Catcalling can happen randomly. As a woman, you might start to even expect it. Over time, some women become less phased by it and more internally pissed off. It's hard to remain neutral and unfeeling when some random guy yells obscenities at you, tells you he wants to have your baby, or just that you should die. Catcalling and street harassment are everyday elements of the pervasive rape culture that is bent on violence toward women, and that, for some women, incites even more distrust toward men.
Los Angeles-based artist Mirabelle Jones' art practices focuses on what it could be like if this culture wasn't so ubiquitous. She contemplates a world where women could speak back without fear, and explores how to heal from this sort of casual sexism. Her artwork about catcalling and street harassment began in San Francisco in 2011. Her endurance-based performance project "To Skin a Catcaller" (2015) at San Francisco's ATA gallery recently went viral.
Standing in a storefront gallery space, surrounded by posters with catcalls printed on them, Jones wore a nude-color bra and underwear. She walked around in circles while 200 actual catcalls played on an audio loop in the gallery.
"To Skin a Catcaller" is very much located within the context of better known performance artists like Marina Abramovic's oeuvre, Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" (1965) and Joseph Beuys' "I Like America and America Likes Me" (1974), in which he locks himself in a room with a coyote for three days.
"I felt like I was doing that [what Joseph Beuys did], but instead of a coyote I was in a room with rape culture," says Jones recently. "I was in this wild part of society that we're not addressing."
That same sort of uncharted space of directly discussing violence toward women is present in NYC-based artist Sophia Wallace's CLITERACY project, which employs posters posted around the city that focus on presenting real facts about the extremely under-researched clit, using text-based posters and performance to deliver sound messages. Wallace's textual visual pieces went viral in the same way that Jones' current work and previous projects have done. Like Wallace's work, Jones' performance came out of a desire to make something that would be healing to others who have experienced such violence.
Jones' background is mostly focused in photography, bookmaking and bookbinding, and she only began doing performance art in 2008 when she was living in Berlin. She is originally from the Bay Area, and grew up in Oakland. She is also a book artist, and received her MFA in Book Arts & Creative Writing from Mills College (the program is currently in crisis, but there's a petition to save it). It was during her time at Mills that she experienced sexual assault that she says "tore her apart." For Jones, making art was her way of healing from this horrible experience.
Her ongoing work about catcalling and street harassment began through this printed matter. For another project of the same ilk, "I Am Not a Cat," she created nice letter-pressed cards that said simply "Call Me" and a number. She handed the card out to people who said they experienced catcalling. The next time a catcaller called at them, they could give them the card, and if they called the number they would hear a voicemail of a loop of responses that women wanted to say to catcallers but had not voiced. The responses ranged from "fuck you" and other types of angry responses, to just "why do you do this? Do you actually think this works for you?" and "You should be ashamed. Your mom would be embarrassed for you."
Through the letterpress cards she handed out, Jones was able to start a dialogue around these topics while recognizing that violence towards women is something that mothers fear for their daughters.
"I interviewed people about their catcalling experiences, from middle-aged women to young girls," says Jones. "Moms would come by and say that 'this never happens to me,' and then their daughter would say, 'this happens to me all the time.'"
On a personal level, this work also became important to Jones when she was living in downtown San Francisco near 7th and Market Street, right near the Tenderloin and SOMA. She was experiencing a lot of sexualized and more aggressive catcalling that went way beyond just "hey baby." She got sick of hearing it, and finally yelled back at the men, but then they followed her to her car and surrounded her. Though she got away unscathed, she felt that it was time to do something about it. So she made a poster that read "STREET HARASSMENT IS NOT A COMPLIMENT," produced as an act of rage, and put it on her Tumblr. She forgot about it for a few months, and logged off of Tumblr. When she returned it had been shared 20,000 times.
"When I learned this, I realized, 'OK, this is a much bigger issue, and I had some agency over this,'" says Jones.
Jones works as the Community Arts Organizer of HollaBack LA, an organization that works with individuals and organizations to fight street harassment. Previously she was working with the SF chapter. She also volunteers with East Los Angeles Women's Center, working the hotline and the hospital, and serving as a victims advocate.
"When a victim is making a report, I am there for them, dealing with police and medical exam," says Jones. "I also work the hotline, which is for survivors, friends and family."
This work is important not just in spreading the word, but also in recognizing the cycle of violence against women in our rape culture, calling it out, talking about it, healing from it, and ultimately breaking the cycle.