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‘Illuminating Survivor Voices’ Through the Arts

Broad Art Lab

A new exhibit at the Broad Art Lab will showcase a poem addressing the role of silence in cases of sexual abuse and how the isolation and silencing of survivor voices is detrimental to the lives of survivors and to the community.

The poem by Nancy DeJoy, Michigan State University associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures, will be exhibited Dec. 4-12 at the art lab in downtown East Lansing.

“Illuminating Survivor Voices,” which originated from survivor voices as important sources of culture change, will be displayed as an organic LED light installation. It will be presented on a hollow metal frame filled with organic LED panels and surrounded by 15 survivor statements that will be projected onto the walls and floor of the gallery.

DeJoy got the idea for the project last spring when survivors expressed their frustration of not being listened to as agents for culture change.

“In the ways I’ve been trained to be an administrator, I would’ve normally gotten up and gone to higher-ups demanding they listen,” DeJoy said. “Instead, I decided to listen (to the survivors) myself and find a way to get their voices made public.”

As DeJoy spoke with survivors, she noticed their common need to be heard and their frustration about feeling their voices were silenced. The need for active listening transformed into a Google document in which survivors were invited to share their thoughts on dealing with sexual assault with the option of anonymity.

“What I heard the survivors saying was that it was frustrating having their voices associated only with being accusers,” DeJoy said. “The people who came to see me didn’t want their voices frozen in that single moment or their identity to be defined by their past. They want people to listen to them, collaborate with them and be in conversation with them about what they see as the reason sexual abuse is accommodated in our environment.”

The “Illuminating Survivor Voices” display will highlight the fact that survivors are more than accusers who aid in the prosecution of their abusers.

DeJoy said the exhibit addresses the need for justice beyond the courtroom, focusing particularly on how society can value survivor voices as change agents who alter how today’s culture deals with sexual assault.

“My hope is that the project will inspire people to listen to survivor voices in a new way and in relation to culture change and what we can do to make things better,” she said. “I also hope that it might inspire people to do (activist) work in different, more artistic ways. I hope that museums and galleries will notice their role in social justice and work to make their spaces more inclusive.”

The “Illuminating Survivor Voices” installation, which was funded by a College of Arts and Letters Summer Faculty Fellowship, will serve as a catalyst for cultural shifts because of its public placement and challenging stance on how institutions deal with survivor voices, DeJoy said.

“The arts have always been an alternative space for people to say things that normally wouldn’t be listened to in other ways,” she said. “Poetic language allows me to say things in a way that might be easier for people to listen to or interpret from their own experiences.”

Both the Lansing Media Center and OLEDWorks have been involved with the project, with the Lansing Media Center donating the projectors and OLEDWorks helping with the cost and installation of the OLED lights, which were chosen deliberately for their physiologically calming nature.

“Professor DeJoy’s poem is a beautiful and important reflection of the responsibility to trauma survivors,” said Giana Phelan, director of business development at OLEDWorks. “OLEDWorks is honored to provide support with a lighting experience that both draws the reader in and commands a call to action: listen.”

The opening of the “Illuminating Survivor Voices” exhibit is scheduled from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, at the Broad Art Lab. Refreshments will be provided by Soup Spoon Café. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

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