For eight straight hours on a recent Saturday, L.A.-based performance artist Mirabelle Jones paced in circles in the gallery window of the underground film space Artists’ Television Access, nearly naked and completely exposed.
Inside the window, Jones crouched under razor blades that hung from balloons on the ceiling, as a recording of her voice recited catcalls like “I like that ass,” “I can smell your pussy,” and “let me cum in your hair.”
There were two hundred catcalls total, and all of them were real. Jones drew them from an online survey that asked women about their experiences with street harassment. Within the first week of her survey, Jones received 100 responses.
That didn’t surprise her. Jones said the project only increased her conviction that awareness about street harassment needs to be raised. Jones hoped her performance in the window at the Valencia Street art gallery would do just that. She also works with the anti-harassment organization Hollaback LA!, as well as her own organization, Art Against Assault.
“I didn’t want to paint a portrait that catcalling is this nice 1950’s-style construction workers whistling,” said Jones. “I think people still have that idea.”
Throughout Jones’ performance, passersby on Valencia Street gawked at the nearly-bare woman on display. Reactions were mixed, and ranged from confused to wide-eyed. But most onlookers, especially women, were appreciative.
“It’s an amazing representation of how women feel all the time, everyday,” said Elaine Szu, 33, who watched with her partner. “There’s an aspect of being objectified and harassed that’s not talked about, because it’s part of your daily life — and it’s aspect of fear that only women understand.”
Thirteen-year-old Ava, who watched the performance with her parents, said that she’s already catcalled as a young teenager. “I feel like those comments, even if they’re being nice or giving you a compliment, really don’t help,” she said.
Other women, relating to Jones’ symbolism of confinement, fear, and violence, shared their own experiences.
Rebecca Rose, 46, said that very recently a man exposed himself to her as she was walking home from a downtown bar. He asked if she would give him oral sex. She managed to partly defuse the situation with some disparaging humor. A military officer standing nearby then intervened and the told the man to walk away.
“I was actually scared,” Rose said. “I was a little nervous — because what was he gonna do? …Smack my face with it?”
But Jones feels that victims of street harassment shouldn’t have to rely on keeping their heads down or hoping for someone else to step in to defend themselves from harassment.
“People shouldn’t have to do that,” she said. “The problem is not that we don’t know what to do when we experience street harassment. The problem is we should not be harassed on the street. That should not happen, period.”