Documentary filmmaker and installation artist Kate Levy considers herself an activist — a title often bandied about by artists these days — which Levy embodies sometimes as a participant rather than as a documentarian.
“My work always has a political analysis — namely anti-exploitation and anti-racism,” Levy told Hyperallergic. “I also want to reveal how people play roles within systems, to chronicle the choices we make when we are complicit, and to share the collective power of fighting against these systems. I always try to highlight voices of activists and their brilliant analyses of power.”
Over the past several years, Levy has come to recognize that directly collaborating with activists, or being directly involved with activism, sometimes costs her the time necessary to be an artist herself and explore forms, themes, and ideas that might not be helpful when footage is being compiled with politically-motivated outcomes, such as legal documents.
“However, in the cases when I am making work for an installation, or a more abstract film, I try to use exhibitions as an opportunity to provide activists platforms to educate the public on their work through panels and workshops,” said Levy. “Also, by making these works, it ultimately helps me hone my political analysis.”
These new works include a film called Detroit Will Breathe (2021), which takes its name from an activist group that formed in the summer of 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd (and countless others) by police. Non-violent protesters — both Detroiters and suburbanites, of all races, genders, and ages — were subsequently brutalized by police. Later that year, protesters filed a lawsuit: Detroit Will Breathe v. City of Detroit.
“It was clear that the police actions were intended to scare or prevent people from continuing to participate, so they filed a First Amendment challenge,” said Levy. “Their lawyers asked me to edit the body camera footage they received in the discovery process into something they could submit to the court.” Here, Levy’s indirect participation in the protests afforded her the emotional distance necessary to work with the footage.
Detroit Will Breathe has been screened at film festivals and serves as both a court document and an artwork for public viewing. The project built upon relationships Levy established while producing an earlier documentary regarding Detroit’s water shutoffs, fueled by nearly a decade of research on the extremely contentious politics of clean water access and protection.
One of these projects, an installation titled The Roar on the Other Side of Silence (2022), was commissioned by the University of Michigan Museum of Art for the Fall 2022 exhibition, Watershed. Grounded in anti-pipeline politics, the work on the project began in 2014 as a drive along the Enbridge crude oil pipeline.
“Originally, I was taking photographs of banal objects and scenes, trying to transcend the everyday and get at the catastrophe underneath,” said Levy. “It was also a twist on the typical road trip photograph. Rather than driving along the Mississippi or Route 66, I was interested in what was underground.”
The second part of the project involved a deep dive into the history of the pipeline: “I found that a lot of the most important decisions were made through bureaucratic minutiae — arcane legal decisions and regulatory rules — that have had profound, long-lasting impacts on communities and the environment,” said Levy. She paired photographs from 2014 with sculptures informed by her research. For example, boulders gathered from atop the pipelines and engraved with descriptions of quick-moving events, including a decision pushed through the legislature or a spill that occurred in an instant.
Levy also made a receipt that listed every spill that took place since the 1960s in Enbridge’s Lakehead System (which contains Line 5), a document that unrolls several feet long. “I was excited about the poetic potential and insight that could be drawn from lawsuits, environmental reports, and documents,” she said. “I provided a historical timeline for viewers to cross-reference with the objects.”
Levy currently splits time between New York City and her native city of Detroit, where she returns periodically to continue her ongoing work, balancing freelance-for-pay with personal projects. But even when Levy is working on commission, her penchant for community-based documentary storytelling shines through. Recent for-hire projects include a year-long storytelling project with the Van Alen Institute’s and Urban Design Forum’s joint initiative, Neighborhoods Now, which connected grassroots neighborhood organizations with architects and designers.
“I like subjects who take non-conventional ways to address issues,” said Levy. “I also find it hard to pass up an opportunity to tear into hypocritical institutions or political actors who rely on oppressive yet hokey, family-first, nice people, I’m-just-doing-my-job narratives.”
“Calling out and satirizing corny, offensive propaganda is one of my greatest pleasures,” she added. “I am attracted to a story with themes of rebellion while shining a light on real injustices.”