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A #MeToo Installation at Art Basel Raises Questions About Consent

Andrea Bowers’ piece “Open Secret” used images and stories of assault that people had posted on social media — but she didn’t ask for permission first

A visitor seats facing an artwork by Andrea Bowers entitled "Open Secret" during a preview day of Art Basel, the world's premier modern and contemporary art fair, in Basel on June 12, 2019. - The fair will take place from June 13 to 16 in Basel. Thousand of art collectors, art dealers, artists, curators and art lovers are expected to attend the annual meeting place of the art community with 290 of the world's leading galleries showing the works of over 4,000 artists. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Andrea Bowers latest work, "Open Secret," which was presented during a preview of Art Basel, has received backlash.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Andrea Bowers is an artist best known for her socially conscious art works and installations, much of which explores women’s issues — her work has touched on such topics as the Steubenville rape case and reproductive-rights activism in the era before Roe v. Wade. So it was somewhat surprising on Tuesday to see writer Helen Donahue accuse Bowers of using her image and her testimony of surviving sexual assault without her permission in a piece of art.

Open Secret, Bowers’ new Art Basel installation, “documents the important cultural shifts represented by the #MeToo and Time’s Up international movements against sexual harassment and assault” by featuring the stories of 200 men accused in the #MeToo movement, according to a press release sent to Rolling Stone. But, as became painfully clear on the internet yesterday, some of the people who told those stories didn’t know they were going to be part of it.

One of those people was Donahue, who came forward on Twitter in 2017 with her account of being violently sexually assaulted by a then-unidentified freelance writer. The tweets contained a number of graphic images of her face covered in bruises. Her tweets inspired a number of other women to come forward with allegations against the man. (Although neither Donahue nor the other women publicly revealed the identity of the alleged abuser, a November 2017 article by Jezebel identified him as Michael Hafford, a freelance writer who contributed the Vice women’s vertical Broadly, as well as a number of other publications, including Rolling Stone. Hafford didn’t comment on the allegations in the Jezebel piece at the time of its publication, though he denied abusing Donaue in direct messages she provided to the website.)

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Donahue said that she learned her story and image had been featured in Bowers’ installation when one of Hafford’s other accusers texted a screenshot of the installation from an Art Basel Instagram post. Donahue’s image was featured in the exhibit, and many of the other women who had come forward in 2017 with assault allegations against Hafford were also referred to by their full names. None of the women had given Bowers permission beforehand.

Donahue was furious.  “The purpose behind my uploading those photos was to warn other women, not to profit,” she told Rolling Stone. “And I’ve never benefited from that choice — if anything I’ve lost opportunities and burnt bridges. And through this art, I feel massively exploited like I’m on display in a zoo I couldn’t opt out of because I never consented.” She also pointed out that the entry for Hafford features her own image instead of Hafford’s, unlike the other alleged abusers named in the exhibit.

Following Donahue’s tweets accusing Bowers of exploiting her image, a number of the other women who had also come forward in 2017 with assault allegations against Hafford were harshly critical of Bowers’ installation. Many pointed out the irony of an artist interested in exploring the dynamics of sexual abuse failing to obtain consent from sexual assault survivors. Others accused Bowers of exploiting their images for financial profit, as the installation is priced at $300,000. Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic at New York Magazine, also expressed disapproval of the inclusion of Donahue’s image in the exhibition, tweeting, “To Andrea Bowers, Kreps Gallery, Gianni Jetzer: It is a *must* – imperative – that all the abused pictured in this work gave their *expressed permission* to use their image first – to the artist, the gallery & the curator. Otherwise this work needs to be removed at once & NFS.”

Writer Abby Carney was among the women who came forward against Hafford, and says that Bowers did not ask for permission to name her or feature her story. “I’m assuming she was well intentioned, but apparently she spent TWO YEARS researching this [project], and never once reached out,” she says. “It feels very opportunistic and ill-conceived.” Deirdre Coyle, a writer who also alleges that Hafford assaulted her and was featured in Bowers’ piece, told Rolling Stone she was also surprised to find out her story was included. “It was very surreal to initially find out about the installation through a stranger’s Instagram story, and to read a version of events that conflated my story with [that of another accuser] and had other factual inaccuracies,” she said.

In response to the controversy, Andrew Kreps Gallery, which is presenting the work in collaboration with three other galleries, doubled down on the legality of the work by publishing an initial statement on Instagram, writing, “the images in the work solely depict the accused, not the survivors. Each individual print is based on publicly reported claims and the public response…of the accused.”

In this respect, in some ways the debate over whether it was appropriate for Bowers to use Donahue’s name and image, as well as the names and stories of other abuse survivors, without their consent, is similar to a larger debate raging about representation in art. For years, members of the community have discussed whether consent is required from subjects, particularly those who have undergone serious trauma. Most recently, this debate arose following the exhibition of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting depicting the brutally mangled corpse of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was savagely murdered in 1955 by two white men who believed he had whistled at a white woman. The painting was met with outcry by many members of the black community, who accused Schutz, who is white, of exploiting Till’s image and financially profiting off of the trauma of the Till family, as well as black trauma in general. (Schutz insisted she never had any plans to sell the work.) It also prompted artist Hamishi Farah to paint a portrait of Schutz’s own son Arlo based on an image found on the internet, which was widely interpreted as a response to the issues Shutz’s original work had raised regarding ethics, appropriation, representation and consent.

While Carney does not dispute the fact that her story and those of the other women are a matter of public record, she says that Bowers reaching out for her consent beforehand is more a question of “ethics,” especially considering the explicit and disturbing nature of Donahue’s image and the fact that Hafford’s name is printed in large font, along with his credentials as a journalist. (Donahue and Carney are both writers, though their bylines are not referenced in Open Secrets.) “I just think there is important art to be done, but this isn’t it. Especially since it glorifies a rapist and makes us all voiceless footnotes,” she told Rolling Stone.

In response to the social media backlash, Donahue says, Bowers reached out to her privately, apologizing and telling her she would remove her image from the installation. In a joint statement in conjunction with the galleries presenting Open Secrets that was sent to Rolling Stone, Bowers said, “I, Andrea Bowers would like to apologize to the survivor whose image was included in my piece. I should have asked for her consent. She has asked that the panel including her photo be removed and I have honored the request. I have reached out privately and am very much looking forward to listening. The galleries, Andrew Kreps, Kaufmann Repetto, Vielmetter Los Angeles and Capitain Petzel would also like to issue an apology to the survivor pictured in the piece. The galleries stand by Andrea Bowers and her work and support the conversation that has only just begun.”

But Carney says she has not heard from Bowers, nor is she aware of Bowers reaching out to any of the other women named in Open Secrets. While she’s not sure she wants her name and story removed from the work — “my name feels tarnished [as fuck] as it is,” she said — she hopes the galleries and Bowers “learn empathy and maybe take some journalism classes to learn about dealing with trauma, survivors and thinking deeply about story framing, whose stories and perspectives are being shared.”

Donahue, for her part, feels this apology is not enough. While a successful artist exhibiting at one of the most prestigious shows in the world does not have to contend with the stigma of being a highly public sexual assault survivor, Donahue does — and sharing her story has only come at personal expense for her. “The purpose behind my uploading those photos [in the original 2017 tweets] was to warn other women, not to profit,” she told Rolling Stone. “And I’ve never benefited from that choice — if anything I’ve lost opportunities and burnt bridges.”

For this reason, Donahue says, “the damage has been done,” even though her image has been removed from the installation. She is consulting with a lawyer and is contemplating pursuing further action.

“I’d like Bowers and her team to acknowledge the emotional distress involved in having my pain turned into profit by way of art without my consent or knowledge,” she said. “[This] piece was approved, created, and installed. They can’t apologize efficiently without restitution. My consent was an afterthought and they’ve benefited off this piece and the acclaim surrounding it enormously already while I have not benefited at all.”

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