“Illuminated Manuscript” by Cara Cole
High Noon Gallery, NYC
Cara Cole’s installation, Illuminated Manuscript, opened on July 6, 2018 at the High Noon Gallery in Lower Manhattan and remains on view until August 26. Some might be tempted to interpret Cole’s project as a personal narrative emerging out of the #MeToo movement, since its subject matter is a student’s reported sexual harassment and sexual assaults at the hands of an unnamed professor. Yet despite the life material that clearly informs this piece, it is also crucial to acknowledge Illuminated Manuscript as art, which is always linked to an artist’s aesthetic and political choices. Additionally, Cole’s installation is not simply an individual story; in fact, it never even identifies the student. Illuminated Manuscript offers glimpses into the counterattacks and silencing that women who report sexual misconduct routinely face. A few days on social media quickly reveal how factions in our culture tend to judge female complainants: as liars, as mentally ill, as malicious manipulators seeking to ruin the lives and careers of those whom they accuse. Cole’s project offers an alternate space in an intimate venue: a space of care, conversation, and trust. As a performance scholar, my job is not to defend or contest the veracity of the artwork’s content. The installation is not on trial. Instead, I examine Cole’s representational choices, consider her intended audience, and the sociopolitical effects of her approach.
Illuminated Manuscript is at once riveting and disturbing: one cannot look away, even as the urge to avert one’s gaze is often great. The imposing scale of Cole’s installation is part of why this piece feels so immersive and overwhelming. As High Noon’s website suggests, Cole’s project has more in common with interactive performance than with the static objects we tend to find in galleries: “The viewer’s own body becomes part of the installation, intuitively serving as an examining agent against the imposition of the giant 48” x 37” panels which become ominous, screaming, relentless in their gridded repetition.” Mounted on high white walls within the narrow exhibition space, Cole’s black panels and shocking lines of text invite us to witness and believe. Yet the very process of redaction that underlies Cole’s aesthetic soon propels us beyond what is easy and visible–beyond the stark black-versus-white surfaces of this piece.
Illuminated Manuscript derives from what Cole calls her “Rape Narrative”: a document that the artist wrote as part of a larger investigation into a professor’s alleged misconduct. In her artist’s statement, Cole writes that investigators redacted parts of the larger university report that included her narrative. (Labor laws are such that accused employees have full, unredacted access to these reports, whereas complainants only get redacted reports—often months later and often after having to petition for them). After several years of feeling stripped of agency, unable to create anything new, the artist decided to revisit her narrative and subtract from it on her own terms:
“For a long time, my narrative was taken away from me and belongs to the university and the perpetrator. It was subject to public debate without my participation. I have reclaimed the power of redaction to tell my story, on my terms, for the first time through this exhibition.”
Illuminated Manuscript features approximately thirty-five arresting black panels streaked with jagged white lines and dots. Inside these illuminated boxes is the digitally rendered, stripped-down text that remains of Cole’s original narrative. The words and punctuation that figure in this piece are typically sparse. This scarcity of details is one way she makes room for others with similar yet unique experiences. By removing her name, the professor’s name, where she attended school and other identifying factors, the artist invites others to recognize aspects of their own stories within her redaction, and to find comfort in not being alone.
For example, the installation’s opening panel is titled “Evidence.” The panel is almost entirely black, except for one word, “Evidence,” illuminated at the top. This suggests two things: either the artist opted to redact all evidence of her reported sexual assault, or there is no tangible evidence she can provide. My sense after following several Title IX investigations in the United States is that the latter possibility is more likely. Those who experience sexual harassment or sexual assault are often unable to substantiate their claims in ways that satisfy conservative journalists, men’s rights activists, or courts of law—even if their claims persuade campus adjudicators that misconduct likely occurred. Complainants rarely produce rape kits or police reports. A recent article in the Globe and Mail reports that Canadian police “discarded 14% of sexual assault accusations as unfounded” in 2017. The article also states that “Canadian law enforcement disproportionately dismisses sexual offences as baseless compared with other crimes.” Given this prevalent distrust of claimants, it is not surprising that weeks, months, or even years pass before women report their assaults. Retroactive reporting figured in several high-profile Title IX cases, including Columbia’s investigation of Emma Sulkowicz’s complaint against fellow student Paul Nungesser, and Jane Doe’s complaint against a prominent philosophy professor at Northwestern University. In short, Illuminated Manuscript highlights a common problem that many complainants face—the inability to substantiate claims of assault—especially when the subjects of their complaints are known to them. Journalists as well as keyboard warriors often confuse or deliberately conflate “unsubstantiated claims” with “false accusations,” unfairly or unwittingly portraying such claimants as liars.
Panel 15 of Cole’s installation states that the student wanted to “file a confidential report” early on. Most words at the top of this panel have been redacted; what remains is “terrified,” “It wasn’t safe,” and “she recommended […] I wait.” Meanwhile, the bottom half of the panel jumps ahead to the student’s “final year.” We learn that the professor who reportedly assaulted her was promoted. This panel hints at a system that protects reported abusers while asking those who seek safety and justice to postpone timely documentation. The implicit logic is that students will be safer from retaliation if they wait till graduation to report. In this case, however, the student faced even greater risks after her reported rapist became the department head. In recent misconduct scandals involving entertainers, journalists, and politicians, the deferral and discouraging of victims’ reports is also evident. Women who accused Al Franken of sexual misconduct were demonized as “right-wing operatives” by the so-called “progressive” left. A respected senator’s political future was deemed more important than photographic proof of Franken’s improprieties.
Like memory itself, Illuminated Manuscript skips back and forth in time, resisting chronology. All dates and years have been redacted. Nevertheless, several early panels recount the professor’s initial interactions with the student. Panel 2 sketches her enrollment in an unnamed program, where she soon perceives his excessive attention to her:
He told me […] if I needed anything […] come to him. He […] sat there and looked at me for […] too long and said […] “We don’t get people like you […] here. […] “People like what?” […] “Cool people.”
On the surface, this account of the professor’s conduct seems innocuous. Today, many campuses encourage faculty to make themselves available to students for the simple purpose of pleasing customers. Yet the student’s focus on the professor’s non sequitur flattery suggests a subtle boundary crossed. He endeavors to make her feel “cool,” different from the rest of her cohort. He singles her out.
Panel 3 reveals why the student felt slightly offended by the professor’s assumptions: “he didn’t know anything about me.” Her disquiet continues when he stands beside her after an unnamed class and encourages her to apply to the graduate writing program: “I laughed […] “You have never […] read […] my work.” Some might feel elated by a professor’s offer to recommend them without reading their work, but this student soon realizes that her misgivings are justified. An unnumbered panel titled “The first email” recounts how the professor begins pushing the limits of their teacher/student relationship: “if I wanted help with my application to the Graduate program to call him. He gave me his personal phone number […] I did not call.” Next, the professor “began to invite me for drinks at the […] invited me several times […] did not feel comfortable […] I brought along my friend […] he sat down next to me […] this became a pattern.”
Coercive intimacy is another common pattern in narratives about sexual harassment and sexual assault. Panel 5 is all black except for a few lines of illuminated text: “he said he would give me one-on-one help to support me […] The arrangement meant that I spent more time alone with […] in his office.” Harassers often cultivate seemingly “professional” relationships with subordinates whom they desire. Under the guises of mentoring, research collaborations, travel and publishing opportunities, and/or entry into prestigious programs or jobs, they begin to abuse their authority. Later, those accused of misconduct typically characterize their relationships with accusers as consensual. Yet it is hard to imagine “consensual” sex that is inextricably tied to financial or career-advancing prospects that complainants would not otherwise have. Reported retaliators have similar strategies. After being accused of sexual harassment by an untenured professor whom he mentored, Dr. Geert Bekaert of Columbia University sent messages to colleagues in the academic community he shared with his accuser, calling her “crazy” and an “evil bitch.”
Illuminated Manuscript is a first-person narrative edited carefully to separate the story from the details of Cole’s personal experience, and thus make space for others to insert themselves. Its story is both specific and far-reaching—familiar somehow. For example, panel 10 presents the first report of sexual misconduct. This reporting unfolds over three separate frames (all numbered panel 10), as if in slow motion. The first panel describes the professor’s attempt to kiss his student. When she leans away, he “locked his hands […] tight […] around my neck,” revealing a potential for violence that shocks her. The second panel abruptly shifts to a seemingly serene yet surreal aftermath: “He pulled his hands away, he said, “There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” Conversations at the installation’s opening involved individuals pointing to panels such as the one above, and relaying that this power dynamic was similar to an experience they’d had. The professor’s reported statement, “There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” seems declarative, not interrogative. He tells her how to feel about the unwanted kiss and his hands around her neck, rather than actually asking her.
Panel 5 appears twice, mounted on different walls of the gallery space. The first panel 5 recalls the professor’s offer of “one-on-one help” in his office, whereas the second one reports that he involves others on campus in his strategy to admit the student:
the week before decisions were made about graduate applications, […] invited me to his office […] closed the door. He served me a drink. He was very excited […] he said he had been making deals […] had made sure I would get into the […] program.
Panel 6 reports more unsavory behavior on the professor’s part. This time, in a move that is surely familiar to students of misogynists, he reportedly criticizes female colleagues, warning his protégé to stay away from them. The amount of text included in this panel is unusual for Illuminated Manuscript. Although Cole generally tends toward minimalism, panel 6 reveals how much the professor has to say about women who could conceivably help and protect the student:
telling me […] “secrets” about […] female faculty members […] told me not to take a class with […] because she did not like my work. He said that […] felt threatened by my looks and my experience as a world traveler. He told me […] was a “flake” and that she was on medical leave for reasons that were not legitimate. […] he […] told me personal sexual information about a […] faculty member. […] told me […] he had a plan to get rid of another faculty member, […] who was gone from […] shortly thereafter. […] what happens when you get on […] ’ bad side.
In conjunction with panel 5, this one suggests that the professor tends to get what he wants. The implication is that harsh repercussions follow if he is denied. Given this context, it is not surprising that the student says she comes to fear the man who reportedly helped her gain access to a coveted program. Some might argue that she should have seen it coming, or that she did see his behavior and tacitly became complicit due to her own professional desires. We can judge Cole’s narrator (as countless such narrators have recently and historically been judged), but my article, like the material space of High Noon Gallery, is not the place for that. Instead, I aim to listen and engage in civil dialogue about the issues raised by this art.
The panels that represent the student’s reported assaults are among the most discomforting ones in the project. The third panel 10, titled “Horriblesecret,” is mounted far from the first two panels in that sequence. The top of this panel is dotted with commas and periods, as well as fragments of letters. During my visit to High Noon, I asked the gallery’s curator, Jared Linge, about those splinters of text. What purpose did they serve? Linge told me that Cole wanted to give viewers a visual alternative to the brutality illuminated near the bottom of the panel—an option to look away. I took that option, though I am not a survivor of rape. Even now, I prefer not to describe the panel’s disorienting bottom half, except to say that the student claims her sexual assault became what she perceived as a “horrible secret” that left her “in hell with him.”
Cole’s protective punctuation recurs in panel 12, “onknees.” Again, the top half of the panel features only commas and periods. About midway, there is a single “no.” The panel’s bottom half, meanwhile, reports a sickening encounter: “forced me” […] on my knees […] put his […] in my mouth […] took a cellphone photo. He said “[…] I better make sure I trash this before I go home.” For both parties, these sexual encounters are portrayed as secrets. His way of dealing with his side of their secret is to “trash” the evidence, which happens to include images of her. Literally and figuratively, she reports that he treats her like garbage in need of disposal.
In writing this review of Illuminated Manuscript, I initially referred to sexual assaults depicted in the exhibit as “alleged sexual assaults.” I did not think about how that term might impact those who have “allegedly” been assaulted until I sent the piece to several friends for feedback. One friend told me how the term “alleged” made her cringe and caused her to feed bad. I felt bad, too. I replaced the term “alleged” with “reported,” since the exhibit is, in fact, about a report of sexual assault. The displays in the exhibit come from Cole’s “Rape Narrative,” requested by her university. In researching the subject of sexual assault, I came across the term “unacknowledged rape.” This is a term for women who have experienced rape but prefer not to use that term to describe what happened to them. They talk about being “assaulted,” being drunk (or sober) and “feeling pressured” to have sex. They talk about confronting men who pressured them into sex, only to be shamed: “Who goes to a man’s house at 5 in the morning? What did you expect?” In reading these accounts, I began to wonder if some men are also “unacknowledged rapists.” Like women who reject the term “rape” for fear of being seen as a victim, perhaps there are men who disavow “rapist” because they cannot bear to see themselves as such. They might assume consent because a partner did not say “no,” or they might presume that the partner did not really mean “no.” They might imagine that pushing sex in exchange for something the other person wants is fair game. Or, some men may believe that relationships based on gross power imbalances can still be “consensual.” To be honest, I still struggle with that question when I think about cases like President Bill Clinton and his young workplace subordinate, Monica Lewinsky.
Whatever the case may be, unacknowledged rapists, rape apologists, and others in denial of this customary exercise of violence and power are not the primary audience with whom Cole seeks to communicate (although she does not rule them out). Instead, Illuminated Manuscript is intended for survivors of rape and sexual assault, as well as their families. Through her aesthetic of redaction, Cole separates the story she tells from her personal experience and invites others to find their own stories in her piece. By mounting panels nonchronologically, so that memories emerge and connect outside of linear time, Cole makes a subtle, political statement about the nature of memory as it relates to rape and sexual assault. In short, many survivors may have a hard time recounting the exact sequence of events leading up to their sexual assaults—especially if they are advised to delay reporting. By leaving what I call “protective punctuation” and fragments of other letters in her installation (instead of redacting more carefully so that these puzzling traces disappear), Cole suggests there is more to the story past its surface. Other choices could have been made, and other stories might have been told. Yet Cole chose this one as a response to the shame and violence of redaction wielded against her. To date, Cole has been denied access to an unredacted version of the investigative report that resulted from her Rape Narrative.
In her closing statement, Cole recalls the healing pain of reading and redacting that original document as she prepared it for public exhibition:
“over and over with your jaw clenched until in aches. In doing this some of the power it has over you has diminished and some of the power he has over you has diminished as well. But as you print these pages on a large scale and imagine putting them up in a public space for anyone to see, knowing anyone can walk into that gallery space, you get really scared. It’s terrifying to try to exist in the world again, because not only is the man who raped you determined to punish you, so are many powerful people who support that man. […] ‘The truth will come out,’ they say, ‘and women lie.’ They are determined to be right, no matter what the cost.” (Ellipsis mine)
As a critic, I readily admit that I don’t know what happened, and yet I believe Cole’s narrator. I share her fear of her opponents’ rage-filled determination to punish her. She reportedly destroyed an esteemed man’s life, career, and reputation. Yet having watched many others suffer a loss of face in various contexts, I recognize that even the most trusted and venerable people sometimes destroy themselves by means of unethical choices. Or, as Megyn Kelly recently warned Tom Brokaw’s defenders: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Cole, Cara. Illuminated Manuscript. 2018. Installation. High Noon Gallery, New York.
Doolittle, Robin. “Police Dismissing Fewer Sexual Assault Cases.” Globe and Mail, 23 July 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-canadian-police-dismissing-fewer-sexual-assault-cases/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018.
Molotkow, Alexandra. “Why Are Women Reluctant to Use the Word Rape?” Flare, 9 Sept. 2015, https://www.flare.com/health/why-are-women-reluctant-to-use-the-word-rape-definition/. Accessed 2 August 2019.
Xia, Karen. “Business School Professor, Columbia Found Liable in Former Professor’s Sexual Harassment Suit.” Columbia Spectator, 29 July 2018, https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2018/07/26/business-school-professor-columbia-found-liable-in-former-professors-sexual-harassment-suit/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2018.