Carmen Winant animates the archives of two support organisations for victims of domestic abuse

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The artist’s multi-part, genre-defying exhibition employs representations of oppression and freedom to examine feminist modes of survival, revolt and self-determination

In Carmen Winant’s ambitious new exhibition at The Print Center, Philadelphia, the projector shows a photograph of the T-shirt decorated with the words: “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anybody can start from now plus make a brand new end. ” The T-shirt is area of the Clothesline project, set up simply by Women in Transition (WIT) in the 1990s to give domestic abuse survivors the opportunity to testify their experiences inside a public space. The affirmation inspired the title associated with Winant’s show – A Brand New End: Success and Its Pictures – for which she has drawn material from the archives of WIT as well as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). Leaning into these representations of oppression and liberation as an extension – and agent – of their histories, Winant investigates the potential for pictures to not only make domestic violence survivors visible, yet to contend with how we “see” in the most literal feeling. Winant’s project is particularly urgent now, as the Covid-19 pandemic has put intimate companion violence into sharp concentrate.

Alex Merola: In very first delving into the WIT store, I suppose you were, naturally, braced for material of a very brutal nature? But what surprised you?    

Carmen Winant: Yes, I think the curator, Ksenia Nouril, and I feared that we might encounter really grisly materials. Instead, across this 50-year-old archive, we found a lot more: material that was collected from the outside world (newspaper clippings) and generated for public accessibility (35mm re-enactment slides), paperwork of their organisational efforts (photographs), teaching and learning material (appropriated pictures made into “puzzles”) and so on. These were tools, so many of them photographic, in service associated with empowerment. That was what kept us going on this task, to be honest. While it was filled with horror, it was also incredibly life-affirming, full of joy plus feminist coalition-building.

Later, NCADV, another domestic violence company based in Denver, also contributed their archive, which furthermore fed the project within so many ways. Both companies were founded at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, 40 and 50 years back, respectively, and that movement viewpoint – confronting and undoing patriarchal power structures through strategies of care and coalition – lives on.

AM: Because household violence so often (if not really always) happens in the “shadows”, how did you get around the problems and possibilities of imagining it? Could you speak about the large newspaper clipping constellation, by way of example?

CW: It’s the most confrontational work in the show, as well as about looking as much as anything. It offers tremendous (if painful) evidence of domestic and gendered violence all in one place. But there’s also something coded about it. [The clippings] are pieces of media. Determinations have been made about what sort of images should attend which usually stories, and how those tales should be told at all. So they are primary documents yet also exist at a distance in the experiences of survivors.  

More and more, I try to have a light touch. My work as an artist, a feminist, a student of this history, is to animate the archive, which already holds such enormous power. In this sense, I think of myself less as an “archives artist” or something, and more as an artist whom often uses or assembles archives in service of the daily activities of feminist histories, organisations, individuals. Of course , I was afraid to make “artwork” of a subject and experience like domestic violence – to aestheticise it. So little artwork disagrees with this subject, and when plus where it does, it is usually (or always) documentary.  

“More and more, I try to have a light contact. My job as an performer, a feminist, a student of this history, is to animate the particular archive, which already retains such immense power. In this sense, I think of myself less as an “archives artist” or something, and more being an artist who often uses or assembles archives in service of the agendas of feminist histories, organisations, individuals. ”

ARE: How you have animated the archives is really powerful, showing how their “material” is inseparable from humans plus their labour. After all, the archives are not only about the stories of survivors but the custodians of these stories…

CW: Right, real people make these types of places run. And it is the staff who appear in so many of the photographs in the store: attending conferences and after-parties, staging and taking pictures meant for training purposes (such because self-defence exercises, obtaining legal services, conducting job queries, what to pack when leaving behind an abusive relationship)… It had been important for us to learn from and to inculcate their means of working where we could. So , for instance, the plants in the exhibition are derived from the plants around their workplaces – indications of lifestyle, blooming and sustaining. The particular construction paper in the collages is derived from the paper plus colours that are in the home window in WIT’s childcare room. The pictures of the T-shirts from the Clothesline project were made across the WIT office. The buttons in the plexi box pinned into corkboard is a move to echo how their offices function, and hold relics of their movement history. The project is as much about these areas, these organisations and the staff members that uphold them as it is about “domestic violence” as a category of experience.

AM: In your recent guide, Instructional Photography (2021), a person theorised the ways in which pictures can teach us how to reside . How printed matter can – through its capacity to reproduce – facilitate interpersonal organisation and “self-actualisation”. The logic between the book and the exhibition seems totally related… 

CW: I wrote the particular essay (that became the book) somewhere in the middle of focusing on this project. I think I’ve always been interested in instructional picture taking, I just never knew ways to name it. In my studio, I have generally organised found material in terms of its content: images of breast self-exams, pap smears, pottery, dealing with physical injury, healing… Slowly, I started to realise that the throughline between these pictures is that they sought to teach some thing to their viewer. This is this kind of specific goal, so “un-Art”… Maybe, for that reason, it took me some time to understand and be thankful as its own meaningful, plus viable, category. Once I actually hit on that, those rigid categorisations between pictures started to dissolve. This task is enmeshed with all those same problem-sets. Fundamentally, it asks: how can we use pictures as pedagogical equipment? How can they be weaponised against us? What is the convenience of pictures not only to teach, but to disseminate life-saving details?

“The question of how artwork and photography can function to help women and deconstruct violence against them is at the centre of the project, and the Energy Control Wheel embodies this. ”

FEEL: A primary example of closing this space between art plus information is the “Power Manage Wheel”…

CW: The question of how art and photography can also work to help women and deconstruct assault against them is at the particular centre of the project, and the wheel embodies this. It’s a commonly used tool associated with domestic violence support organisations (as well as rape crisis centres and beyond) to help identify abuse. It is really functional and immediate: a graphic device (in a non-hierarchical, circular configuration) that can be very easily shared. So it felt really important to not only have in the exhibition, but make as a risograph take-away. Such as, people who come to the show can bring its information plus points of access home with them.

WAS: This transcending of the photo gallery space is perhaps most prominent in your bus shelter surgery, which provoke critical (and social) responses from pedestrians  in a very Brechtian way…

CW: Yes, I’m really excited about this piece. There are several dozen public transit bus shelters across Philadelphia that hold images of the T-shirts. Each is a single image, larger than lifestyle, with basic information about the particular show as well as WIT, along with their website. These are not only open public spaces but commercial ones, where WIT or another organisation might list their servicenummer. The idea here is that, much like the take-aways, this material comes from, and is circulated across, the world. It’s a question that I’ve come to wrestle with additional and more as an artist: can art be serviceable? Exactly what are its capacities in movement-building and life-saving? I don’t understand the answer to that, but Personally i think incredibly driven by the try.

AM: Do you feel optimistic about how the task might relate to national discussions and even policy today?  

CW: Well, depending on the day, I feel more or less hopeful concerning the capacity of art in order to effect (and shift) talk and policy. This task has two real aspires: to create undeniable visibility as it comes to the matter of household violence and abuse, which usually lives in the shadows of our own society. It also hopes to affirm the values associated with feminist organising; its pedagogical tools, coalition strategies, serious imagination and investment within care.  

AM: Concerning this investment in treatment, I’m interested to hear about how exactly you see your artworks in relation to the future of the archive.  

CW: The question is an interesting a single: what happens to the archive, any kind of archive, after it has been re-arranged, picked apart, re-animated in a new context? The solutions have varied and are still becoming worked out, but the idea had been never to subsume them into a single body. Some material should go back into the archive from which it came. Some will stay intact, in a new type (in a framed collection, let’s say) and will survive the walls of its organisation. And, for some, the conversation takes a new shape entirely: in the case of NCADV, we are right now working together to place their materials in a public-facing, institutional archive, conversations that have stemmed using this collaborative process.  

AM: How had been this experience for you with an emotional level?  

CW: Honestly, I found that I frequently had to almost dissociate to carry on. It can be too painful otherwise. An entire box of restraining orders. 500 newspaper clippings that describe women becoming beaten and tortured and murdered. For the most part, I held it at an arm’s size so as to continue through it. Now that the exhibition as well as the bus shelters are upward (with public programmes as well as a publication to follow), We find that it is all beginning to pour in. A wall came down once I put seen its installation. And so, I find that although I am relieved and grateful, I also can’t stop crying. While it has only affirmed my belief in feminist movement-building and building spaces that affirm the dignity plus agency of women and susceptible people, the grief will there be too. We carry on.

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