Mean Girls: Conducting Dialogue About Bullying

Lily Cannon, Mean Girls (2013)
A traveling exhibition curated by Jill Larson, Mean Girls examines the dynamics of bullying, which starts at an early age on the playground and continues through higher education and into the work place. Bullying between women takes place every day in many forms, whether it's physical violence, verbal abuse, cyber-bullying, and more ominously, as a by-product of a world increasingly defined by online engagement. In fact, some cell phone apps are even specifically created for the purpose of bullying.

Having debuted at SPACE gallery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 22, 2013, the exhibition is running until April 28, 2013; the exhibition consists of artwork by ten nationally recognized artists, including Traci Molloy, Marian Barber, Andrea Evans, Alison Stehlik, Randie Snow, Vanessa German, and Jenn Gooch.
For the inaugural exhibition, Larson partnered with Strong Women Strong Girls, an organization focused on empowering women and girls, to present  community engagement events with the goal of facilitating open discussions around bullying by examining the issue from fresh perspectives. The events include a spoken word performance, artists’ talks, an evening of poetry, a dance and movement performance, an interactive public art installation, and a lecture series and a youth workshop.

I spoke to the curator, Jill Larson to find out more about as to how she conceived the exhibition -- and what she strives to achieve through holding it. A photographer, Larson had been teaching photography and art in Atlanta before moving to Pittsburgh ten years ago; she then found herself in curating, now having worked with more than 300 artists and curated over 50 exhibitions. She curates exhibitions that place artwork into a larger context by emphasizing social awareness, cultural activities, and broadening the audience beyond art enthusiasts, ultimately promoting discussion and developing connections.

Mean Girls was born as a result of a personal preoccupation with the issue of bullying. "It came out of living a long life as a woman, having had multiple experiences of different degrees of bullying,” she says, emphasising it is not a monochromatic subject. “Most people have been on both sides.” Through the medium of this exhibition, she hopes to address the subject without applying labels or indulging in finger-pointing.  "If you do that, you can't be successful in what you are trying to achieve –- which is to generate discussion and dialogues and basically get people to talk about it," she asserts.

The exhibition showcases installation art, portraits, video, and mixed media art, with each artist offering her interpretation of bullying, specifically in a feminized context. "We talk about the sisterhood...but here, we are offering a situation in which women are simply being cruel to one another and exploring the dynamics of it," she says. One angle she interrogates is to redefine and recontexualise women's bullying: is it more subtle or psyschological? "I am just trying to encourage people to think as to what constitutes bullying. We might unwittingly be participants without even realising it," Larson says.

Prototype: Bullycide (Boy)/Prototype Bullycide (Girl), Tracy Molloy, Mean Girls (2013)
Given contemporary society's increasing digitization, she also looks into cyber-bullying, which is all the more insidious given its anonymous, hydra-headed nature. "It can scar so deeply that it can drive a girl to suicide...suicides are becoming so normalized, it's almost becoming a matter of fact occurence," she remarks, adding that Tracy Molloy's mixed-media work [above] poignantly and powerfully speaks of the subject.

Various community engagement events have been operating in tandem alongside the exhibition. "There have been artists talk, poetry, dance performances, youth workshops and lectures," she says of the multi-disciplinary event, adding that it has generated many honest confessions and remembrances. She is also interacting with different people across different platforms, simply making them aware and creating a space in which to think, articulate, and engage with the subject. "We have had enormous interest from girls and schools," she says, elaborating that life-size red and pink figures have been placed and transported across bus stops and parks, attracting enormous interest; providing an opportunity as a confessional, even a mere glance can show the depths of pain and suffering embedded in the brief vignettes written upon the figures -- demonstrating the significance of talking about a subject that may be otherwise taken for granted.