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Back to the Future

Andrea Bowers presents life before Roe v. Wade

With Samuel Alito in the Supreme Court, the future of the right to a safe and legal abortion seems more uncertain now than at any time since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. If you want to get an idea of what things could be like in the near future, check out Andrea Bowers's installation at the Glassell School of Art, "Letters to an Army of Three." Bowers has constructed a video around actual letters written to the "Army of Three" – Pat Maginnis, Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan, three women who worked as abortion advocates and as a clearinghouse for abortion information in the 1960s and '70s.

Maginnis began organizing for abortion rights in California as a young college student. In classrooms and on the streets, she distributed leaflets and circulated petitions and surveys about abortion. Gurner and Phelan joined her four years later. This was all at a time when even sending birth control information through the mail was illegal (that wasn't repealed until 1971).

The only abortion services available were back-alley practitioners (the Mafia had a lucrative stake in the business), clinics in Mexico and a few legitimate doctors who performed abortions in secret, risking their careers. Some states did have loopholes, and abortions could be performed in special cases, usually if the mother's life was in danger. If you were rich and connected enough, you might get someone to make that case for you. Women who wound up at the hospital from botched abortions were arrested – if they survived.

The "Army of Three" saved the hundreds of letters they received from desperate women, husbands, boyfriends and parents trying to find medically safe abortion providers. Bowers has a history of making art about activism, and for "Letters to an Army of Three," she has created a video installation that presents actors reading from the letters. She also included a bound book containing Xeroxes of the letters -- with all personal information blacked out. And in the small side gallery she displayed colored pencil drawings whose subjects include pro-choice artifacts.

In the video, a series of young women, along with the occasional man and older woman, read the letters. They're dressed in contemporary clothing and, for the most part, deliver the contents of the letters in a straightforward manner. When some of them try to "act," the power of the letters tends to get lost in annoying over-dramatization.

But the stories themselves, from a cross-section of ordinary people in desperate situations, are riveting. Many seek abortions for financial reasons. There is a woman who's the sole supporter of 13- and 14-year-old children and cannot afford another one. Husbands and wives write, desperate at the prospect of a fourth child. People confess that they have scraped money together from friends and ask for the names of safe clinics in Mexico. There are panicked college students who describe driving up and down the West Coast seeking assistance. A woman writes that she will kill herself if they cannot help.

A girl asks that they send the information without a return address, as she lives in a sorority house. Another writer makes the same request, as her employer is a devout Catholic and she fears it may cause trouble. She says she received Maginnis's name from her reverend. (Many clergymen were active in the abortion rights movement.) Some plead to be called collect with information. One woman says her doctor refused to help, but said that if she "started spotting or bleeding, the rest could be done in the hospital." A mother writes that her daughter is mentally ill and unable to care for a child. In another case, a doctor offers his services, as he is "willing to help until our laws change."

It is difficult for women today to imagine furtively sending a letter to obtain a secret list of abortion providers -- providers who will not abuse them or maim them or kill them. It is difficult to imagine these women waiting, checking the mail every day, as they become increasingly desperate. The stories are provocative – and these are from people savvy enough to try and access the list of providers. Of course, there are doubtless many, many more desperate stories that remain untold.

Hearing the letters read aloud is fascinating and goes a long way toward illustrating the climate for women in the 1960s. But the video itself is problematic. There's the issue of how the actors read the letters, and then there's the issue of how the video is structured. Bowers has the performers sit on stools against a changing series of curtained backdrops. An arrangement of flowers sits on a table next to each letter-reader. The arrangements and their containers have a kitschy vintage feeling, like they were crafted from a circa-1965 book on flower arranging.

That is all tolerable, but Bowers seems to want to imbue the flower arrangements with significance – there is a different one for each speaker. Painfully, slowly, the camera fades in and out on the arrangements and then to the speaker seated next to the arrangement. I just wanted to hear more stories, and the flowers became increasingly contrived and annoying over the 55-minute duration of the video.

Bowers seems to be trying to introduce an element of the decorative throughout the show. The bound Xeroxes of letters are interleaved with sections of wrapping paper. Her precise colored pencil drawings illustrate "Pro-Child, Pro-Choice" and "Keep your hands off my body" buttons against contemporary and modishly organic floral patterns. But the standout drawing is the most unadorned one – a lovingly exact duplication of a photograph from Pat Maginnis's files showing a young woman seated at a desk with signs that read "Abolish all abortion laws" and "US deaths 1966, Vietnam 3,000, Abortion 7,000." The cracked edges of the photograph are rendered as well and, drawn in the center of an expanse of white paper, it feels like an especially precious artifact.

Bowers likes beauty and seems determined to avoid making work that is visually sterile. There is nothing wrong with that; her work doesn't have to be aesthetically dull because she's dealing with a political and historical issue, but the choices she's making need to have more to do with the subject at hand. Putting pretty paper between letters from desperate people and rendering the buttons against cool designs that were probably fun to draw were no doubt satisfying for the artist, but they feel extraneous. The beauty thing even extends to the readers in her video; while they are ethnically diverse, they're pretty uniformly attractive. You get the impression that unattractive, overweight people don't need abortion information.

The copies of the letters are ultimately the most powerful part of the show. The handwritten words are not only an artifact of a time period but also of an individual in crisis. Unfortunately, too many people flipped through the oversize pages of the book, damaging it. It's been removed from the show to be conserved. But 30 or so of the 100-plus letters are in the video – just be prepared for the floral cavalcade. In "Letters to an Army of Three," Bowers has created a work that, in spite of some flaws, is provocative - and, unfortunately, timely.

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