Art One of the Three Graces on Liverpool’s waterfront, The Cunard Building was built just under a hundred years ago as the headquarters of the eponymous steamship company providing transatlantic crossings. The ground floor, currently occupied by the Biennial, provided space for passengers departing and returning from abroad. Just as aboard ship, these areas were divided into the three classes of passenger (first, second and third), as well as offering a currency exchange, storage and booking desks. All of the partitions and counters are still evident despite the building having since been owned and occupied by the Prudential and subsequent public and private sector organisations. It’s currently being overseen by British Heritage who’re in the process of preserving the building. The Wikipedia has plenty of information about the architectural aspects which they'll be grappling with.
As in previous years when the Biennial pours itself into the shell of a building, part of the fun of a visit is seeing contemporary art in such an incongruous setting. The original plan was for the visitor to enter via the door opposite the Mersey but it was discovered that it creates a wind tunnel through the building so the usual entrance on Water Street has been utilised instead. Walking up towards the reception where the building's usual security staff sit, past an automatic shoe-shine machine, the visitor themselves, or at least this visitor, almost feels like the eponymous unexpected guest, which makes little sense since it’s the Biennial which has invited us in. The exhibition occupies both of the giant rooms on the ground floor, the work placed both in the larger carpeted edifaces and smaller more intimate rooms at the circumference which are ideal for the display of video art.
On Mother’s Day, 8th May 1977, artist Suzanne Lacy began a three week project in Los Angeles focusing on the too frequent sexual assaults on the city's women. The happening included performance work and installations an also events outside creative arts, speeches, interviews, self-defense classes and “speak-outs” in which participants shared their traumatic experiences. As part of the event, a map of LA was installed on the mall outside City Hall, across which Lacy stencilled the word “RAPE” in the locations of attacks reported to the police for the three week duration of the overall event (ninety). The map can be viewed here and vividly makes public what’s too often considered a private matter. It’s shocking in the way this kind of art should be and as a commenter beneath notes, these were “just” the rapes that had been reported.
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In 2012, Lacy unfortunately had to repeat the exercise as Three Weeks in January which included a similar map and much the same mix of speeches and discussions. One of the events, Storying Rape, gathered LA’s Deputy Mayor, a police chief, the founder of a rape treatment centre, writers, teachers and journalists at Los Angeles City Hall to discuss how the narrative of rape is treated in each of their disciplines, in civic and media circles. As part of the Biennial, Lacy is co-ordinating similar discussions with young people, politicians and community leaders through local organisation, but it’s a recording of the original conversation which offers her most tangible contribution to the Biennial and is the most vivid, perhaps even the most important piece in Cunard Buildings. It’s subtler perhaps than Lacy’s maps, but no less shocking as it crystallises just how prevalent rape is in society.
Clearly edited from a much longer discussion due to some obvious continuity "errors", Storying Rape is still fifty minutes long. It’s projected in high definition on a rather large screen in a room just off the main exhibition space. I sat at the back on the carpet and took my shoes off. I knew it was important to be comfortable though the marble walls with their pointy architectural features meant I wasn’t too comfortable which was probably for the best. For the duration there were few visitors. A couple of pensioners visited briefly but left quickly because there are no chairs. Some students wandered in and stood directing in front of the screen but some wiggling around and neck-craning meant I didn’t miss much. They took some photos but looked decided uncomfortable with the subject matter. A couple of other gallery visits walked straight through headed out of the exit. No one else stayed.
On screen, in a large equally darkened room, the participants are gathered around a spotlighted square table, cables strewn everywhere with stand microphones close enough to pick up their voices. Some are dressed in clothes, which represent their respective organisations. Police Chief Charles Beck is in his uniform. Jodie Evans is wearing the official t-shirt of her organisation CODEPINK along with pink-earings in the shape of the CND sign (it’s a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end U.S. funded wars and occupations). Around them, technicians work to record the event and what must be organisers and the artist herself tap away on laptops, some tweeting, and beyond them a small audience. It’s shot simply, gathering participants angularly in frame like an Ozu film only now and then cutting away to provide a lateral pan of the whole room or a master of everyone at the table.
The result is rather like watching a kind of wired (as in cables rather than Oliver Reed) version of the old After Dark discussion programme which Channel 4 was brave enough to broadcast in the 80s. A host, award winning NBC investigative reporter Ana Garcia, leads the discussion from introductory statements through in the implications of various topics through to closing remarks. There’s a meta element however in that the participants indicate in their comments that they’re aware that they’re being filmed for an art piece and that some rules have been dictated as to the content. Some of the participants seem themselves to have been victims of rape but are not allowed to describe their own experience, sticking only to the wider cultural context informed by their profession instead (with one stopping another at one point as she almost breaks the rule).
What have I learned? It’s important to say before answering that at least in terms of how men control the narrative, my MA film course was the eye-opener as I discovered then just how much of the contemporary discourse on women in society is dictated by men and how stories are primarily told from the male perspective and predictably that must include rape and sexual violence. But what is illuminating is the extent to which that then extends to women who have decision-making authority. Writer/director Julie Hebert says she's been sitting on script for a rape drama for years and although it’s resulted in her receiving other work and producers reflecting privately to her their own experiences, none of them feel that they’re brave enough to put the script into production. Similarly, Garcia is well aware that the television news narrative only features rape if it’s in conjunction with some other violent crime.
Because of rape near non-representation in news, fiction is the primary source and although during the 80s the fact of someone’s rape would be treated with seriousness and sensitivity, albeit in a teen drama, most recently with a couple of exception (Private Practice is mentioned and The Sopranos), it’s become a plot point and most often with the apparent victim being revealed to be offering false testimony distorting the actual number of false accusations. Such distortions are a result of commercial television's act structure forever asking "what's the twist"? Similarly it becomes part of a “romantic” sub-plot as the benevolent male protagonist scoops in to save his lady from the evil rapist (which rather makes, to choose a facile example, the climactic scene in Back To The Future all the more uncomfortable not to mention events in the sequels). It’s also noted how too often a rape is from the male perspective, POV shots outside windows and the like.
There’s also much talk of the language of rape, of "victims" and "survivors", of "suspects" and "perpetrators". At one point, Garcia is criticised about how some of her colleagues on television news will often stand in front of an emergency ward and describe a rape victim as having “not having been hurt” or “not in pain” which may be physically true but ignores the psychological effects which can go on for weeks or years. Surveys are mentioned, in which victims of rapes see themselves as somehow being guilty because they "let the rape happen", they didn’t "take the right precautions", too easily followed the “handsome man” (a description used repeatedly) back to his apartment, that their naivety led to the assault, that it was their fault for "letting him take advantage". Dr Jackson Katz notes that there’s also a general assumption that it’s only women who can be victims of rape, when male rape is also common.
That brief synopsis barely scratches the surfaces of what's discussed and certainly doesn’t capture the personalities around the table, the dynamic of which is interesting in and of itself, some more talkative than others, some more direct in their contribution than others. There’s a surprising amount of laughter. It’s a grim topic but there’s an element of relief as the participants can see how their relevant experience is replicated across the various disciplines. Unlike the average episode of Question Time, there’s also some genuine respect and trust and little interrupting, everyone having a fair amount of time to make their point. When interesting people have interesting things to say it doesn’t need to be visually arresting and I barely noticed the length, which can be unusual with video art which can have the capacity to dribble onward way past the point of having annunciated the artist's intentions.
It’s certainly changed how I feel about how rape is treated in public. Even on British television it’s poorly represented, only really reported in news as a statistic when crime figures are released and similar to the US in conjunction with other crime. Not being a fan of soaps I can’t comment on how its dealt with there but I’m still ashamed that my favourite franchise has dealt with it so recklessly in the past; it was always difficult to quite sympathise with Owen in Torchwood after he effectively administered an alien date rape drug to a girl and her boyfriend in the opening episode during what was ostensibly supposed to be a comedy scene featuring a magic love potion. Indeed love potions in general become uncomfortable narrative devices especially if they’re being administered by a man to a woman or as was the case then another man too.
But what makes Storying Rape art and why is it good art? Intent is important, the participants being aware that they’re in an art piece, the discussion having been organised by an artist who wanders at the very end under the credits for her Hitchcockian cameo. The editing also means that Lacy has included those subject areas that she’s most interested in discarding the rest. It’s good art because unlike some other pieces in the space its manages the apparently tricky balance of a thematically rich idea well executed, in which Lacy has thought about how the work will be experienced, received and understood and crucially knows that it wouldn’t have the same potency on television. Like the rest of her work it puts an otherwise “ignored” topic into the public domain were strangers can find themselves being assessed by other strangers based on their reaction to the work.