“The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” -John E. E. Dalberg, The History of Freedom in Antiquity, (1877).
This is an Emergency! is a print portfolio project centered on reproductive rights and gender justice. There hasn’t been a safe time for women, gay or non-gender conforming people in North America since Europeans invaded this continent. The forms of oppression shift over time and while some aspects of life improve, we don’t have full justice and equality in the United States. This is evident in everything from our legislation to the culture at large; exampled in the hundreds of laws which detail and inform us on the exact circumstances under which we are allowed to have an abortion, to Rush Limbaugh’s hateful comments surrounding birth control, or former Senator and Republican Presidential nominee Rick Santorum’s horrendous comments regarding homosexuality. A society which had evolved to exist with full equality and justice would not create such legislation nor ferment such hateful cultural speech.
Instead of being a society which has evolved, the United States suffers from having a cultural and legal system dominated by a very small group of conservatives whose actions are driven by fear; fear of losing power which has been attained and maintained through exploitation and corruption. Those of us who do not conform to the narrow standard of conservatism outlined by this group find ourselves in a constant state of war. We exert our energy, time, money and resources in countering each legislative measure or cultural attack meant to control us. We find ourselves constantly on the defensive, as conservatives tend to succeed in the initial framing of issues through the creation and manipulation of language with words like “pro-life,” “slut,” and “dyke.” Sometimes we reclaim these words, but what if we refused to engage within their paradigm? The narrative they work within is a world of extremes; good versus bad, man versus woman, gay versus straight. Working within such a framework assumes there is only one right answer. It’s time to shift the narrative and focus on creating an alternate world view based on a spectrum instead.
The beauty of a spectrum is that it allows for an infinite range of possibility and nuance. Alfred Kinsey created a spectrum around the fluidity of sexuality. However, it’s not simply our sexuality which is nuanced and complicated. Our identities, beliefs and lives can shift over time and we can liberate our minds and bodies if we begin to think of ourselves as fluid rather than static beings. What if this spectrum is a circle, where two seemingly opposing ideas are in fact next to one another rather than at two opposite points of a line? All parts of a circle work together to create a whole. Artistically this idea is beautifully demonstrated in the circular power of our planet, sun, and moon. I believe justice and liberation can also be achieved by taking a holistic and circular approach.
What do I mean by that? Instead of falling into the “us” versus “them” mentality, we need to reframe the discussion. What if when we are called “sluts” we don’t simply deny or reclaim that word, but instead demand to live in a sex positive culture where we don’t judge one another for our sexuality? Instead of debating who has a ‘legal’ right to live in our country, what if we shift the argument to be that no person should be required to have identity papers to live anywhere in the world, and that all people deserve access to free healthcare and social services wherever they live? What would it mean to be in a community where everyone who has had an abortion (which is 1 in 3 women) would be supported by their community rather than feel they had to hide their experience or be judged? How much freer would our culture be if people did not make assumptions about the gender or identity of others, and our genitals did not define who we are from the moment of birth? How would our experience of love shift if the state and church were not granted the power to define or validate the meaning of our relationships? We need to start asking ourselves what we want our world to look like in order that we can create it into existence and demand that it be protected. All social justice measures must ensure the health and well being of all, not just provide justice for some at the expense of others.
In the 1820’s Henri de Saint- Simon dreamed that artists, scientists, and industrialists would work together to invent, analyze, and create all social initiatives. These words still have power two hundred years later. Artists can work with grassroots organizations to work for the creation of social justice initiatives. We can use art to communicate about the problems with the current realities, to demand justice and to dream up utopia.
This project you hold in your hands is a collaboration of over two dozen voices. These are people who have experienced gender and reproductive injustice and were moved to dream together. Stories, images and multigenerational interviews combine here to give a range of perspectives on how our lives are impacted by our ability (or lack there of) to experience equality. There is no way an endeavor of this nature could be comprehensive; instead it’s meant to be a small glimpse of some of the complex emotions, ideas and perspectives of people dealing with these issues. I hope this project will inspire dialog and communication. The intent is that it be used along with other organizing efforts to shift culture and provide historical perspectives about how these issues impact our lives in the early 21st century.
“This is an Emergency!” was made possible through the input, love, and financial support of over 80 people who supported this project though a crowd funding effort. It was also made possible through generous support by the Puffin Foundation. We are indebted to the grassroots and larger scale organizations which provide continuous support and services through the crucial work they do. These organizations build movements and provide services, advocacy, visibility and legal support. Over two dozen organizations will be receiving a free copy of this portfolio. These organizations can utilize this project for exhibition purposes, use the graphics in their campaigns, sell the portfolio at a fundraiser or in any other way they determine to be useful. “This is an Emergency!” will be made available online. If you own a copy of this project display it on the walls of organizations, schools, galleries and other community spaces. This project is meant to be touched, held and interacted with. Thank you to all who have worked on and supported this project, and interact with it in the future. This portfolio is completely accessible online here:
With love, Meredith Stern
“It is we, the artists, that will serve as your avant- garde; the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the fastest. We have weapons of all sorts: when we want to spread new ideas among people, we carve them in marble or paint them on canvas; we popularize them by means of poetry and music…the song, history or the novel; the theatre stage is open to us, and it is mostly from there that our influence exerts itself electrically, victoriously. We address ourselves to the imagination and feelings of people; we are therefore supposed to achieve the most vivid and decisive kind of action; and if today we seem to play no role or at best a very secondary one, that has been the result of the arts’ lacking a common drive and a general idea, which are essential to their energy and success.” – Olinde Rodrigues (1825)