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Being Otherwise

A conversation with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville on feminism, public art, education, and the gentle art of activism.

Silvia Sfligiotti
Mar 17, 2016 · 59 min read
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“Everywoman”, special edition of the feminist magazine, 1970.
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“Everywoman”, special edition of the feminist magazine, 1970.

In my mind the places of education and the street are linked together as sites of freedom, where I was free and able to learn, unattended or without any interference in what I was drawn to doing.

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Poster for the Women in Design conference at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, 1975

I think you can act otherwise and be otherwise within a hierarchy and see how to work the system and rules so that you do what you believe is right. I mean, it’s a basic anarchist position within a hierarchy — if that makes any sense to you.

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Cover of the fall-wiinter issue of Arts in Society, 1970
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Fall-wiinter issue of Arts in Society, 1970
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Fall-wiinter issue of Arts in Society, 1970
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02. Taste and style just aren’t enough. Los Angeles. 1970. A three dimensional poster to attract students to a new school of design.

I think feminism as a movement is about equality. And equality is extended to the relationship constructed between teacher and student, which has inequality built in into it due to taking place within a hierarchical institution. So here is that productive tension again…

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“Pink”, poster, 1973. The American Institute of Graphic Arts invited designers to make a poster about a color. De Bretteville chose pink and divided up the field into pink squares which she gave to other women so they could express their ideas. Other squares were left blank.

All those works represent ways I have been trying to figure out how to invite people to participate in the signification of the elements in their hands.

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Biddy Mason: Time & Place”. Los Angeles, California. 1989. Installation honoring Biddy Mason, an African-American woman who had lived in Los Angeles, and whose story is told through objects and events in her life imprinted in the cement wall.
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“Biddy Mason: Time & Place”. Los Angeles, California. 1989.
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“Biddy Mason: Time & Place”. Los Angeles, California. 1989.
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“Omoide no Shotokyo”. Los Angeles, California. 1994. A sidewalk 1,500 linear feet long in memory of the Japanese who lived in Little Tokyo, interned during the War by order of President Roosevelt.
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“Omoide no Shotokyo”. Los Angeles, California. 1994.
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“Omoide no Shotokyo”. Los Angeles, California. 1994.
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“Path Of Stars”. New Haven, Connecticut. 1993. 24 ‘stars’ on the sidewalk in memory of workers who lived in the neighborhood.
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“Path Of Stars”. New Haven, Connecticut. 1993.
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“H E A R U S”. Boston, Massachusetts. 1999. Permanent installation made with Susan Sellers at the Massachusetts State House, Boston, Massachusetts, to remember eight activist women and the laws they helped to change.
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“H E A R U S”. Boston, Massachusetts. 1999.

I have often found relationship of public to private a rich territory for feminist work.

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Special issue of the Aspen Times for the International Design Conference at Aspen, 1971. The participants received a piece of blank paper on which to write their own comments and these were gathered together at the end in the printed version.
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Special issue of the Aspen Times for the International Design Conference at Aspen, 1971.
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Special issue of the Aspen Times for the International Design Conference at Aspen, 1971.
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Invitation to participate in the special issue of the Aspen Times for the International Design Conference at Aspen, 1971.
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“Pink”, detail
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“Step(pe)”, Yekaterinburg, Russia. 2006, New entrance for the Old Water Tower. The first letter of words in a sentence are printed in the cement, leaving people free to complete them with chalk.
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“… 所以…” Hong Kong, 2012. New student lounge at the Hong Kong Design Institute, with an interactive led scroll to send text messages.
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“Take a break… Out to lunch… Back to work…”, Cranston, Rhode Island, 1995. Installation for Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, at the center of which a table acts as a point for meeting and discussion. The concentric rings can be rotated to make around 10.000 different sentences.
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“Take a break… Out to lunch… Back to work…,” Cranston, Rhode Island, 1995.

You can always be who you were. You don’t have to worry about that. What you have to think about here who you want to become, what your work and practice can be.

Being against is not as helpful as being for something, something that you could think is worth being for. And whatever that is, to do that, the best way you can do it, it’s a worthy thing you can do in this world. You know, it’s that — to make the effort.

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The Little Red Book, designed by De Brettevile for Cal Arts

That’s what I want. I want that empathy between the made work and the viewer, the teacher and the student, that empathy between, yes I want that. But you don’t know that you’re getting it unless someone tells you.

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“At the start… At long last…”, 1999. Renovation at the northern terminus of the A train — the longest subway line in New York.
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“At the start… At long last…”, 1999.

So really this is the gentle art of activism. It’s not a fist, it’s something else. It’s being something else. It’s being otherwise.

Progetto grafico

international graphic design magazine

Silvia Sfligiotti

Written by

Works in visual communication as graphic designer (Alizarina), teacher (ISIA Urbino, UNIRSM and SPD Milano) and critic. Former editor at Progetto grafico.

Progetto grafico

international graphic design magazine

Silvia Sfligiotti

Written by

Works in visual communication as graphic designer (Alizarina), teacher (ISIA Urbino, UNIRSM and SPD Milano) and critic. Former editor at Progetto grafico.

Progetto grafico

international graphic design magazine

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