Imagine you have a daughter. She is a good kid -- almost 20 years old, hasn't ever been in trouble. Her friends, family, teachers, acquaintances all describe her with words like sweet, funny, sporty, loyal, wouldn't hurt a fly -- all things you might find in any high-school yearbook. She is about to embark on her junior year abroad -- an adventure for which she has saved and planned -- to Perugia, Italy, where she wants to study language. After just a few weeks in the country, she is accused of a horrific crime. Suddenly, the list of words used to describe your daughter has changed. Almost every day, a new description of her emerges in the press:
For the parents of Amanda Knox, this was no imaginary story. And these over-the-top epithets hurled at Ms. Knox over the course of her trial, conviction, incarceration, and ultimate exoneration for murder are only a few of the nearly 175 words and phrases compiled by the artist Sienna Reid. They provided a powerful prelude for Sienna's discussion of her expansive multimedia series Sticks & Stones, a portion of which has been on view at the Society for Domestic Museology since February 23rd.
Sienna, who spent 14 years living in Rome, began following the Amanda Knox case when it broke in 2007. What struck her from the beginning was the hyperbole used to describe Ms. Knox in both the Italian and English-language press, all propagated by the Perugian police and the prosecution team through an irresponsible news media. As the list of aspersions grew longer, Sienna began to record them, studying their etymology and reflecting on their historical use. This 8-year inquiry into the destructive power of words and the history of character assassination is reflected in an immense amount of work that far exceeds the capacity of our home.
At both the opening and closing events, friends gathered to dine on Italian food (we couldn't resist) and to view and discuss four painted portraits and a series of photographs and stills from her short film that were hanging in our living room and hallway. The presentation allowed Sienna to give more context to the entire body of work she has produced on this subject, ranging from the 20 foot scrolls of compiled insults to modern-day "curse tablets" and ostraki to 40 painted portraits of Ms. Knox she is completing to a series of collaboratives short films. While the installation is grounded in the specifics of the Amanda Knox case -- and Sienna has done an incredible amount of research -- it is about something more universal: the not-so-latent misogyny that animates many instances of character assassinations and the resilience it takes to overcome that kind of public persecution.
The conversation at both events revealed the many layers this work evokes. On one level, it's about the corruption of the Italian justice system and elements of misogyny and xenophobia woven into Italian society that created the perfect storm for a hapless American student like Amanda Knox. We spent some time lamenting the less-than-perfect American justice system and the kinds of biases that are too often magnified by journalists looking to get a scoop.
But the theme I have been thinking about the most while living with this work and talking about it with friends is the dark impulse people have to shame and disparage one another before an all-too-receptive public audience. It happens all the time, playing out in dramatic grandiosity with the Knox case, or the nastiness and ridicule heaped on Monica Lewinsky (who now, nearly 20 years later, is managing to reclaim her own story), or in the daily trolling that is rampant on social media. It's a conversation that needs to happen and Sienna's work succeeds in exposing what is often dismissed as "just the way things are". I look forward to seeing this work again -- and in the larger scale it deserves -- when Sienna opens her studio to the public during Bushwick Open Studios, in June. As soon as I have more details, I will get the word out to all members of SfDM. If you're reading this, that means you!