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CounterAct aims to use art to change conversation around sexual violence

April 2, 2018

On Wednesday, April 4, ASU students, faculty and staff will participate in the CounterAct Convening, the kickoff to an initiative that integrates artistic expression into efforts to respond and contribute to the national conversation on sexual assault with the goal of changing the culture that makes assault possible and prevalent.

The program, rooted in grassroots efforts across ASU, aims to harness the power of art to navigate the complex emotions, experiences and conversations surrounding sexual violence and healthy sexual relationships by offering powerful narratives, creative spaces for exchange, and new pathways for building community.

ASU’s work in this area has been ongoing for years, but in the era of #MeToo and #Time’sUp, how can the efforts of students and community members on a college campus support a larger movement driven by celebrities and entertainers? ASU Now talked with Steven Tepper, the dean of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts at ASU, which is helping to coordinate the effort, to find out what niche CounterAct can fill.

Dean Steven Tepper, Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts
Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts

Question: First of all, how did this come about?

Answer: In 2014, ASU’s taskforce for sexual violence prevention recognized that the challenges of creating a healthy environment where everyone can thrive free from all forms of sexual violence requires both structural enhancement (policies, processes, procedures, and services) and cultural change.  In response to the latter, the taskforce, comprised of students, faculty and staff, explicitly recommended deploying artists throughout campus to bring their creativity and powerful communications skills to bear on building a healthy culture.

Artists can be our best allies in trying to change the culture. With support of the ASU Art Museum, the idea of a program of artistic and creative responses was presented to leadership across ASU and received enthusiastic support from my fellow deans, Sun Devil Athletics, and the many existing staff and students who work tirelessly on this issue everyday through organizations, programs and initiatives. We formed a University Advisory Committee with faculty, staff and students from across the university in February 2017.   The first program of the initiative was a student devised piece of theatre — "With Each Other" — that was performed for hundreds of incoming freshman last year.

Q: Why ASU? Is there a particular problem here?

A: Sexual violence is a problem that reaches into every space and organization in America — our schools, our families, our workplaces.  ASU shares the challenges that every college in America faces. In the spirit of ASU’s commitment to innovation, our students and faculty want to not only address our campus and culture but to also put forward ideas that can be tested here and transferred to other places. ASU can demonstrate the power of a largescale, student driven response to sexual violence through the power, persuasion and potential of the arts.  It is fantastic to see the creative response of our students whose brilliant ideas and spirit of collaboration can be a model for others to follow. Creativity drives change and we have some of the most creative students in the nation.

Q: Part of the effort is to devise and create “880 creative actions,” according to the CounterAct press release, one for each act of sexual violence every day in the United States. Which sounds impressive. But, at the risk of sounding like an artistic luddite, how is that actually going to stop assaults?

A: We are trying to change the culture that make possible the conditions in which assault takes place. This is not about pulling out the harmful weeds, it is about fundamentally changing the soil. Artists can help victims tell their stories. Artists can imagine a future free of sexual intimidation through song, film, theatre, and images. Artists, through words and symbols, can change what it means to be a victim or how we see perpetrators or even where we look for the root causes of this problem. Artists can find new ways to communicate about resources to support victims and their allies. Artists can create safe zones to discuss difficult and complex issues — places where we can bring play and creativity even to the most painful conversations. Artists can create the platforms and shared symbols that turn individual pain and isolation into a collective movement.  We understand AIDS differently because of the work of artists (the red ribbon) and filmmakers ("Philadelphia") and playwrights ("Angels in America"). Artists have already powerfully responded to the challenges of sexual violence — whether through the songs of Lady Gaga or the paintings of Frida Kahlo or the images of Suzanne Lacy. We are extending this work beyond celebrities to the everyday creativity of students, staff and faculty.  I deeply believe that all of these creative actions will have long and lasting impact on our campus and community, and that they have the potential to contribute in a meaningful way far beyond our immediate environment. Art helps us see differently — and once seen, we can’t “unsee” the problem, the trauma, and, importantly, the pathways of possibility.

Q: Are there any concerns that the art itself could be difficult to consume? That someone who has survived a sexual assault may take issue with its representation in art? Or even just that people will disagree on the helpfulness of any individual piece?

A: Importantly, experts in health, psychology, trauma and education are key allies in this work. When we staged the "With Each Other" performance for freshman last August, we had people onsite with the experience to work with students and victims who might have been moved by what they saw or heard. People can always disagree with an artistic image or idea and we expect many differing opinions in this work. But, we will work hard to ensure that exposure to ideas and artistic content is voluntary and that there are many, many channels for those who find they need additional support.  We are working with two nationally prominent artists in residence who are co-facilitating the initiative, Nik Zaleski and Elizabeth Johnson. Both artists are trained in social practice art — which is an approach that grounds the work in the voices and experiences of the community and holds high standards of ethical engagement and practice.  Between their expertise and the great expertise already on campus to support the emotional, psychological and physical needs of our students, we feel confident that CounterAct will achieve the needed balance of creative expression and respectful and ethically grounded dialogue.

Q: How is this being paid for?

A: The work is supported by contributions from every ASU college and Sun Devil Athletics.

Q: What will occur at the Wednesday event? If people come, what will they see or get to do?

A: Wednesday is a really important event. The Convening is a chance for our community to come together to begin to think about creative responses to sexual violence. The day will include background on the issue and current approaches on campus and across the nation.  But, importantly, the day will do two things: 1) use artistic practices and examples to help people connect to one another around this issue and to begin to imagine their own creative responses; and 2) to provide participants a better understanding of how art and creative expression can be powerful tools for cultural change. We also hope that artists and non-artists will find one another over the course of the Convening and begin to talk about future collaboration. The Convening is the place where many of our 880 creative responses will get seeded and hopefully take root. And, we will hear from noted filmmaker, and keynote speaker Tani Ikeda who is initiating an incredibly powerful multi-media national project  #SurvivorLoveLetter. 

Top photo: During Herberger Day last fall, students practice a choreographic device used in the devising of "With Each Other," the performance that was created for freshman orientation. In this activity participants are using weight sharing to help kinesthetically understand and physically model a reciprocal and mutually balanced relationship. Photo courtesy Herberger Institute

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