Alone amid cacti, barbed wire, and phone lines, she is looking for something. The figure raises her rake — which seems like half claw, half witch’s broom — above her head, then returns to it to the sand. The sun radiates in cactus spines, but she is dressed in what looks like a fur coat and a long, metallic sheath made from a Mylar emergency blanket. Where her head should be there is a red beaked mask from which hang wattles and clawed fingers. She is the Vulture Vulva Vigilante, a symbolic, threatening creature, invented by artist Quintan Ana Wikswo, who seeks out female remains in the desert and commemorates them, taking a fierce stance against gender violence in the process.
The scene above is a film/performance component of “FIELDWORK,” a collection of works, including performance, writing, and photography, that Wikswo made when she returned to areas of the southwestern United States where she had previously worked to establish and manage safe houses for victims of sexual violence. “FIELDWORK” is in turn part of a larger body of work in progress called OUT HERE DEATH IS NO BIG DEAL, which, as Wikswo writes on her website, “addresses the lives of women navigating the tangle of institutional and personal violence in the desert borderlands between Northern Mexico, the Tohono O’Odham Nation, and the southwest United States: a vital and volatile terrain of sex trafficking and femicide … ”
I first learned of “FIELDWORK” and Wikswo when I visited an eclectic group show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, where photographs and text excerpts are on view. I was drawn in by the lines under the piece’s unassuming title:
When we do our fieldwork near the safe house we start by collecting. It’s a simple matter: kick a little dirt and something will shake loose. Tag it. Put it in a bag. Do it again. When the bag is full, send it to the morgue.
Sit down. Take a break. Eat a peach. We always have a few around. Someone figured out how to make them: you start with a seed.
Despite mention of the morgue, something about doing routine fieldwork near a “safe house” and pausing for a peach feels comforting, so what comes later only hits harder:
The women’s bodies are stacked six deep, shallow in the sand, and one corpse does not wait long for another to arrive. The killers know when the burial sand is soft enough again, all organs gone, all hair, all nails. At what time does a girl become something to plant seeds in, and under whose authority is what springs from her eaten as food?
I wanted to know more about whoever had written those words and to understand the photographs in the exhibit, which were so full of layers and glare that I couldn’t decipher their subjects. Wikswo generously agreed to an email interview. The more I scrutinized the images later, online, the more I saw the female body parts they included, and now I can hardly believe I didn’t before. Part of what I learned in speaking with Wikswo is the way femicide can blend into our physical and cultural landscapes, and just how much we overlook it.
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Ashley P. Taylor: How did you create these photos? It looks as if there are several panels in each one, and in some cases it looks like a filter or veil was used to obscure the image. Sometimes it looks as if the landscape continues from one panel to the next, but in others, it seems to change.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: I work with adapted, salvaged, damaged 120 mm cameras, using 120 mm photographic film. These are not expensive, professional cameras — they were designed for field use by soldiers or the military, or for casual touristic or hobby photographers. Many were created for white American tourists to take on the burgeoning highway systems, like Route 66, during the early days of automobiles — a sort of second, visual colonization of the West. Others were created by fascist dictatorships using slave labor, mostly female, during wartime.
A 60- or 70-year-old camera filled with rust, dirt, cracks, and battlefield detritus will respond uniquely to the film, to light, to lenses … most of their calibrations aren’t standardized. It takes a tremendous amount of time to build up a sufficient working relationship with each camera to produce even one image. This level of obsession is an integral part of my fieldwork process, in which I inhabit a site for long periods of time before I even begin to create a photograph — I’m learning the camera, the light, the landscape, the history, the legacies of violence that are obscured in the landscape, as well as within the cameras themselves.
Everything in the photographs is achieved in-camera, through old-fashioned mechanical and optical and chemical means. Likewise, the negatives are scanned and then printed without any digital or software manipulation. I do not work within the traditional photographic frames — I expose the entire negative. The resulting photographs are cropped from a continuous negative that is about 2.5 inches high by about 30 inches long.
The multiple exposures are made by advancing the film very carefully, often in both directions. I create the composition in my mind and then composite the photograph image by image, with each click of the shutter or advance of the film. In the photograph you mention, I worked with power lines and barbed-wire fences, carefully placing the two forms in conversation with one another. Similarly, human fingers and the branches of the piñon pine. I rotate the camera, and I have a very clear idea of how I want everything placed within the negative so that the final photograph requires no additional manipulation. Because of this, it typically takes about a month of fieldwork to learn to see, and then about a week to complete one roll of film.
Typically, a single roll of film in a traditional photographic approach yields 12 or 24 exposed frames, or individual shots. My single roll of film contains several hundred shots …
I am intrigued by what is left out of our society’s pictures: what photographers, field workers, documentarians, and other image- and history- and reality-makers literally leave out of the frame. The frame of a photograph reflects clear choices and decisions surrounding what should be included, what should be seen, what is important or unimportant, what is valued or undervalued. I am interested in using my own eye as the lens, so that each exposure taken reflects a sightline I have made of the site itself — similiarly to how the brain itself processes memory in trauma (rapid eye movements) or dreams (fragments of images). Oftentimes I recreate my own initial experiences of these sites and juxtapose that against the reality of seeing it once again.
I write the texts in the field using typewriters — like the cameras, they don’t allow for correction or editing, and they don’t require batteries or electricity. They require choices to be made, and each choice is a commitment that can’t be changed. It requires deliberate care and consideration.
To me, the verbal and visual exist in a very visceral relationship: when we are in trauma, when we are fighting for survival, our brains create a visual and verbal dreamscape — surreal, shape-shifting, abstracted, fragmented — that stays with us as long or as short as we live. These images and words don’t exactly document the facts of what happened; they form an emotional landscape for the psyche.
I’m fascinated by the cognitive rhythm of this process that in many ways underpins post-traumatic stress disorder. We are taught to respect only coherent narrative, but that is not how trauma is experienced. We struggle to listen, to look, to adapt; our eyes and brains cannot absorb everything that is happening in a moment of fight or flight. We navigate our survival with our fractured senses, and glean and process clues for survival visually through our eyes and verbally through our mouths and ears. It’s a jumble, and it’s chaotic and non-narrative. The juxtaposition of photographs and text is a tribute to this triumph of the brain to endure beyond comprehension.
APT: I can spot body parts in the photos. Are they remains you found?
QAW: It is the full figure of the Vulture Vigilante, but the head is concealed within the layered exposures so that it becomes invisible. As consumers of images, we are accustomed to seeing women’s bodies dismembered — a pair of legs, a breast, a hand. Our bodies are used as sites of commerce, as something passive to be looked at and consumed. … It’s difficult to watch a television show that doesn’t reference a dismembered woman. We are being constantly conditioned to consume fragments of women’s bodies, and yet the complete body is always there. We have just been taught not to see it or look for it.
During my time as a professional human rights worker, and through various experiences during my own personal life, it was normal for women’s actual bodies to be fragmented in this way. Women and girls and queer people coming into the shelters and safe houses missing hands, missing eyes, missing teeth. An ear torn off. Part of a scalp removed. Noses gone. Fingers or toes ripped off. Limbs at strange angles because the bones had been broken and bashed.
There is a causal relationship between these two realities. The photographs are my attempt to process this, and to create a space in which we can as a society realize that there are consequences to how we allow ourselves to be conditioned.
APT: Tell me about the last photo. The left side looks like a clouded, glare-y version of the landscape that continues on the right side, and something is obscured by the glare. What is back there? I think I see the Vulture Vigilante’s metallic sheath.
QAW: Much of our sociocultural conversation around gender violence surrounds the question: but what was s/he wearing? This is especially ubiquitious around violence against transgender men and women, girls and boys. This was crucial to my decision making around what clothing the Vigilantes should wear. In choosing the Mylar survival blankets, I knew the reflective surface could be used to blow out and overexpose sections of the photographs — in essence, pointing out that we are blinded to the human being because of our obsession with whether their clothing, and not bigotry, was the cause of violence. Behind the glare is a person. We cannot see the person, because we have made ourselves blind.
APT: Your essay, excerpted at Ronald Feldman gallery and published alongside the “FIELDWORK” photographs in Guernica magazine, details your weekly routine as an aid worker. As part of this project, you and others embody the Vulture Vigilante in site-specific rituals and filmed performances. Was the aid work itself a performance?
QAW: Between ages 16 to 36, I held a very wide range of positions in gender violence work. In the beginning, I helped provide medical assistance to Southeast Asian women and girl refugees who had sustained injuries from gender violence. I later worked with female survivors of state-orchestrated and paramilitary torture in Central and South America and Europe. I participated in programs to support women who had survived sexual violence in the military, on university campuses, and within the sex work industry. Along the US-Mexico border, I helped to establish and set up a network of safe houses and shelters for survivors of sexual violence and sex trafficking. Over the years, in different capacities, I had personal and professional experiences with the remains of women and girls — and queer and transgender people — who did not survive the predators.
In 2009, I retired from human rights work due to a series of diverse injuries acquired through doing that work, including a brain injury. This brain injury affected my language and visual perception, and through that I developed a commitment to continuing my human rights work through art making …
I never experienced the fieldwork itself as an aesthetic or performative function. In many ways, my failure to become detached represented a professional failure. Feeling and emotion are often considered a detriment to the work, which tends to both demand and create a level of detachment and numbness. My transition into artmaking was a desire to create an activist space in which we can simultaneously think as well as feel, and to invoke a site in which persecuted women become visible in a context of dignity, strength, self-determination, and agency.
APT: Do you see the broken camera in part as a metaphor for your own mind following your brain injury? I don’t mean to say that your brain is “broken” — I admire how well it works! — but that the way we process information is affected by our experiences, as you alluded to by mentioning PTSD.
QAW: I started making photographs with the broken cameras in 2007. For several months, complications from the temporal lobe brain injuries removed my capacity to fully process language — it was at times quite difficult to read, write, and speak. My short-term memory was reduced to seconds, minutes, or a few hours. Yet my visual cortex unexpectedly came alive with a magnificent intensity — colors, shapes, patterns, shadows, and light were amplified beyond anything I’d experienced before. My days became a series of prismatic, luminous fragments. I started working with the cameras as a kind of meditative, therapeutic ritual — I didn’t need the cameras to yield “good” photographs. I was just re-learning my brain. In the process, I discovered that the cameras and I had much in common.
Each of my cameras has experienced a series of events — traumatic as well as sublime — that have permanently transformed how each one interacts with the world. They no longer adhere to standard calibrations. They see differently. They have become radically unique — no two are the same, even two seemingly identical cameras made at the same factory in the same year. Almost everyone considers them broken and useless, which in our society means their lives are over as anything but an object or an anachronistic novelty. But the damage to these cameras is the source of their strength, and perhaps even their special, secret powers to see the world in new ways. These cameras are well-equipped to inhabit and sanctify the terrain of trauma. I feel fortunate to hold them in my hands while I work. They have taught me much about the fierce, tenacious abilities found within disabilities. And that being broken is all in the eye of the beholder.
APT: The image of a person eating a peach that might have been grown from land where women’s bodies were dumped seems related to the idea of a vulture, which scavenges dead things. But you were trying to help these women. Were there ways in which you also felt that, like a vulture, you were somehow profiting from death?
QAW: The vulture is a scavenger who cleans up and survives off the dead, but vultures are also a potent beacon of the dead. Driving along a road and seeing vultures means that a roadkill is nearby. The roadkill is no longer invisible. The bodies of femicided women on the border are invisible in the terrain — except for the vultures. Except for the field workers, with black plastic bags, gathering up the parts.
Our society has created an aid work culture in which we arrive too late. We are unwilling to reform our justice and legislative systems and institutions to provide protections and equal agency and prevent the murders of gender and racial violence. We even struggle to find resources to build shelters and morgues — we arrive too late, with too little. I always arrived too late with too little. The Vulture Vigilante is a testament to my sorrow and my anger for all the times I arrived too late. And all the times humanity has failed to equally honor all human life.
APT: Now that I’ve looked through the other sections of OUT HERE DEATH IS NO BIG DEAL, I’m even more curious what aspects of it remain to be finished. Will you add more parts, elaborate on the existing parts, both?
QAW: OUT HERE DEATH IS NO BIG DEAL is structured around the three vigilante avatars: the Vulture Vulva Vigilante, the Coyote Vagina Dentata Vigilante, and the Scorpion Clitoris Vigilante. There are about five suites of work for each vigilante, so the final project will include approximately 15 suites of photographs and essays, accompanied by video installations and performance works. Like the rest of my work, it will take shape in exhibition as well as a book. At the moment, I have about five suites completed, another five nearly completed, and five more in production.
The five Vulture suites, including “FIELDWORK,” consider how our culture and our institutions feed off the dehumanized bodies of dead women, as though we are little more than road kill. … The five Coyote suites consider the intimate, personal ways in which we — as women and men and all genders — can better navigate, inhabit, and self-determine our own power, sexual agency and expression, and physical autonomy with more enlightened, evolved choices. I came of age with the Navajo story that women were once born with teeth in our vaginas, but the coyote broke them off with a rock so that we could not defend ourselves. The coyote vigilante has a toothy vagina running down her face in an act of defiance, and the reclaiming of agency and autonomy. The five Scorpion suites take on an existential, cosmological consideration of gender violence, placing contemporary it within a longer continuum of the shifting role of women and power over the eons, from pre-colonialist, pre-Christian goddesses and oracles and queens within matriarchal and warrior priestess traditions to ancient divine female figures of creation and destruction. As a society, we have the ability to shape our legacy in time and to fundamentally question why and when and how we have accepted our era as one of wholesale rape and massacres of women and girls.
Text excerpts and photographs from “FIELDWORK” are on view through March 21 at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (31 Mercer Street, Soho, Manhattan) as part of the group show Wave & Particle. You can also read the essay and view the photographs at Guernica magazine and on Wikswo’s website.