February 13–April 26, 2015
The photograph has long been used to source evidence of crime scenes, destruction, and death. Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Unloaded is that it avoided such images. To its credit, it was also devoid of propaganda about one of the most propagandized aspects of American culture: the right to bear arms.
Unloaded presented the gun, itself, through sculpture, photography, video, mixed media, and text. Of nineteen artists, about half exhibited photography and video and, overall, the exhibition—devoid of wall labels and other didactic wall text—allowed the viewer enough space for contemplation about the role of guns in US society.
Organizer and artist Susanne Slavick used art to point at the predominance of firearms and gun culture in a country where thirty-seven percent of Americans own a gun, and where forty-eight percent of gun owners report that they own a gun for protection.¹ As she explained to me:
I’m hoping that the images and information in Unloaded help us recognize and reconsider the plague of guns in our society—how they represent a virulent and ongoing public health crisis. I want the show to motivate us to disarm ourselves, individually and collectively, as there are more sensible and less fatal ways to resolve conflicts, ensure safety, and keep the peace.²
Knowing that gun policy has been driven by ideology rather than data, Slavick selected works that appeal to both our emotional and intellectual selves, ranging from humor to tragedy. Slavick further partnered with activists and politicians to create a larger dialogue about gun control, including CeaseFirePA, the Black Political Empowerment Project, members of Pittsburgh City Council, Marilyn G. Robb Youth Empowerment, Communities in Action for Peace, Creating a Culture of Peace, Do the Write Thing, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Violence Prevention Initiative. Unloaded served as a space for direct social action through public programs that brought together artists and activists.
Unloaded primarily addressed domestic and neighborhood gun violence, as opposed to hunting or warfare. Adrian Piper’s piece, Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013), presents the ghosted face of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, gunned down by George Zimmerman, a “neighborhood watch volunteer,” in 2012, bringing home the erasure of black men through handgun violence.
Multimedia artist Vanessa German’s writings, displayed next to Piper’s piece, spoke to the gun violence directly in front of German’s home in Pittsburgh and her concern for those who witness the bloodshed. In her text piece, German asserts a position that art serves to heal these crises:
. . . is love and the gun the fist the hard lips and the unrelenting power of yo devout n mighty ancestors raging up up up up through yo bones with the generative and transformative power of creativity. You art is our future. Is making. Is the antidote n the salve. And they thought they cd kill the creativity. But they can not.³
DAD PRANKS is a feminist art collective whose members share and exhibit images on Tumblr. As their name suggests, their work uses devices of humor and aesthetics to point to irony in everyday objects. In this case, Echinacea Plus, Cold Defense (2015) juxtaposes a kitschy Cabela’s coffee mug with pistol-grip shaped handle, filled with Echinacea Cold Defense tea—to take a sip is to literally lift a gun to one’s head. The size of the image, just 9½ x 6½ inches, brings the viewer into the intimacy of someone’s kitchen, drinking medicinal tea, and then realizing the grimmer interpretation of not comfort, but suicide.
Photographic work by Casey Li Brander and Joshua Bienko extends the ironic trope. In her self-portrait, Destiny’s Child (2012), Brander brandishes an AK-47, sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with R&B girl group Destiny’s Child, and holding a pockmarked target of an animal on the run. Bienko overlays elements from Picasso’s epic Guernica (1937) with a still image of Ashton Kutcher pointing a gun from the action comedy film Killers (2010, directed by Robert Luketic), then superimposes gallerist David Zwirner’s business card for a jab at the art world.
Pure humor enters the exhibition with James Duesing’s animated GIF of a hotdog wearing shades while slinging a gun in front of what would be its pubic area, associating the gun with unabashed machismo and masturbation.
Ungun (2013), a six-and-a-half-minute video by Jessica Fenlon, presents a fast-paced collage of video footage from Hollywood action films, digitally degraded into a nonsensical, flickering pastiche of gun images. Fenlon’s aesthetic vandalism thwarts the gun’s intent, making it visually unable to shoot. The sounds emitted from the video shift from discernable voices to the frustrated, glitchy sounds associated with sampling—becoming grotesque, animal-like cries reminiscent of the wounded.
Nina Berman’s highly saturated environmental portraits of civilians strapping on guns remind us that the militarization of civilian spaces is the new normal. Her work sexualizes gun culture through adept framing—the image “Come and Take It” Rally, The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, USA (2013) shows brightly costumed protesters wearing machine guns in the bright sun, cropped right at crotch level. Boy and Girl at US Marines Recruiting Event, Orchard Beach, The Bronx, New York (2007) focuses on an adolescent girl in a bikini in side view, donning military gear as one might a bra.
In light of the recent fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, we might ask ourselves how a group of people was able to transform America without any weaponry at all, and imagine what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi might think of situations such as our epidemic of police violence. Is disarming possible, and if so, where might we start?
JEN SAFFRON is a photographer, writer, and independent curator living in Pittsburgh.
1. Bruce Drake, “5 facts about the NRA and guns in America,” Pew Research Center, April 24, 2014, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/24/5-facts-about-the-nra-and-guns-in-america/.
2. Susanne Slavick, interview by author, February 19, 2015, SPACE gallery, Pittsburgh.
3. Vanessa German, Facebook post, January 8, 2015.