“I’m in There! I’m One of the. Women in That Picture!”
MARGOT LEIGH BUTLER1
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I’ll bet you’ve pictures of yourself, maybe images of yourself from throughout your life, photos lying loose in a box or pressed behind plastic sheets in spiral-bound albums. What if you received an invitation to donate one of your photos to an exhibition in honour of women who’d been murdered in your area, an invitation to stand in and be pictured with one of their names? Imagine rifling through your photos, seeing yourself as you’ve been photographed while imagining yourself in a harrowing narrative in which you’ve been murdered. Susan Orlofsky, a teacher who donated her photograph for this exhibition, said:
It was kind of a scary thing to realize, OK, if I give them a photo, what that means, because I thought, well I could be one of these dead people as well. But I decided that it would be an honour to put my photo in their show, so I got my high school graduation photo, pretty dated and I look a little different cause it was quite a few years ago, but that’s how I was hung in the show.2
The exhibition was called nhi—No Humans Involved, and it was one part of a public art project in San Diego, California, in 1992. Five artists—Deborah Small, Elizabeth Sisco, Carla Kirkwood, Scott Kessler, and Louis Hock—produced this work to address the unsolved, and largely uninvestigated, sexual
Figure 18 Billboard from “nhi—No Humans Involved” artists’ project, San Diego, 1992 (with permission of Deborah Small, Elizabeth Sisco, Carla Kirkwood, Scott Kessler, and Louis Hock).
assaults and murders of forty-five San Diego women between 1985 and 1992. nhi—No Humans Involved artist Elizabeth Sisco states:
The goal of the project was to pay tribute to the murdered women, raise public awareness about the series of murders and the botched police investigation, and relate the local reaction to the crimes to larger social attitudes toward gender violence….The purpose of nhi was to humanize the victims and demonstrate that violence against any woman is unacceptable. (Sisco 1993,42 and 45)3
The project takes its name from a derogatory term that, according to a San Diego police source, is used by police for what they describe as “‘misdemeanour murders’ of biker women and hookers… .Sometimes we’d call them ‘nhis’— no humans involved” (Sacramento Bee, 7 October 1990).4 By using this “inhouse” police phrase as the title of their project, the artists announced a hidden police narrative and shaped the language and focus around which the story of the unsolved murders and police investigations would be publicly discussed, widely debated, and contested.
nhi—No Humans Involved was launched with a billboard bearing the letters “nhi” and a photograph of a young woman, Donna Gentile, a sex-trade worker and police informant whose testimony against the San Diego police was nationally televised and who was, soon afterwards, murdered. The artists’ project5 also included a performance called mwi—Many Women Involved; a
Figure 19 Gallery installation from “nhi—No Humans Involved” artists’ project, San Diego, 1992 (with permission of Deborah Small, Elizabeth Sisco, Carla Kirkwood, Scott Kessler, and Louis Hock).
public panel composed of community members, experts, and the mother of one of the murdered women; an information booklet on the murders, police investigations, and media coverage; and the gallery exhibition6 of photos of the women who were killed, or, when their photos weren’t available, those of stand-ins like Susan Orlofsky, quoted above.
Influenced by the artists’ methodologies, this chapter shares the politicized desires that I understand constituted nhi—No Humans Involved, and which continue to shape my own research on this artists’ project. I’ve published work on the nhi—No Humans Involved project (Butler 2001a), written a chapter about it for my doctoral dissertation (Butler 2000), and discussed it in diverse academic and activist contexts in Europe, the United States, and Canada. In the fall of 20011 presented nhi in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver as part of an alternative education program called the Humanities Storefront 101. At that time forty-five women were “missing”7—unaccounted for8—in this area, and the police had just decided to treat the disappearance of thirty-one of these women as murders. So, though the nhi—No Humans Involved project had taken place almost ten years earlier, in another city and in another country, the circumstances seemed chillingly similar.
Halfway through my talk, when I was showing a slide of the nhi gallery exhibition (see fig. 19), a young woman came in, walked through to the back of the room, sat and looked at the slide and called out, “I’m in there! I’m one of the women in that picture!” It later turned out that Megan had misrecog – nized the image on the screen, thinking it was documentation of an artist’s photo-series she’s part of, a series called “Heroines,” which is made up of images of Downtown Eastside women pictured as heroin addicts.9
But in the meantime, as we tried to sort out Megan’s confusion, mine increased: it was as though one of the women in the nhi documentary photographs—women whose faces I’d been looking at for years while researching and writing about nhi, women who’d become so familiar to me, without my ever having met them—had stepped out of her context (and mine) and into this room in the Downtown Eastside. Megan stayed for the rest of the session, discussing the police (whose main station is so close by) and telling us about her drug addiction and work in the sex trade, and how she’d been trying to quit and move away but kept getting drawn back in.
Megan’s “I’m in there! I’m one of the women in that picture!” voices and interpellates the women labelled nhi by the San Diego police, and the photodonors who turned—or, as the artists say, “humanized”—the phrase “no humans involved” in their public art project. “I’m in there! I’m one of the women in that picture!” may also voice the missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and from the Lower Mainland, whose photographs appear in newspapers, on websites,10 in friends’ and families’ photo albums, in police files and artists’ photo-series, and at the memorial site at the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam—now an excavation site, where some evidence of their presence is being found. In 2002 Robert Pickton was charged with the first-degree murder of fifteen women: Tanya Holyk, Sherry Irving, Helen Hallmark, Inga Hall, Jacqueline McDonell, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe, Jennifer Furminger, Patricia Johnson, Heather Bottomley, Heather Chinnock, Andrea Josebury, Sereena Abotsway, Diane Rock, and Mona Wilson. By the beginning of his trial in January 2006, Pickton had additionally been charged with murdering Sarah de Vries, Angela Jardine, Cindy Felkis, Debra Jones, Marnie Frey, Diana Melnick, Tiffany Drew, Andrea Borhaven, Wendy Crawford, Cara Ellis, Kerry Koski, and an unidentified woman referred to as Jane Doe. At the memorial site at the Pickton farm, women’s photographs, pressed behind plastic sheets, are placed with poems, tributes, flowers, feathers, candles, wreaths, medicine wheels, sweetgrass, and mementos.
I think that Megan’s exclamation “I’m in there! I’m one of the women in that picture!” articulates a kind of implicatedness that can be seen as a way of noticing, marking, paying attention to what we’re “part of,” in and across time and place, and within relations of power. Implicatedness is a concept, practice, and method—an approach to felt, involved and involving, lived politics that can shape who we take ourselves to be and what we might do. Implicatedness is good at raising questions about relations between “me” and “we,” between personal and collective selves.
I draw on Donna Haraway’s (1991b, 193) work on subjectivity, which argues that “the knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another.”11 Equally relevant is her version of figuration: “A figure collects up the people; a figure embodies shared meanings that inhabit their audiences” (Haraway 1997, 23). I work with figurations of implicatedness that are visual and vocal: a figure of vision called the “focalizer,” which narratologist Mieke Bal (1995,158) sees as an agent of vision in a work that represents vision, and thereby offers positions of viewing to the real viewer;12 and the “parrhesi – astes,” a figure of frank, courageous speech in the face of danger, who risks speech when s/he could have kept silent. In his book Fearless Speech, Michel Foucault (2001,18) describes parrhesia as truth-telling in situations where “the parrhesiastes is always less powerful than the one with whom [s]he speaks.”13 Following the work of feminist epistemologists and situated knowledges that work with questions about “who knows,” about “truth claiming” and power, I stretch parrhesia beyond its epistemological legitimacy (as traced in Foucault [2001,14-15]) to figure Donna Gentile, and others, as a parrhesiastes who risked frank speech and its implications in dangerous situations.
The point is to make a difference in the world, to cast our lot for some ways of life and not others. To do that, one must be in the action, be finite and dirty, not transcendent and clean. Knowledge-making technologies, including crafting subject positions and ways of inhabiting such positions, must be made relentlessly visible and open to critical intervention. (Haraway 1997,36)
Figures of vision and speech see and say, show and tell, they focalize and vocalize. And the relations between seeing and saying are subtle, entangled, mutual, and variable: like the embodied, breathed relations between the assonant words “focalizer” and “vocalizer.” Figurations of implicatedness vocalize and focalize in language and images that are present, implied, imagined, unseen, and so on. This chapter takes up the relations, these permutations of seeing and saying, through genre, approach, experience, and inhabitation.
“I’m in there! I’m one of the women in that picture!” is set in five parts, which inhabit the felt, involved and involving inflections of the figures of implicatedness included above (and more). Together, they take us through dif
ferent standpoints and partial perspectives “pausing at sites of available viewing,”14 and cultivating different relations with photography which trouble separations between personal and collective selves, what’s imagined and what’s actual, between representation and reality, between the semiotic and the material.