I sat in a gallery, at a table, in a turret. This was semiprivate space. At Northern Illinois University, the gallery is in a building like a castle. The turret room has arrowslot windows. It felt well-defended. I had daisies, the signifier for the piece. I wore grey. I waited.
I had invited audience members to come to the gallery, to tell me a story about guns. My request inverted the art object’s signal flow. The audience usually comes to a museum to get something. Now they were asked to give something.
His father taught him how to shoot. What the gun actually does. How to respect it, what code of conduct was related to it.
I am no therapist. I listen when people tell me their experiences. I can be present for their narratives.
Beyond that personal skill, this work is the fruit of working directly with audience for years. I have hosted experimental art-video shows. I used to guard art in museum-spaces from drunk people. I guided museum tours.
This work is a long look at audience relationship with the mediated story [ the artwork itself / the stories in news and entertainment media ] and its authority.
My studio space [ a computer ] means I sometimes make art in public spaces, like coffeeshops. Making ungun I was working with decayed images of guns. The visible screen became an invitation to strangers to interrupt, to ask “Hey what are you doing? That looks cool.” To tell me about guns. About being American with guns.
It meant staying alive, to carry three guns through Bosnia-Herzegovina as a UN-authorized peacekeeper, discovering countless bodies in fields, barns, knee-deep in pits, bodies made by guns.
Guns are surrounded by cocoon of silence spun, paradoxically, of fear and bombastic noise. They are intimately connected to issues of authority. Who has the right to tell a story about guns – a story that easily can, illusively, be corrupted, become, paranoidly, the story about –
How could she raise her sons and keep guns out of their hands?
I spent four hours in the gallery listening to the space, to the visitors. Very few people accepted my invitation. That inversion of audience relation to public art space needs a different introduction, perhaps.
I listened to the gallery sounds, to the floor creaks, the oops its time for me to leave hustle footsteps, to the fear. Staff at NIU are most afraid of the young white men with baby faces. That’s what NIU’s mass shooter looked like.
She left the day he brought a gun home. Things were bad enough and she knew the statistics.
Good art encourages the audience to examine their own experience. Art about guns doubles the authority of the mediated story – doubles the illusion that truth is outside of onesself – for the audience.
This is tricksy, working with potentially painful or trauma-sourced content. What is only a signifier for the artist can evoke intense memory for audience members. Memory of lived experience powerful enough that it denies the artwork. It also can challenge the audience member’s ability to manage that memory.
The reality, for people who have survived gun violence personally, or whose daily lives are affected by navigating spaces shaped by that violence – the audience needs to retain that authority over their own difficulty. Ceding that authority to the art doesn’t work.
So – instead of censoring published media, give space for the audience’s voice. Give them a space other than they have to avoid the signal of information coming from the artwork in order to be OK.
I was thanked by members of the NIU community who could not look at UNLOADED. It was the language of gesture, ameliorating the re-traumatization that can be provided by published media.