Arrays Snarl: An Arts-Based Research Project about the Larry Nassar cases

1. How I came to be involved in arts-based research

Over the holiday break, I saw a call for participants for a SSHRC-funded arts-based research project that was being organized by Geneviève Cloutier, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa. The project, entitled Art and Research T(here), is, in Cloutier’s description, “an emergent virtual learning community and participatory arts-based research project that is emerging at the intersections of transdisciplinarity, knowledge production, and research-creation.”

Our small cohort is composed of academics and non-academics, all of whom are working on fascinating and engaging projects. I was excited to join because while I’ve had the opportunity to engage in arts-based research during my graduate coursework, my creative-critical practice has often fallen by the wayside, or I’ve seen it as not meriting the kind of energy and attention that I’ve been trying to give to more “traditional” academic activities such as writing articles, delivering conference papers, and working on a book-length manuscript.

One of the things that I realized about my work in the field of trauma studies, though, is that I often struggle to think through my questions by engaging in these more traditional (and, let’s face it, more accepted and validated) forms of research. That isn’t to say that I don’t read articles and wade through theory, because I do, but that process often leaves me demotivated, precisely because I then get so anxious about being “productive” in the ways that the academy wants me to be that I end up doing nothing at all.

2. What have I been thinking through? And how has arts-based research helped me to do it?

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking back to some of the original questions that my doctoral and postdoctoral research took up: how do artists represent violence? How do perpetrators of violence talk about their uses of violence? Ultimately, I realized that what I’m interested in, and have always been interested in, are epistemological questions: how do we know what violence is, and whose knowledge is validated? Where do we gain knowledge about violence?

In my doctoral work, I took these questions up through sound and silence, because I am interested in how the senses facilitate knowledge formation. I wondered, then, if I could move to a visual medium, and see if the questions I had would shift.

3. The project itself

The beginning of my involvement in Arts and Research T(here) coincided with the Larry Nassar trials. Nassar, a former U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team doctor, was convicted of numerous charges, including the possession of over 35,000 images of child pornography, and multiple charges of sexual assault of both Olympic athletes as well as gymnasts at Michigan-based gym Twistars and at Michigan State University. I was drawn to the Nassar cases not only because I was interested in how they were covered by the media, but also because the sheer scope of his crimes were baffling. In one trial alone, 156 women and girls offered victim impact statements about his sexual abuse, and it is now estimated that there are at least 265 known victims.

The Nassar case, like so much of what we know and learn about sexual violence, is steeped in numbers and statistics, and just as I am interested in the limitations of language when it comes to violence, I am also interested in the limitations of numbers.

Therefore, my project, entitled “Arrays Snarl,” is a data visualization and fine art project which explores how sexualized and gendered violence exists within spaces of knowing and unknowing. Taking as its title an anagram of “Larry Nassar,” Arrays Snarl presents both quantifiable and unquantifiable data about the impact of the former U.S. Olympic doctor’s prolific crimes. Beginning with more traditional forms of data visualization such as pie charts, bar graphs, and scatter plots, the series of paintings evolves towards more abstract representation as I attempt to visualize that which is no longer proximal to the numerical and linguistic units of measure with which we usually attempt or are able to understand violence.

The images below show my process thus far, which is continuing to evolve as I go through the process of painting, which I think was the whole point. I’m finding painting to be extremely challenging, because I’m not as confident working in the medium as I am in others, and also because this project means spending a lot of emotional and physical energy grappling with trauma and witnessing it. I’m also finding it challenging to learn about data visualization and statistics as I go (although it helps to have a sister who is a statistician!). Among other resources, I’ve been reading Edward Tufte’s work on data visualization and visual thinking, and that’s been very helpful to get a sense of the history, the science, and the aesthetics of dataviz. I also highly recommend Lorraine Chuen and TK Matunda’s website Intersectional Analyst, which explores social issues alongside and through data and information visualizations.

Despite the steep learning curve, I’m also finding it incredibly rewarding. As I’ve been painting, I’ve been taking notes about the process, and I intend for each painting to be accompanied by a short description as well as a longer essay (600-1000) words that describes how it engages with, complicates, or creates epistemologies of violence. I’ll be painting over the course of the next month and a half, and will post new images on the blog as they come up, as well as some of my notes of how these paintings are fueling my thought processes.

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In this page from my art journal, I am learning about data visualization and the different types of graphs.
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Early sketches of pie charts and bar graphs relating to statistics about violence.
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More early sketches, thinking about how networks of information are connected.
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Colour swatching in watercolour and acrylic paints, with both the Olympic colours (black, red, yellow, green, blue) and Michigan State colours (blue and gold).
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Early sketch, entitled “Re-Fraction”. I use filled and empty squares to think through the various attempts at estimating the frequency of assault, 1/5, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 1/1.
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Early sketch of a pie chart of the number of people who testified at each of Larry Nassar’s trials.
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Early sketch, looking at how we represent or think through “life” sentences. The bar graph includes Nassar’s age at the time of sentencing (55), the average life span of a male in America (approx 78 years), the number of years in his minimum combined sentences (140), and the number of years
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A colour study of the bar graph on life sentences. I think I prefer the various grey/black tones that I used here as opposed to bright colours.
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Random colour study for the abstract pieces: reds, blacks, greys.
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This very rough sketch has a tentative list of the paintings and in which order they will go. As always, things are never set in stone!
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My first painting! I thought I’d be starting with the more standard forms of data visualization, but realized I needed to start with abstraction and work backwards. This piece (as of yet still untitled) is an attempt to talk about the impact of violence on a larger community. The long drips of black and white paint recall the idea of a bar graph.
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This is the second painting, an abstract work in black, greys, white, and red. I’ve used a lot of mediums to get different textures to the paint.
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Here’s the final result of the previous painting, with the black/greys/reds/white. Entitled “Pain and Suffering (Restitution)” this piece includes some visible marks of a graph that estimates pain and monetary value. Not all of Nassar’s victims intended to apply for restitution, but many did. This painting also attempts to respond to lead plaintiff Rachael Denhollander’s question to the courts: “How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?”

 

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