Counternarratives

Rethinking the news with Alexandra Bell.

Alexandra Bell (b. 1983, Chicago, IL) is a multidisciplinary artist who investigates the complexities of narrative, information consumption, and perception. In her continuing series ‘Counternarratives’, she revises, redacts and otherwise modifies pages of the New York Times to highlight how the news is being presented. She prints her modified pages at massive size and hangs them in public locations around NYC and elsewhere.

Alexandra’s work interrogates the ways media frameworks construct memory and inform discursive practices around race, politics, and culture. She employs various media to deconstruct language and imagery to explore the tension between marginal experiences and dominant histories. LAAB spoke with Alexandra about how her work confronts the news and pries apart illusions regarding political subjectivity.

Ronald Wimberly: Your work is very specific to site, specific to space, from how I’ve experienced it and what I’ve observed. That’s part of the concept, the material aspect of the newspaper, right?

Alexandra Bell: Well, contrary to popular belief I’m not printing on newspaper. Is that what you’re talking about? People assume that it’s newsprint but it’s just regular printing paper.

RW: I mean more like, material meaning the material tradition. I guess what you call the printed news, the printed page. In a facsimile, those are the materials you’re drawing from — even by materials meaning how the information is displayed on the page. (Laughs) I’m trying to cut back my academic language, you know? That shit will get you caught up!

AB: If you’re talking to an honest person, they’ll be like “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” But you said a couple of things that I think you should touch on — mostly that my work is not site specific, and I mean that in a literal way. What happens when I go to universities is like, it’s a curatorial task to find the place where that work makes the most sense and where the audience is probably more likely to engage with it. At the University of Kansas we hung the Ryan Lochte work Olympic Threat [in the school’s sports facility]. And I think there was a pool there. When I was in Vermont, we hung the Michael Brown work [A Teenager with Promise] on the Center for the Advancement of Public Action. So a lot of times there’s an effort on the part of the person at the university to find a space that makes sense.

RW: And you’re saying that’s not particular to your practice –

AB: No, no, I’m just reading the paper.

RW: OK. So that’s one aspect of it, but I’m also thinking about how here in Bed-Stuy, when I come across your work the nature of it being on the street is particular to my experience of it. Like, you did something at P.S. 1, right? I can go to that with to a [mental] state that is dedicated to art. You’re preparing yourself to interact with that space.

AB: Absolutely, in that there is an element of surprise that is lost.

RW: Yeah.

AB: The communal aspect holds, though. A big part of the public space — people ask me the museum vs. the street question a lot, and not to say that that’s what you’re getting at, but I would say let’s categorize P.S. 1 as an institution [as opposed to] a block on Bed-Stuy. One of the things that I think it still maintains, at least in the P.S. 1 space, because they still kept it as outdoor, large scale work. In the street that’s different. There’s an interaction that can take place between people who don’t really know one another — I mean, you can get that in a museum as well, but I think you do, to a certain degree, lose that kind of element, in terms of engaging with something that’s like an art work. But I think there are plenty of people who went to P.S. 1 who had no expectation that they will run into something outside. The public is generally concerned with who can see it. People talk to me, they want to know what audience I’m seeking out. That’s always really interesting, and I feel like that conversation goes into the museum space versus the outdoor space because there’s an assumption that maybe white people are at museums and Black people are outside but we know that’s not really true.

RW: Yeah, well, white people have made some parts of Bed-Stuy into a museum. (Laughs) That’s a bit to unpack there. I wanted to ask you about — is there a perceived audience? Are you thinking about an audience? People ask me that.

AB: I mean, I guess it’s selfish. I’m thinking about what I read, about what I see. I do think about what I’m trying to communicate. The work takes a very private experience, an encounter with news and media and tries to share that, or force that out for other people to see. But I don’t know how much that changes what I do. I don’t know what it was at the time, but I feel like I was curious as to why there wasn’t a discussion about identity politics. I don’t know if I’m that curious about that anymore.

RW: We’re in a weird place politically. Identity politics now, it’s like there are as many reasons to talk about it as there are to be tired of talking about it. It’s a weird space where it’s very essential — like, a particular type of political discussion about identity is very important, but I feel like we’re not having a lot of those discussions. There’s a lot of the aesthetics of Identity and sort of this tit for tat quality of it, and not really interrogating the function of identity and how these structures cast identities onto us and then systematically antagonize us because of it. Does that make sense?

AB: Yeah, I feel you, talking about how we come to view ourselves by what we read, the bell hooks argument. I do sometimes get asked why the things that change are only about race. And I’m like, that’s what we mess up. But there’s also this assumption that there’s something that exists in the world that isn’t about race, which I think is B.S. So whether or not that’s the aim, there’s always that undercurrent present in the work. One of the reasons I’m not as interested anymore in how people engage around the work and my identity is because I think sometimes… I’m trying to figure out a way to say this that I’ll want to read back in the paper that won’t sound wonky. But this is one of the things that I think about when I make the work — what is something that I want to follow? What politics do I have that I want other people to know about? And the work, where I’m changing things, is one element. But the statements that I make in the work is another one. That’s more revealing in a sense of where I’m leaning and how I think about and interpret things. So I’m constantly asking myself, “Was I OK writing that?” I draft and re-draft and a lot of that isn’t about external feedback, it really is about me trying to check certain things.

RW: Well, that’s the thing — the work itself is a questioning and interrogation.

AB: Absolutely. I mean I when I made a correction to the Olympic Threat work, to change out the word “aggressors” to “offenders” that was a conscious choice, based off my feeling that that word was too strong. And when I explain this to some people, some people are not that forgiving.

RW: Yeah, I’m not. (laughs)

AB: To them, getting drunk and peeing on something is aggressive.

RW: Ah. I see what you’re saying.

AB: I felt like that word suggested physical force, and so I didn’t like it. It wasn’t a fair word. And not like I’m going around defending Ryan Lochte, but the point of the work isn’t to wrongfully indict anybody or make suggestions that are problematic. But it takes practice.

RW: I want to tease that language a bit, because maybe it wasn’t too strong but it wasn’t explicitly what you were trying to say. Both phrases are strong, right? But one phrase, after you explain it to me, one of them is just incorrect.

AB: What’s incorrect?

RW: Meaning like, aggression to me seems like there was another party –

AB: Aggression to me, “aggressors,” means some kind of physical attack or interaction and I think that that is problematic.

RW: Are you just trying not to reproduce some of the the problematic language that you find or that you sometimes actually counter in your work?

AB: You mean, am I going to check my own bias? (laughs) I think I’m trying to ask myself why I’m making the changes I’m making and how I would defend them.

We did a workshop on Counternarratives at Bennington, and we worked through the Charlottesville news. The students are upset at that depiction from the paper, and a lot of them started to do their own versions. They wanted something that indicted and punished and told on the white nationalists. But a lot of students felt they lost objectivity. And there’s a lesson there.

RW: That’s what I find most powerful about your work. Regardless of what it intends to say, just the fact that you’re presenting your counter-narrative highlights the subjectivity of the work. I think a lot of people never even think about the political subjectivity of a newspaper, or the news, or any sort of narrative. For me what’s powerful is not just that you’re telling the other story, or putting cats on blast, it’s that in the very form of what you’re doing you’re showing the real political subjectivity at work.

AB: I think part of what’s difficult for people to understand is when we talk about news media — the news media isn’t just one person. But I think you can have groups of people working towards one particular political aim unbeknownst to them just by being part of the institution. That’s one of the reasons I feel comfortable saying “news media.” I’m not trying to run around here and say this writer — because I’m not actually all that interested in the people who wrote the content. I’m not looking towards some individual author and saying “look what you did.” A lot of my work is about framework — things that really they have no control over. You don’t have any control over what page your work is on, who gives it a title, what photo accompanies it. Writers tend to have very little editorial control. When I’m doing the work I’m not thinking, “Oh shit, Christine Hauser wrote this article.” In fact, some of the writing I really think is great. I just think that coupled with psychologically how we move through the news, how we already view racial minorities, based off of centuries of unfair and biased representations in media, I think those things are a dangerous combination — even more dangerous because they’re subtle. Because I’m set for the Post putting “MUSLIM KILLERS” on the cover. I’m prepared for that. That’s not something I feel is particularly dangerous to me. What seems dangerous is when I can find a crime at the top of the page, and see a photo of someone who didn’t commit it. That accumulation of those particular things are problematic to me.

RW: Pictures and word. And position, because they’re all existing in the same pictorial space. And you also have these things that can be supposedly accidentally associated. One thing you said that I think is interesting is the notion of how you’re subverting the individuality of expressing or writing an article, as separate from the agenda of the institution that you’re a part of, or even the society that you’re a part of. It’s political to suggest that someone’s individuality might be subject to, or not as important as, the institutions. People may take it as a personal attack, but what I find is difficult is to counter ideologies that people are stewards of — maybe accidentally, maybe they’re not even aware of what they’re replicating.

And then there’s a question of authorship and identity on the other side. You’ve chosen this work that relates to your most visually obvious identity coordinates. Like, OK — it’s a Black woman, and she’s doing these Counternarratives that are about Black rights. White people take the reigns and just do shit, and they don’t call it a white critique — but what you’re really doing is drawing attention to the political subjectivity of narratives. That’s how I see it. It’s difficult because, yes, we deserve justice in our news. However –

AB: I think the reason the work works — and even works for people who don’t look like me — is because it draws on a tradition of journalism while calling it into question as well. It’s one of those master’s tool kinds of things. I’m looking to a particular rubric and a set of rules.

RW: One of the things we’re talking about in LAAB is the Black body and its position symbolically in narratives of a post-human world. And I was struck by a reference on your site to the Sylvia Wynter essay “No Humans Involved,” which refers to the acronym that the LAPD would use for shootings involving black males.

AB: Post-human? We’re already been there. This whole thing started as post-humanity, we were slaves. Sylvia Wynter’s essay is about reaching out to other Black academicians and saying we’re responsible on our end for doing to work to define the terms with which we talk about Black people. That’s our work, re-orienting this thing.

What’s critical about the Central Park Five — and this is part of my long-standing hate of the Daily News — is the terminology. None of which is new, but this is a moment when you see it really deeply and persistently. The ‘Wolfpack’ — that’s what they had become known as. And this project is about teasing that all out. I’m trying to isolate moments that are dehumanizing. Some of them are very literal moments when they’re referred to as animals. And some of them are more figurative moments of pathologizing these people. There are passages where the audience is being invited to pay attention to particular behaviors and social mores and cues in ways that are meant to marginalize the rights of a person. There’s a whole section in there about how this 17-year-old girl is sucking her thumb, and it adds zero narrative value to the piece, other than the fact that there’s something problematic about these young people, since this girl is so old and still sucking her thumb.

You can look to the Trayvon Martin trial and the treatment of his friend who was on the phone with him at the time. There’s this attempt to categorize in such a way that it encourages people not to look at the real victims, or the real violence that’s taking place. When I say real victims, I don’t mean that the jogger isn’t a victim. But there are two things happening when we read that article. There’s this kind of bombastic description of the rape that took place, which by all accounts is incredibly horrific. But there’s this very clear attempt by the paper to solidify this white-woman-fragility. There are all these references to things that happened when she was seven years old, to the point where you’d forget that she was an older woman. There’s this attempt to return the woman in the park to this sort of innocence from long ago. And then this other attempt to label these Black boys as these inaccessible beasts. There are these references to them rapping in the cells. And if any of these things really did take place — of which I have my doubts, but even if they did — there’s no space for the reader to wonder whether they took place because of nervousness, or maybe because this is how fear appears in people. There’s no room for that. So I’m curious what that looks like.

And what Counternarratives does is it goes, look here, then look here. I mean there was so much intense reporting. The Daily News, within a week, they had four or five covers. The paper published their home addresses, what schools they go to. What I’m doing when I’m marking up the paper, I’m covering, there’s a lot of redaction in black and white. And I think at first when I started doing that it was a protective gesture, covering up their faces and where their names were printed. I’m really trying to get a handle on who gets to occupy the space of the victim. Again, not that she isn’t a victim — but I’m interested in the style of the writing as it relates to these young men who were wrongly convicted of this crime. And it’s right there. Wolfpack, prey, right on the cover.

This interview originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #0: Dark Matter, published by Beehive Books, 2018.

Philadelphia-based publisher of the finest in comics and graphic art. New visions, forgotten treasures, paper worlds. www.beehivebooks.com

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