This Intense Art Installation Turns the Tables on Catcalling

 photo by Samuel Ithurburn

photo by Samuel Ithurburn

A Sacramento-based musician wants men get a glimpse of the harassment many women face on a daily basis

Terra Lopez wanted men to understand the feeling. The catcalls and stares. The suggestive smiles, smirks and leers. To know what it’s like to walk down the street and have a complete stranger call out to you, make unwelcome advances, get dangerously close.

Lopez, a singer in the electronic duo Rituals of Mine, cites experience that’s all too common among women: she’d witnessed it first hand repeatedly. Relentlessly. Her mother had even once been assaulted by a man angry she’d rejected his attention. But brute repetition has an odd way of corrupting perspective: Maybe this was just the way of life; something women just had to live through. Over and over again.

One night as she sat in on her girlfriend’s book club, however, Lopez had a revelation. The conversation had turned to the women’s shared anxieties about walking in their neighborhood, even in broad daylight. Everywhere they went, they worried about how to stay safe or escape.

“Men don’t even think about escape plans or [watching] their surroundings,” Lopez says. And so the only way to get men to think about street harassment, she decided, was to have them experience it first hand.

Such is the intention behind “This is What it Feels Like,” an interactive art installation that premiered last month at ArtStreet, a sprawling Sacramento warehouse art exhibit. The piece comprised a cramped, shadowy 9-by-3-foot alley-like hallway that echoed with the street sounds of cars and people.

One by one, participants were directed to put on a pair of waiting headphones and listen to a cacophony of male voices, each one commanding and creepy:  “Smile.” “Sweetie.” “Bitch!” “Hey, I’m talking to you!”

If it felt real, that’s because “This is What it Feels Like” was built upon a foundation of actual encounters. To jumpstart the project, Lopez put out a call to action. First, she posted on Facebook asking women to share their experiences through voicemail or email. Lopez next asked ten men, some friends and some strangers, to enter to record those messages. What happened next only emphasized the need for the installation, she says. “Some of the men came out [of the sound booth] crying. They were shocked that this is what women experience.”

The public’s response was just as intense. An estimated 32,000 people walked through “This is What it Feels Like” during ArtStreet’s three-week run. As lines snaked around the installation day and night, Lopez studied reactions. “The men were in tears. Some were hugging me and thanking me for it. I had several come to me and say ‘I’ve never heard a catcall,’” she says. “I was surprised at how emotional the men got.”

Women, however, were stoic. “They shrugged their shoulders—the [catcalls were] nothing new to them,” Lopez says. “But they were grateful to bring their husbands, boyfriends and partners, to show them this is how it feels.”

Before ArtStreet even closed, Lopez received several messages from anti-abuse advocates, mayor and governors—all of them looking to keep “This is What it Feels Like” going. Now Lopez has fashioned it into a downsized, mobile-friendly installation she’ll take from city to city for pop-up exhibits. The next stop is an Austin art gallery in April, and then Lopez plans to hit the summer festival circuit.

Ideally, she says, she’ll someday take it on the road for a dedicated tour. “I want to bring it to every major city,” she says. “[I want to] educate men and empower women.”

-Rachel Leibrock