Stackable, green plastic storage bins with lids crowd the entrance of an Episcopal church in Bolton Hill on a recent Saturday. They’re labeled with numbers written on a piece of white duct tape. These numbers are grouped in fives—”1-5,” “6-10,” “71-75,” etc.—and need to be sequentially ordered.
Some bins are being organized in the outer aisles around the church’s pews. Some are stacked and need to be sorted. And others still need to be unloaded from the U-Haul parked out front. Each bin should contain five four-foot-square pieces of fabric sewn to a four-foot-square stretch of Tyvek. There are one, two, three, four, five—uh, hundreds of bins.
Hannah Brancato and Mora Fernández stand and take a moment to consider how best to coordinate the bin expanse inside the church. They’re two of the artists, activists, educators and organizers on the staff collective of the Monument Quilt, a collection of stories from survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence and their allies.
These stories are sewn, painted or otherwise inscribed onto square pieces of red fabric. The quilt is a collaborative art project that the Baltimore-based activist organization FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture has wanted to install on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as a monument to survivors almost since its founding in 2010 by Brancato and Rebecca Nagle. And this weekend, for the first and only time, all 3,000-plus stories that currently make up the Monument Quilt will stretch across the National Mall, between 12th to 14th Streets, spelling out “NOT ALONE” and “NO ESTÁS SOLX” from May 31-June 2.
A number of things have to happen before the quilts can be loaded into a truck and taken down to Washington, before a group of volunteers begins installing them with stakes that will raise each quilt square about 10-inches off the ground, before representatives of the Piscataway Nation honor the land during the event’s welcoming ceremony today, and before the weekend’s activities, programming and outreach projects commence.
A bin inventory needs to be performed, ensuring the quilts that should be inside each bin are, in fact, inside each bin. Each bin needs to be labelled for where it appears in the installation’s layout map. And each individual quilt needs to have a total of eight grommets affixed to it so they can be attached to the stakes. Some quilts have four grommets, most six, and some of those grommets have been torn or otherwise damaged from previous displays and need to be replaced.
Less than two weeks before the installation begins, Brancato and Fernández briefly task the handful of volunteers who showed up this Saturday with pertinent info: how to file the quilts inside the bins, what needs to be updated on the Google Sheet tracking the bins, and, once the bins have been inventoried, how to operate the manual grommet press. It took about six hours to inventory all the bins and add grommets to a few more than 100 of them.
Still to come: taking a digital picture of every individual square for the online app that enables survivors to find their quilt in Washington. “Folks are in the studio working,” Brancato says during a phone interview. “I’m working on outreach. Other folks are working on programming, so we’re so putting all the pieces together. We’ve always had teams of volunteers.”
The Monument Quilt’s staff collective includes Brancato, Fernandez, E Cadoux, Charnell Covert and Shanti Flagg; FORCE’s overall leadership team is a 15-person coalition of artist activists that includes Dream Defenders chief of strategy Rachel Gilmer, playwright Winter Miller, and filmmaker and race- and gender-based trauma researcher Kalima Young.
Over the years, thousands of volunteers and partners have contributed to the project, organizing workshops to make quilt squares around the country, hosting the quilt on college campuses and collaborating with other activists for events. “Not alone” isn’t simply what the Monument Quilt spells out when displayed; it’s a guiding principal of FORCE: There is no singular narrative of sexual violence or intimate partner violence.
FORCE and the Monument Quilt began operating during a time when anti-sexual violence activists were starting to use the internet to network. “FORCE weren’t the ones creating the movement building,” Brancato says. “We were part of a moment when people were starting to mobilize on a national scale around sexual violence and intimate partner violence in a way that maybe they hadn’t as recently.”
Before FORCE started the Monument Quilt project in 2013; before it organized sew-a-thons to make the first quilt squares; before it reached out to other organizations and activists working in anti-sexual violence efforts; before the quilt was displayed 49 times in 33 different cities; before FORCE was awarded the 2016 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize; before the quilt was displayed outside the Duval County Courthouse in 2015 to show solidarity with Marissa Alexander; before FORCE floated the words “I can’t forget what happens, but no one else remembers” in the reflecting pool between the Lincoln and Washington Memorials in Washington in 2013; before FORCE created the online interventions Pink Loves Consent in 2012 and the Playboy Guide to Consent in 2013, Brancato and Nagle were young artists in MICA’s fiber department whose practice began exploring sexual violence–Brancato as an artist-in-residence at the House of Ruth, Maryland, Nagle while writing a performance exploring childhood sexual abuse.
They curated the exhibition “Force: On the Culture of Rape” at the Current Gallery in the fall of 2010, where Nagle debuted her play “Darb TV.” The show included 21 artists and artist collectives and dared to ask the question: “If we are too uncomfortable to talk about rape, how can we ever process sexual violence in a way that lets individuals heal and challenges our culture to progress?”
“We were thinking about forcing the issue, not allowing people to ignore it,” Brancato recalls about the name of the organization growing out of the exhibition. She adds that at the time, “there was not a public conversation about sexual and intimate partner violence. People didn’t know what rape culture was, it was even questioned whether it was a real thing. And when we decided to shift into being a collective organization, we wanted it to be active, where we’re actually disrupting culture.”
Words and actions matter. Fernández first encountered the Quilt in New York in 2014, after which she started working with FORCE. She’s a Mexico City-based artist/activist who started La Casa Mandarina in 2000 as an arts/activism organization to combat sexual violence. “We don’t have words in Spanish for sexual assault,” she says during an interview at the FORCE studio in Station North. She doesn’t mean that there’s no literal translation of the words, but more so that word-for-word translations of terms such as sexual violence, child sexual abuse or survivor don’t have the same idiomatic meaning as they do in English. And lacking a language to talk about trauma makes discussing, processing and confronting that trauma challenging.
La Casa Mandarina and FORCE collaborated in 2017 for an installation of the Quilt on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, bringing attention both to the current administration’s xenophobic immigration policies and the high rate of sexual violence undocumented immigrants face. Fernandez notes that in the absence of broader solidarity around issues of sexual violence, it took her some time to acclimate the survivors and organizations she works with to support systems for rape and abuse survivors that Monument Quilt installations catalyze. A quilt display is a space of healing. A space for being heard. A space for a survivor to understand they’re part of a larger community.
“FORCE’s work is setting a conversation,” Fernandez says. “We are envisioning things.”
A few things the members of FORCE are envisioning: a world without rape where all survivors of sexual violence are seen, heard and believed. “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but the world is not always ready for that conversation,” she continues. “Maybe people see [the quilt] now and they go home and think, Let’s make a team to help. [FORCE’s work] is about more than seeing the final display of the quilt. It’s about all the things that happen around the quilt, the emotional support, the conversations started.”
Typically, witnessing survivors’ stories is what we talk about when discuss the Monument Quilt, but it’s a difficult experience to pin to the page. The quilt felt expansive when it was displayed in Federal Hill in 2014, with forty-something individual quilts covering a quadrant of the park and another eight underlining the strips of red cloth that spelled out “NOT ALONE” on the north side of the hill.
By April 2016, when the quilt occupied two blocks of North Avenue and the Ynot Lot in Station North, the hundreds of quilt squares had amassed a colossal visual, psychological and political weight. Each quilt, each story, documents traumatic acts of violence, and quoting a few lines or words from a select few as illustrative examples can feel like plucking a cluster of notes from a single instrument in an orchestra mid-symphony. Individually, sure, they’re moving; altogether, the Quilt is a crushing torrent of survival.
Though this weekend’s display will be the only time the entire Monument Quilt is laid out, FORCE’s work on the project continues. Brancato mentions an archival process, including multiyear efforts to add parts of the quilt in permanent collections, as well as a number of FORCE’s organizing projects at the intersection of art and social justice in Baltimore. The organization knows there’s a lot more it can, and needs, to do.
“The purpose of the Monument Quilt has always been to resist a flattening of the multi-layered experiences that survivors have to make one story everybody’s story,” Brancato says. “I think we always had that intention, and organizing nationally was to reinforce the need to have more complicated intersectional conversations that move folks that are left out of the conversation from the margin to the center, what Black feminists have been calling on for decades. I think we’ve always tried our best to rise to that call. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re making progress.”