The work of Canadian multi-media artist Deanna Bowen has continually been concerned with the margins of history, both national and personal. Recently, this has meant mapping and exposing the history of the Ku Klux Klan. “The Invisible Empire” occupies a larger place in Canadian and American history than most would think and it occupies a vital, similarly under-discussed position in the history of Bowen’s family.
While studying Klan materials at Emory University, Bowen happened upon the archived materials of civil rights journalist Paul Good. Good’s recordings have become an integral component of Bowen’s work and research. Many of her recent films and installations, including Paul Good at Notasulga online , have been built from his archival material.
This March, Bowen participated in ‘Traces in the Dark,’ an exhibition curated by Liz Park at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Park asked Bowen and two other artists, “If we light up the traces in the dark, will we see their invisible ubiquity? Of what whole will we see.” Bowen used the questions as an opportunity to continue her exploration of the Klan’s hidden machinations, particularly in Pennsylvania.
On March 6th, Bowen presented Paul Good at Notasulga at UnionDocs along with a presentation concerning her research. Following the presentation, she was joined in conversation by Liz Park and Regan Good, daughter of the civil rights reporter. Among the topics of discussion were Paul Good’s work, Bowen’s research and the responsibilities that come with having access to a history.
Liz Park: I have the role of moderator. But, there are so many questions in my mind that I don’t actually know where to begin. Well, that’s a lie. I know where to begin and that’s with my immediate gut-reaction to seeing the film projected for the first time. The thing that really struck me was this flash of white from the black. I was sort of bodily affected by that experience. I think that’s a good starting point because the severing of the audio and video is what, conceptually, drives the project. I also happened to have a very interesting conversation with Regan right before the event. She has some of the tapes, just the audio, and maybe I’ll start by asking Regan to kind of speak about the collection of [Paul Good]’s materials.
Regan Good: Sure. I grew up with these tapes. I was born in 1967, so I missed a lot of it. I wasn’t cognizant or even alive. But, my father’s work was central to the family’s ethos and I’ve been wondering all day today why we waited until my father died to donate them. I don’t know why we didn’t donate them all before. The tapes, to me, are both historical and very personal. I came in, earlier this evening, and suddenly the tape came on. I heard the (blowing into microphone) and I knew that it was my dad. Maybe other men would sound different saying (blowing into microphone). I grew up in Westport, Connecticut, which is not exactly the most integrated place in the world. But, I remember very vividly one day, coming home from the bus stop, as I walked through the woods, I heard this sort of booming voice in the yard. My father would often, as a freelance writer, write in the yard. He’d set up a table with an extension cord out the window, and so on. I remember coming home that day to my father re-listening to some of the Martin Luther King tapes, in tears. He was crying. I realized, I think, at that moment, the depth to which my father’s psyche and soul were affected by this. I often think that, in a way, it was like a Vietnam vet experience. It’s a horrible experience and yet it’s the most vivid part of their lives.
Liz Park: I also want to note that this is the first time Deanna and Regan have met in person, though they have had correspondence.
Deanna Bowen: There’s a lot going on right now. I have to say this actually, I want to take advantage of this opportunity to thank you. I’m not gonna go into this too long cause I’ll start crying. But, I am deeply, deeply, deeply thankful to you for giving me permission. I don’t know if you know what the Emory experience is like, getting access to this material? The way the library works is, yes, you can use it if you find the donor and get permission. Except, they wouldn’t give me your name or your contact information. So I had to find you first, that was a trip. Then, ultimately, I tracked you down. Thank you. I didn’t know how you would respond, but you said yes. I’m also deeply indebted to your father, for being there, for having the courage to ask the questions that he did. Not everybody is willing to do that. I can deeply understand how that would’ve affected him. So, I’m grateful to him as well, and I’m glad you had the wherewithal to give it to the university. Again, it’s a difficult history. Some people put it in a box and hide it under the bed so it never comes out again. I’m glad that you put it out in the public.
RG: There must be so much more out there though.
DB: Yeah, it was weird because a librarian at Emory tipped me off about this archive. There’s the Klan archive for Calvin Craig and there’s the Paul Good archive. But, before I got to any of that, she told me this weird story about how their most popular archive is actually lynching photographs. So, there are many, many kinds of archives out there that are somewhat hidden. It’s a conversation about what people choose to bring out from hiding but it’s also a conversation about what librarians want you to access. It used to be in the front of the library. They moved it to the back because they didn’t like how much traffic it got. They thought it was weird. It was just happenstance of my insistence that I got to it. So, if any of you have anything that you want to bring forward, please do. I mean that somewhat earnestly. We all have stuff that we don’t realize matters. Bring it forward if you can.
LP: On that note of lynching photographs, I also did a residency at Gallery 44, probably before you. And, I was working on a research project called ‘Invisible Violence.’ It concentrated on artworks that talked about brutal violence without actually depicting anything violent. One of the works was about lynching. The artist Ken Gonzalez-Day takes photographs of historic lynching sites in the present-day and also takes lynching postcards and deletes the body of the victim from those photos. It creates this incredibly striking image of the void. So, that’s how I ended up at your work. It kind of brings the conversation full-circle. On the note of access, you mentioned that librarians were facilitating a type of access. One thing that struck me about your presentation was the phrase, ‘making use of other people’s access.’ The question of, who has access? Who has the voice? I think it manifests more directly in the performances. You give the voice to yourself, or to the students, in the case of the ICA show. Could you address this idea of inhabiting the voice.
DB: Well, I’ve performed it twice now. The first time, I performed as your father. That was safer. I really couldn’t wrap my head around performing Robert Shelton. Somewhere in the course of that thirteen days, I actually tried. I choked, I couldn’t do it. Second time, in Philadelphia, I did perform it as Robert Shelton. What was interesting, the second time around, was that I couldn’t perform it with my Canadian Northerner voice. I performed it with a drawl. It seemed like the natural thing to do. It just came out of my body like that. I guess I had been listening to it enough to get there. In either situation, there’s an incredible amount of fear that comes up for me. Whether I’m performing the Southerner or the Northerner, these are still white people’s perspectives that I’m taking up. There’s work on either side to figure out how to take it forward. Then, trying to wrap my head around how these students are taking it forward as well. There’s a whole bunch of things going on about different kinds of access. Having said that, now that I’ve got the archive, giving it to students is a whole new access, or privilege, that I’ve got.
RG: Were there really people who didn’t know what the Klan was?
RG: Whoa, what? Well, my students didn’t know who Emily Dickinson was.
DB: It’s happened to me a few times, now, where people have not known. I mean, there are people my age who don’t know. With my Atlanta piece, I’m talking to people who were born around the period of the civil rights movement, whose parents were active at that time, but there parents never told them. They didn’t believe, at the very least, that these conflicts happened in their city. They didn’t believe that they could be connected to the recent-day iterations. It’s just a different place. In Canada, when I present the work it automatically hits this blockage of, ‘it just doesn’t exist.’ You know, ‘it isn’t,’ ‘it can’t be,’ or ‘it’s in the past.’ Trying to situate that in Canada, to tell people there’s a Klan here too, blows people’s minds.
RG: They actually imported them?
DB: They actually imported them.
RG: Gave them houses on the prairie?
DB: They gave them land. When my family came to Canada, this is 1910, it was a big influx of Black Southerners. Well, let me back up. How it happens is, Canada is expanding Westward. They’re beginning to encourage white people to come to Canada and homestead to help build the country. They placed newspaper ads in a bunch of American newspapers. They messed up, didn’t do the proper intel, and ended up placing the ads in Black newspapers as well. They weren’t anticipating Black people coming in. It was around the same time that Oklahoma was becoming a state. So you have people being forced off the land in Oklahoma, or Indian Territory, and the government is like, “Oh Hell no.” So they brought the Klan North. I know this because when my family got here people created a petition. They said we don’t want these Black people, they’re not suited for the terrain, it’s too cold. They sent it to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister created a law that banned the immigration of Blacks into Canada. So, in those archival files, are the letters of Klansmen who vowed to deter Black people from coming in. It’s a very direct conversation. There’s a kind of funny anecdote to it. The Klan, in its attempts to form in Canada, actually appealed to the American Klan with the notion of joining with them. The American Klan denied them because they were foreigners. So the Canadian Klan is a different iteration. They pledged allegiance to the King at that time. But, yes, they definitely exist. It’s a long story.
LP Buy : I actually grew up in Alberta. I did not know until I moved away that the headquarters for the Canadian KKK is in Alberta. It totally makes sense looking back. This idea of people not knowing, or being surprised, it’s a recurring thing. Even in Philadelphia, even among the staff at ICA, they’re surprised to hear that Pennsylvania was one of the most active realms. It’s right above the Mason-Dixon line. So there was a huge influx of people fleeing the South.
DB: And the strongest concentrations are literally at the border. So, if you imagine the Klan as a militia that’s intended to push people back, it starts to make more sense. Is it Lancaster County that’s right on the border? That’s the biggest population of the Klan at that time. It still is, and most of the archives are actually situated in that county. It gets kind of sad. In the ’20s it’s well-documented. In the ’40s, what’s interesting, is that all the archives about the Pennsylvania Klan end up in Lancaster County, in the police archives. That’s a whole new ball of wax. Now we’re getting into Klan infiltration of the police force. So, what my research does, for the Philadelphia show, is effectively take you up to ’65, ’66, ’67. The book work will get you to 1977, the end of Robert Shelton’s tenure. And then, Rizzo comes in. That’s the ’70s into the ’80s. Then, it shifts a bit. The Klan becomes less prominent, but Philadelphia is the only city that ever bombed its citizens. You’ve got the MOVE Bombing in the 80s and after that, the only thing to really speak to, is this ridiculously high proportion of homicides against African-Americans. From that period on, something like 67% of the homicides in the state are African-Americans. These are the same kind of statistics that the NAACP had been compiling 40 years prior. It’s also the same kind of statistics that are thrown around in the discussion surrounding Ferguson. So, I don’t know where to go with that, but there it is.
LP: Something I think your work brings up is this idea of instruction. It came up in a conversation we had at ICA on Wednesday. This idea that your work is meant to get the information out there. I should also note that many of the titles of Deanna’s works are the bibliographic citations for her sources. It’s a proposition, in some way, that you, too, can go out and get this information. Easily.
DB: It’s incredibly easy. 90 percent of what I do is online, thankfully. I go to, I don’t know, maybe four places. It’s terribly, terribly easy. The collages, a lot of that material comes from the Library of Congress. I should cite that most of the things I’m lifting are images created by white people. It’s again this notion that other people know. Again, I’m trying to get around the ‘I didn’t know’-ness of it all.
LP: I began the screening with the idea of document coming from the root-word docere, to instruct. But, when we talk about an instruction, it has a different resonance than the kind of instruction you seem to be going after. This is so much more than clinically learning a set of facts. It actually confuses me. Your work has this effect of making me test my assumptions, what I had previously known. For instance, the severing of the audio and visuals in the film we just saw. You talked about how you initially believed you were hearing a Black man being beaten up. But, in fact, it was a white man. It speaks to these preconceived notions that we already have. I also want to fess up to some of my preconceived ideas about what something is. This idea of confusion, I think, is incredibly important when we approach something new. Now that I’ve fessed up about how it confuses me, I wanted to ask each of you about the moments in your research or your interaction with the audio and the materials that were confusing.
RG: I always feel lost in those materials. For me, it’s very personal too. There are some archives, I don’t remember what event they’re from, but one of my favorite tapes is basically 20 minutes of barking police dogs. Again, I don’t know what the event was. But, there was a lot of breaking glass and shouting and then maybe 20 minutes of police dogs.
DB: I’m actually gonna sidestep this for a second. Part of the reason I wanted you to be here is because my relation to my family involves this incredible sense of responsibility. It’s sometimes good, sometimes bad, terribly heavy for the most part. How do you deal with it? How do you manage the responsibility? The people I’m responsible for are no longer around. I had a very conflicted relationship with them while they were living, but this act of engaging with their lives takes them to a new place. They become different people, if that makes any sense.