’s life, and the actions that can be taken to lessen them. The most powerful work in the exhibition – the video Interview with Betty Ann (2009) – is a moving and self-reflective account of a written correspondence between the artist and a local, deaf craftswoman named Betty Ann. With the camera focused solely on Bowers’ neck and earrings that she purchased from Betty Ann, we listen to a summary of their communication regarding the resident’s circumstances, as well as Bowers’ reflections on her visit to the Arctic North. While poignantly lamenting about the inadequacy of her actions in the face of the immense needs of the local community, she realizes that her visit alone serves as a form of activism.
In titling the exhibition after the iconic Marvin Gaye song Mercy Mercy Me, Bowers points to a moment in history when the activist community recognized the inextricable link between environmental and social issues, and worked together to address them simultaneously. By displaying current eco-activists alongside the people affected most by environmental changes—Bowers exposes a fundamental disconnect between the two. One cannot therefore help but take away the sentiment she expresses in Interview with Betty Ann—a deep sense of ineptitude in preventing these daunting problems, coupled with an urgent need to try.
Images: The Day the Water Died, 2009. Color digital archival prints on paper, bound; Eco Defense; field guide to monkey-wrenching, 2009. Graphite on paper, 30 X 22 1/4 inches; The Day the Water Died, 2009. Color digital archival prints on paper, bound; Interview with Betty Ann, 2009. Single-channel video with color and sound, Apple TV, mosquito net. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, NY.