With your year long Carla subscription, you will receive a new issue right to your doorstep every 3 months.
Our advertising program is essential to the ecology of our publication. Ad fees go directly to paying writers, which we do according to W.A.G.E. standards.
We are currently printing runs of 6,000 every three months. Our publication is distributed locally through galleries and art related businesses, providing a direct outlet to reaching a specific demographic with art related interests and concerns.
To advertise or for more information on rates, deadlines, and production specifications, please contact us at email@example.com
Beginning in 1964, almost a decade before the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade, a group of Bay Area women collectively known as “The Army of Three” (Rowena Gurner, Patricia Maginnis, and Lana Phelan Khan) clandestinely distributed resources to people seeking access to abortion care.1 At the time, letter-writing functioned as the de facto method of delivering this illicit information; as a result, The Army of Three received a steady deluge of handwritten pleas from women desperate to exert their reproductive autonomy. (Of all the unending barriers to abortion access, and in light of the virality of information today, the notion that a pregnant person’s fate could be inharmoniously tied to the fickle reliability of snail mail seems particularly egregious.) As such, the sheer urgency voiced within these letters is uniquely cutting.
Andrea Bowers, whose work has long plumbed the methodologies of social justice movements, culls from this archive for a series of works entitled Letters to an Army of Three (2005) (works that, crucially, predate both the Trump era and the cataclysmic collapse of Roe). She displays the gathered correspondence, which she learned of during a visit with Maginnis,2 at the meeting point of two walls, with the printed letters emanating outward from the crux like an open book. A single-channel video of various people carefully reciting the contents of specific letters plays on a monitor suspended from the ceiling above; underneath, a large-scale book of additional correspondence sits splayed open on a plinth.
In Bowers’ eponymous retrospective at the Hammer Museum, which closed on September 4th, this installation occupied a large gallery space close to the beginning of the thematically organized exhibition. The aforementioned video’s first person recitations of the letters softly reverberated throughout the adjacent galleries, their resonant pleas plying attentive viewers to listen and bear witness. Lacking in expository commentary or overt artistic intervention, these works, like others across the exhibition, recall strictly summational displays of historical or anthropological evidence, a seemingly intentional conceptual tactic. By directly centering these narratives and omitting the presence of her own voice—the penultimate marker of artistic authorship—Bowers demonstrates the quiet art of empathetic witnessing, eschewing a more theatrical, egocentric performance of solidarity. In Bowers’ work, bearing witness—both as an act and an idea—can be read as its own uniquely textured creative modality. Through her earnest engagement with the pedagogies of protest and resistance (an area of research and focus that spans nearly three decades), she carves out an ethics of empathy and action from a materially robust and conceptually rigorous creative practice. In doing so, she demonstrates the ways in which an artistic ethos can enliven an activist one, and vice versa.
In a series of drawings entitled Make My Story Count, Letters to Planned Parenthood (2011), this act of witnessing becomes devotional. Bowers painstakingly recreates handwritten testimonials penned by women who received treatment at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, dutifully rendering the heft, loop, and cadence of each individual letter with convincing photorealism. Here, drawing functions as a meditative performance of embodiment—a pilgrimage, of sorts—wherein the artist not only witnesses but also physically absorbs and retraces the lived narratives of another. These attentive, laborious gestures function as both political and artistic acts, positing the often-hermetic practice of drawing as a democratically minded device for enacting solidarity and kindling resistance. As a capstone, Bowers donated the entire proceeds from the drawings back to Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.
While not a historical discipline, activism by nature deals with the history of progress, even if that progress veers into perilous terrain. An activist, then, can be conjured as a chronicler who testifies to and transcribes this forward-looking, albeit mercurial, conception of history. As an artist with activist tendencies (or the inverse), Bowers dabbles in the work of a historian, gathering and collating evidence and preserving intimate narratives that may otherwise remain unspoken. By tethering her work to the task of resistance, she allows her objects to vigorously engage in the complex sociopolitical ecosystem that exists beyond the periphery of a closed, art-centric discourse. The darkly serendipitous timing of her Hammer retrospective underscored this idea: on June 24, five days after the exhibition’s opening, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, decimating the constitutional right to abortion. This swiveling contextual framework imbued Bowers’ work with augmented layers of meaning: Letters to an Army of Three and Make My Story Count were no longer cautious remnants of a dismal past, but rather troubling harbingers of a malignant future. For a viewer, this real-time shift demonstrated the slippery precarity of progress, pointing to the continual malleability of historical perspective and illustrating how a swift change in social temperature can often augur something more dystopian than emancipatory.
Created in 2020 and rife with complexity in 2022, Bowers’ colossal drawing of Kamala Harris crystallizes this deviation in political tenor. Rendered in the allegorical style of a 17th century French illustration, the wall-sized drawing depicts the now-Vice President, then Presidential candidate, as the Greek goddess Athena, feminist warrior of women’s rights. Harris’ viral soundbite from Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearing, a pivotal moment from her tenure as senator, valiantly adorns her shield: “Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?”3 At the time, Harris was lauded as a feminist icon for her frank line of questioning—a satisfying, performative jostle with patriarchal authority that neither swayed the outcome of the hearings nor resulted in any substantial policy change. Now, in the wake of the collapse of Roe, after being widely criticized for her performance in several lamentable interviews, Harris’ political potency on the issue has, to a certain degree, disintegrated. In this newfound context, the drawing adopts a tone of political farce, even tragedy, its initial exuberance rendered bittersweet. A more insidious truth lurks beneath: even a well-equipped, would-be warrior—a woman whose ascension to power was fueled, in part, by her fierce advocacy for reproductive autonomy—cannot shield herself from the blunt forces of systemic patriarchy.
Hinting at the uncanny ability of Bowers’ drawings to perpetually morph and bloom in meaning, art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson observes that, for Bowers, “drawing is multi-temporal and operates within many tenses at once, [connecting] her body—present in the act of making—with the bodies of history and with speculative viewers.”4 This engagement with the body is a crucial precept of Bowers’ work and activism. Referencing this, her large-scale sculptural work Soft Blockade (Feminist Barricade) (2004), a reaction to her research on and participation in numerous acts of civil disobedience, speaks to the nonviolent practice of using one’s body to protect or block access to another person or site, effectively creating a human shield. The sculpture—a massive, intricately woven panel of fabric and thread suspended from the lanky framework of a metal fence—reads as a geometric minimalist wall with undulating striations of violet, cerulean, indigo, and plum. White stitching resembling the interlocking matrix of a chain-link fence blankets the work’s quilted surface, reinforcing the idea that here, a blockade serves to both weave and dissever. The intensity of labor that this sculpture entails suggests the careful, collective stewardship of an object, or cause, that dwarfs any singular body, a nod not only to the cooperative tenets of activism but also to the communal, feminist roots of quilt-making. The work, much like the Make My Story Count drawings, is also distinctly reverential: through the physical, creative labor of her own body, Bowers erects a soft monument to those who have used their bodies as forms of resistance, both past and future. While Soft Blockade specifically references techniques deployed by anti-nuclear protesters in the 1960s and ’70s, viewing this Bush-era work in a post-Roe context sharply reconfigured my interpretation of it. Conceiving of a blockade as a barrier to access, I noticed in the lilting stitching of the chain-link fence forms that resembled the grim, harrowing motif of a twisted coat hanger—one of the more brutal emblems of draconian abortion bans. In this context, the body—specifically the womb itself—becomes a barrier from total personal liberation: an intimate, vulnerable organ forced to mime as its own soft blockade, a tool of dominion wielded from the inside out.
This observation extends beyond the subjugation befalling only those who have uteruses to encompass any form of oppression through which the body itself is compromised, including workers, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and immigrants— all of whom have been a focus of Bowers’ work and advocacy. It also extends to the protection of the environment, itself composed of natural bodies vulnerable to pillage and persecution. In this vein, the project of liberation begins with ennobling the autonomous sanctity of the body, an emancipatory persuasion that encompasses all living beings.
Bowers’ monumental sculpture Radical Feminist Pirate Ship Tree Sitting Platform (2013) asserts this notion as a utopian vision for the future. Built from a mélange of objects culled from environmental protest practices, the work reconstructs a tree sitting platform, a stage for disobedience typically held aloft in the canopy and continuously occupied by activists who anoint their bodies as soft blockades to protect old-growth forests from decimation by logging5, a practice that Bowers has engaged in since the ’90s. At the Hammer, Bowers’ sculpture reimagined the visual language of the platform as a self-sufficient feminist pirate ship, suspended from the ceiling and adorned with flags, ropes, hardware, books, and painted slogans. While a stage represents a stationary construct of theater—a site from which to bear witness—a ship is a self-contained, moveable vessel, a sovereign body capable of navigating the turbulence at its bow.
Here, Bowers’ conception of piracy refutes the trope of the villainous marauder and instead points to a vision of productive usurpation, wherein conscientious pirates forge paths of liberation. Ultimately, we can interpret this meticulously-crafted assemblage as a reconstruction of our collective relationship to the surrounding world—an anti-biblical arc designed to preserve only the most redemptive qualities of humanity. As a body capable of cradling the bodies of others, it also functions as an allegorical expression of a providential future wherein communal bonds not only resist the throes of patriarchal violence but also coexist under a shared tenet of human tenderness. In an appropriate synopsis of her work and activism, Bowers adorns the plank of the ship (the threshold between what remains and what has been cast off) with a reflective creed by poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, a line decisively implicates the viewer as an active participant—or pirate—in her project of dissent: “try telling yourself / you are not accountable / to the life of your tribe / the breath of your planet.”6
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 30.