Andrea Bowers, Project Series 48 artists, raises visibility of Native protests against the pipeline in Standing Rock in UCLA's Hammer Museum exhibition

"Art Amplifies Activism Behind the Dakota Access Pipeline," by Julie Light, Food & Water Watch

Sometimes the perfect storm of research, art and activism come together to drive social change. That’s true for a powerful art installation now on exhibit at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, a collaboration between acclaimed artist Andrea Bowers, and Food & Water Watch’s research and graphics teams. Bowers was inspired by a graphic created from groundbreaking Food & Water Watch research, which we then reinterpreted to create a powerful mural depicting the banks behind the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Bowers says her goal is raise the visibility of Native protests against the pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota. “Through aesthetics we can affect people’s thinking and reach large audiences,” she said. The story of how the mural and installation at the Hammer Museum came about is almost as stunning as the exhibit itself.

The Beginnings

Late last year, Food & Water Watch researcher Hugh MacMillan was reading an email from Native activists encamped at Standing Rock. A former math professor, MacMillan wondered which banks were funding DAPL. He started digging into SEC filings and other public records, working late into the night to compile his results. He uncovered not only which financial institutions were behind the pipeline, but also how much they had invested. Rainforest Action Network provided additional data. In all, he uncovered $10.25 billion in loans and credit from 35 banks directly supporting the companies building the pipeline. 

MacMillan teamed up with data visualization specialist Lily Boyce who analyzed the spreadsheet and decided that a chart known as a Sankey diagram might best illustrate the complex flow of financial data and corporate connections. As it turns out, she nailed it.

“I chose that approach because it shows flows as parts of a whole,” Boyce said. “I wanted viewers to see the big picture and also read the individual lines more carefully.”

The resulting article and data visualization, “Who’s Banking on the Dakota Access Pipeline?” spread like wildfire, with thousands of online views in the days and weeks after it was published. Furthermore, it inspired local activists across the country to pressure their municipal governments to pull funds out of the banks behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. So far, numerous cities and towns have divested $4.3 million, including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Bellingham, Albuquerque, Raleigh and even Berlin, according to Individual investors have pulled out an additional $80 million, according to the website.

MacMillan says part of what made the research take off was the timing. “I never imagined such state violence against Indigenous people,” he said of the government’s efforts to evict the Standing Rock encampment, which involved police in riot gear attacking protestors with dogs and mace, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. “That’s partly why it caught fire—because of the violence at Standing Rock.”

From Data Viz to High Art

Soon after the “Who’s Banking” article and graphic were published, renowned artist Andrea Bowers sat in an airport waiting for her flight from Cleveland back home to Los Angeles. Having recently visited the Standing Rock encampment, she was searching the web for information on which banks were funding DAPL. She stumbled across the Food & Water Watch graphic and became engrossed.

“That chart was so shocking and overwhelming that, without realizing it, I missed my flight,” Bowers said with a laugh. “It is beautiful as an abstraction, and then you realize how compelling the information is.” Bowers approach to art is to raise visibility and awareness of grassroots struggles, not just in the moment, but for posterity. “We create alternative history,” she said. “It’s like being a microphone to bring attention to things.”

When the Hammer Museum approached her about creating a mural a short time later, she immediately reached out to Boyce, MacMillan and Food & Water Watch. A unique collaboration was born. Boyce redrew the chart in huge sections so it could be displayed on the museum wall.

“The last time my work was on exhibit I was ten, and that was the public library,” said a thrilled Boyce, who will see the installation in person for the first time this month.

Instead of painting the mural, Bowers worked with local craftsmen to recreate it using hand-silkscreened vinyl. Bowers added a wall of ribbons with individually silkscreened messages and slogans in support of the resistance to DAPL, and a wall of flashing neon signs in multiple languages. Bowers, Boyce and MacMillan will tour the exhibit with Food & Water Watch supporters on May 11.

 “It is important that art be in service of people and activism behind issues,” Bowers explained. “I try to do my part.”

Efforts to fight the pipeline continue despite President Trump issuing an executive order to green light the project in January. Andrea Bowers’ installation is on exhibit at the Hammer Museum until July 16.