Until Liam Neeson's character in the action movie "Taken" goes head-to-head with the traffickers who've stolen his daughter, the blockbuster is surprisingly true to life. While 12-14 is the average age for girls to enter sex trafficking and 11-13 for boys and transgender youth, the movie's abductee is older than the typical age of trafficked youth. And unlike most trafficked children, she is neither illiterate nor poor. But otherwise, the mechanics of her abduction by an organized crime network are the real deal.
That's why artist Jerri Allyn and Angels Gate High School staff screened the movie for at-risk students at the start of an 18-week course initiated by Hidden in Plain Site: Creative Referendums to Human Trafficking (HIPS), a community-based art project funded by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. The Student Artists' banner-style paintings are on display at the Angels Gate Cultural Center, while works made by the 9-strong HIPS Artist Team are installed in and around two cargo containers that overlook trafficking hotspot the Port of Los Angeles.
What can nine artists, 15 students, and a community-based art project do to thwart human trafficking? Given the odds, the task seems daunting. Human trafficking is a $150-billion global enterprise that involves an estimated 21-million enslaved people. HIPS tries to defy those odds, not by pulling a "Liam Neeson" and battling the slavers head on, but by proposing, and beginning to perform, on-the-ground actions for non-action heroes.
The proposed actions --the "creative referendums" of the project title -- largely focus on practical help and self-help measures, plus the flexing of consumer muscle. They include suggestions: to learn the strategies and signs of trafficking, and be ready to report them to professionals; volunteer with local organizations that support trafficked people; and shop at businesses with fair labor practices. Spiritual, memorial, and militaristic cues are also evident, including the organization of an all-female black-ops rescue team. While ideas for tackling attitudes that perpetuate trafficking and invisiblize its victims emerge in tips to break down binary thinking and "challenge the cool pimp."
Navigating the gray space between hero and villain, HIPS invites its audience, as Artist Team-member Katelyn Dorroh pointed out in a recent conversation, to "be aware of your collusion and moderate it."
The advice is sound. Human trafficking, which the United Nations defines as "the acquisition of people by improper means... with the aim of exploiting them," is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. Sexual exploitation generates its biggest profits -- $99 billion a year according to the UN's International Labour Organization.
In the United States, the majority of trafficked people are engaged in other forms of forced labor, including production for the U.S. market, like Wal-Mart shrimp, cocoa for chocolate industry brand names, and many suppliers of cotton. Not to mention the modern-day slavery case of El Monte garment industry workers, 20 years ago.
"What's the cost of the lowest price?" asked HIPS artist Christine Palma, whose audio interviews with anti-traffickers currently play in the cargo container exhibit space and will be broadcast on KXLU radio in Los Angeles. "Be aware, that's the starting point... But awareness is not enough. If you see something, say something. Call a hotline, volunteer."
The HIPS proposals, and the artworks that embody them, were developed through a lengthy process which, explained Dorroh, involved "extensive critique, weekly meetings, and workshops over the course of several months." The process was informed by an educational simulation of United Nations procedure called the Model U. N. Program (MUN), which introduces students to "diplomacy, negotiation, and decision making" via a global network of intercollegiate university conferences.
The project's U.N. connection is older than HIPS itself however. It dates back to at least 2009 when, strongly influenced by the MUN, Jerri Allyn and Inez S. Bush set up Debating Through the Arts: "a performative context for artists to demonstrate the importance of the arts in solving conflicts." Wanting to operate as "cultural workers in global affairs," Debating Through the Arts participants, including Allyn and four other members of the HIPS Artist Team, trained for and attended a 2014 MUN conference at Cal Sate Long Beach, where human trafficking was a primary topic.
In addition to the project's roots in the democratic ideology that underpins community-based arts then, HIPS is also powerfully informed by, and invested in, the processes of representative democracy. It is both noteworthy and a bit surprising that the project's creative referendums focus exclusively on personal awareness and individual change.
Rather than, say, suggesting that visitors lobby elected representatives for effective labor and import regulations, or proposing ways to engage the voting public in a debate about the relationship between trafficking and poverty, the HIPS referendums seemingly ignore electoral politics as a source of possible solution.
A possible exception, the all-women black-ops proposition made by Sarafina Rodriquez's stop-motion animation, is not an incitement to influence government policy says the artist, but a Brechtian effort "to blow someone's mind so they get involved."
"The people making the most change are not politicians," added Rodriquez, "they're volunteers working with survivors and raising awareness."
"Our purchases are like little votes," commented Dorroh, whose "Reverse Graffiti" -- marks made in dust fabricated from cocoa and other particulates linked to trafficking -- speaks to her point that "we are all implicated as authors of human trafficking."
Artist Erich Wise exposed rectangles of earth on the bluff overlooking the Port, which he says are spaces to contemplate trafficking's impact. "What can art do?" he asks, "We can point to it, bring it out of the shadows. There are multiple ways to enter the discussion: the political sphere, enforcement, foundations, the art sphere."
"The political has failed in this instance," commented Christine Palma. "There has been a perspective shift though, [the people I spoke to] called it 'unofficial policy.' Before they saw it as a victimless crime. Now they're seeing trafficked people as victims. Non-profits have stepped in to put pressure on politicians."
Sinetta Farley, who founded Compton-based nonprofit Restoration Diversion Services in 2009, echoed the artists' apparent frustration with the political realm. "There's no one way to solve the problem," she told me. "You can't police it out, and you can't demonstrate it out, you have to go where the problems are." And it's not, she added, "just an 8-5, or an 800 number. There needs to be commitment. There needs to be follow-up. If the politicians really wanted to distribute the wealth, this problem can be solved. They'd look for grassroots organizations."
For Farley, HIPS offered a valuable opportunity to visit Angels Gate High School with a trafficking survivor. As a result of their visit, two students became concerned that acquaintances are being trafficked and reached out for advice, while another sought help to establish the validity of an out-of-state job offer. "The more people know, the more people can get involved," commented Farley. "We are educating a task force," said school principal Joan D'Amore.
"When someone needs help," said HIPS Student Artist Andrew Alcarez, "you're supposed to help them."
Jerri Allyn, a graduate of the Woman's Building's Feminist Studio Workshop whose work addresses issues related to women and labor, has long explored ways to address both symptom and disease. "I was raised as an activist with the Quakers," she told me. "That early training said look within, what are you called to? Whatever you're drawn to, work on that... But I found that politics can be draining and that art making kept rejuvenating me. "One of the intuitive leanings that's driven this project is seeing this forum in the round, and everyone participating in some sort of democratic fashion, where all the voices are considered. I'm looking for models that allow people of difference to come together and hear one another, a model where people can look for equity."
Addressing the HIPS focus on personal actions, the artist said: "The research was so overwhelming. Every week we were shocked at the extent of trafficking on the planet. I kept looking for hope. I put my faith in equitable human beings... I asked myself, what can people do right now? What can I do every day, trying to be a decent human being?"
"We have made the pursuit of profit into an absolute good," Allyn commented, "but change first comes within our selves, regardless. The personal is political, and every little action does matter."
There is a fascinating contradiction at the heart of HIPS. On the one hand, the project is profoundly rooted in democratic ideals and a long-term effort to insert creativity into "big politics." But on the other, the artists propose local, individual, direct actions, and apparently cede the political sphere to nonprofit organizations, which, although they may seek influence through lobbying, cannot legally engage in political campaigns.
To put it another way, after deep engagement at the intersection of representational politics and human trafficking, Allyn and the HIPS team have plumped, with some reluctance I think, for a "hands-off the systemic failure" approach.
It brings an additional question into focus: is representative democracy capable of reining in the shadow side of capitalism, or, despite the efforts of legislators, voters, nonprofits, and enforcement agents, is "the best democracy money can buy" helpless in the face of its profit margins?
In 1987 Margaret Thatcher said "there is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families." Thatcher was wrong, but in its focus on the self, HIPS exposes Neoliberalism's deathly hold, both on society and on our imaginations. And it infers, though perhaps unwillingly, that a cure will only arise outside the profit-driven logic of existing political, social, and cultural structures.
Anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales describes human trafficking as an economic crime rather than a crime of cruelty and malice. Or, as Taken's bow-tied trafficker puts it with his last gurgling breath: "Please understand, it was all business."
"Hidden in Plain Site: Creative Referendums to Human Trafficking" is at the Angels Gate Cultural Center until June 6, 2015.
Go here for a list of public events, including "Game Time - Win Prizes!"
The Artist Team comprises Jerri Allyn, Melissa Crandall, Katelynn Dorroh, Leah Laird, Christine Palma, Leah Solo, April Williams and Erich Wise.
Student Artists are Christopher Alvarez, Andrew Alcaraz, Deandra Blade, Jonathon Carrillo, Jacque Culpepper, Edgar Estrella, Yasmin Garcia, Samuel Jones, Miranda Juarez, Sam Lopez, Roland Smith, Rayleen Thompson, Emily Varela, Elizabeth White, Angel Zavala, and Assistant Teaching Artist, Rosanna Seimeca.