June 28, 2021
Public art project on campus draws attention to daily effects of gender-based violence
Should you be walking around campus this week, you may just notice a young woman out of the corner of your eye as you stroll past her. You might take a second look and realize that you are actually looking at a life-sized image of a woman dressed in black, doing her best not to be seen. She may be crouched over, engrossed in her phone; she may be sitting hunched on a bench, leaning into the book she is reading; she could be standing, literally hiding, behind foliage; she may have keys clutched in her fist, blades sticking out from between her fingers.
The images — digital prints made on kozo paper — are part of a project titled Avert, installed this week across the UCalgary campus by Heather Leier, artist and professor in the Department of Art and Art History. The evasive behaviours of the woman depicted and her defensive postures are central to Leier’s project of questioning public, gender-based violence both consciously and subconsciously through body language.
Leier describes her intention with Avert and the importance of situating it at locations on campus: “By placing these figures near a public transit area, I am drawing attention to these sites as common locations of gender-based street harassment within an urban setting. For myself, some of the most violent experiences I have endured were at or near bus stops. By positioning these works in this way, I aim to highlight this correlation and the fact that women may feel unsafe while they wait for transportation.
"I also aim to highlight how a sense of unsafety can affect our actions and the ways in which we navigate urban space. It is important to note here that these issues of gender-based violence including street harassment are multidimensional in that they are often also imbued with transphobia, racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism.”
Leier was to present Avert this fall at Carleton University, having been accepted to the Architectures of Hiding conference at the Azrielli School of Architecture and Urbanism. As the conference will now be held online, Leier was asked to find a way to produce the project remotely and create a digital representation. Realizing that UCalgary is a perfect location, she approached Nickle Galleries to assist with co-ordinating the temporary public art project across campus.
Chief curator Christine Sowiak says, “The Nickle is very pleased to help facilitate placing Heather’s work on campus, and be able to support her ongoing research by doing so. Public art is not always a monument, or even permanent. Avert is a subtle intervention in the places we think we know well, that we walk through without thinking. But when we notice the images and recognize our own body language and behaviours in them, then we are led to the intention of Heather’s project.”
For Leier, the necessary conversation of gender-based harassment and violence that takes place in public is best held in those very places.
“There is a tension in this project between it being hidden and very much visible. To some, these works might completely blend in with the existing architecture. For me, this is an interesting aspect of the project, given that the gestures, avoidance behaviors, and protective strategies represented, likely, and very purposefully, might go unnoticed by many. This invisibility echoes the actual attempts that one may make to go less-than-noticed within public space to avoid unwarranted interactions."
"This project does simultaneously aim to make visible how gender-based violence in public space can affect those who experience it. I do hope that folks on campus might notice the works and pay attention to the daily effects of this violence. For those who have not lived in a body that is subject to this kind of harassment, I hope this project might help to make visible its impacts to prevent their participation in harmful behaviours.”
Avert will be installed at various locations on the UCalgary campus beginning Monday, June 28 (weather permitting) and will remain in place through early July. For more information, visit nickle.ucalgary.ca and heatherleier.com.