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Giving Visibility to Women’s Contributions

In this video learners gain insight into the creative problem-solving process centered on the challenge: “how do you visualize an absence?”
<v ->In this video, learners will gain insight</v> into the creative problem solving process centered on this challenge. How do you visualize an absence? And further, how do you convey the normalization of the absence? I’m speaking of course, of the absence of women, historical public visual culture. I’m speaking of the lack of representation of contributing members of society and the erasure of their history, their stories and significance that robs current and future generations of knowing and seeing and hearing, reading, and possibly feeling proud because of them. It’s a legacy uncommemorated. In my art practice, I work in an interdisciplinary way across media, from drawing by hand to digital collage from live performance to video projection and installation.
Naturally, my approach to this challenge is also interdisciplinary, starting with writing, sketching ideas, researching and visiting monuments, staging photo-shoots and making prototypes for site-specific projections. I traveled to Boston and other smaller towns in Massachusetts sites, of early British colonies and to Washington, DC, loaded with historic visual culture. I photograph monuments, documented historic plaques and street signs and created an audio diary. <v ->Heading east towards Salem.</v> In Wooster, I took video of all the historical monuments I could find. I didn’t find a single one of a woman, but I videotaped all the men. I saw a lot of monuments of men on horses.
Still, I felt a bit creatively stumped in how to visualize absence and for as many people as possible to become aware of this historic lack. My instinct was to create events or visuals at existing historic monuments, responding to the era of that monument from the woman’s experience. Women were always working, but weren’t as often in leadership positions. So it was not right to simply replace the existing single man with an individual woman. And also by again, nominating single individuals that seemed to me to perpetuate the problem of visual historic erasure. I began searching for historic imagery, thinking about the great number of women in support system roles. I made these projection prototypes, you see, in these images.
I used images source the internet of women in different types of work settings. The problem with the projections was, A, they can only be seen at night so less people are likely to see them, especially kids, B, physically, how does the projected image work with the structure of the existing statue? Or if it’s projected on the plinth, which is lower, is it going to be visible from any kind of distance? At the university of Michigan, I happened on the opportunity to try a HoloLens through which I saw a woman seeming to exist in the air dancing. I could see the actual environment before me as well. It wasn’t a virtual world, but the dancing woman existed there too. Eureka!
You could look through a HoloLens and be able to see both the monument and a holographic image of what is missing. We started at the Thaddeus Kosciuszko monument, an American Revolutionary war general. Researching the era, I read diaries of women who were keeping the farm by day, sewing undergarments by night to keep their families and soldiers alive during the winter months of fighting against the British monarchy, women who were following the military camps, making soap to combat the poor sanitary conditions that could cause fatal bacterial infection, and at times themselves jumping into the battlefield.
I worked with a student on clothing that was historically accurate, and we had the opportunity to use the University of Michigan 3D lab to create a hologram.
The HoloLens, however, is an expensive device and only one person at a time can wear it, another creative conundrum. So the next research hurdle then was finding another avenue to access augmented reality, that a greater number of viewers could use such as with smartphones, akin to the Pokemon go app and others like it. I found educational examples, including Daughters of the Evolution, Lessons in Herstory. I knew I was on the right track. We could create targets at or near existing monuments that cue imagery, information and external links to women’s work of the era of that monument. Next, I thought about creating public events and public participation.
Ultimately I felt this is a project that would live and grow through collaboration, through community participation and crowdsourced research. I began thinking of ways to do this, to bring awareness to the project and encourage participation such as performances and events at existing monuments. I made various sketches and collages of possible scenarios. Reading about spinning wheels, I thought how about an event with women and their spinning wheels surrounding the monument? We could call it a Spin In. Perfect. More ideas began percolating. We could wrap the monument with wool. Do we have to get permission to do that? I don’t know, but we’ll look into it, and creating work at the existing revolutionary war monuments.
I also encounter the problem of appearing to a perpetuate a celebration of colonialism, which is not this project’s goal. I want to show gender bias in public historical culture. Working inclusively, I’m representing indigenous women, enslaved and free African women and women who came seeking religious and political freedom. I respect those who have fought for and succeeded in taking down monuments erected to oppressors. Here in the United States, we’ve seen protests at Confederate monuments and some very creative responses to monuments to colonial figures. Later in this activity, learners will get more insight into the concept of intersectionality.
Lastly, the Visualizing Women’s Work Team is beginning to work toward crowdsourcing research, via materials that assist others in doing research in their own town, in their region, or even with the natural linear legacy of their own families. We are working toward an interactive map, welcoming community input, also recorded oral histories and photo and video archives. We’re putting women on the map.

This video examined the creative problem-solving process centered on the challenge: “how do you visualize an absence?”

Read a basic definition of historical erasure or learn more about the augmented reality project mentioned in the video, Daughters of the Evolution: Lessons in Herstory.

View more work by photographer Rosa Maria Zamarron, whose photo of indigenous Jingle Dress dancers at the site of Christopher Columbus statue appears in the video.

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Visualizing Women's Work: Using Art Media for Social Justice

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