BY LUNA DYKSTRA-SANTOS
A little while ago, as I was peeing in the public bathroom at school, I noticed someone had written something on the door of the stall. There, in black sharpie, you could read “I HEART DICK”. Underneath it, someone had replied “We all do”. I decided to take part in this conversation and add my own input by writing “Fuck you heteronormative scum”, paired with a passive-agressive smiley face. I came back to the exact same stall by accident a few days later and beside my comment you could now read “wow, that escalated quickly”. I was amused, and it got me thinking about the nature of these anonymous comments we were leaving out there for everyone to see.
Much has been written about street art and it’s influences on the art world. Banksy has become a household name and there is no shortage of technically proficient political artists using the street as an endless canvas. From cave drawings to the inscriptions found on the walls of ancient ruins, human beings have literally been writing on walls for as long as we’ve existed. The eruption of mount Vesuvius preserved ancient graffiti, showing that mundane love declarations, political slogans, curse words, literary quotes and of course phallic etchings and ancient booty littered the streets of Pompeii. Even as children, the concept of keeping our thoughts and feelings down on some sort of sterilized piece of paper to be thrown out or filed away doesn’t interest us nearly as much as the idea of putting it somewhere permanent, somewhere people are forced to see it, even if this comes at the cost (or benefit) of really annoying your mother. There are however, various different forms of graffiti other than street art that fly under the radar of the art world. Reveling in it’s intimacy and generally text based, devoid of color or even images, most people who see this kind of graffiti probably don’t consider it an art form. Now while it proves rather difficult to compare the writing on the women’s bathroom wall to Pop Art or the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, delving more deeply into it, if one were to consider the washroom stall confessional as a piece in itself, it could almost be classified as a form of outsider feminist confessional art.
This January, a washroom stall confessional at Western University went viral after an anonymous note written in response to a question written on the wall was posted on Reddit. The door read, “What has been the worst day in your life?” and the responses spoke of rape, eating disorders and many more affecting experiences. While the written response was perhaps something novel, the use of the public washroom stall as a shriving pew is not atypical. The washroom stall is an anonymous space, one where people are rarely disturbed and that, with the presence of a mere sharpie, can instantly be expanded into both a canvas as well as a confessional, creating a dialogue and a community between all who enter. Like feminist confessional art, the words written here border the fine line between the deeply personal and the universal, and they force us to face (literally in the case of the washroom stall) the things society urges us to hide. Often graffiti and street art carry a political message due to their public and anonymous nature, allowing the artist to create a physical presence for ideas and beliefs that are traditionally silenced or oppressed. Washroom stall vandalism often shares a similar goal, by giving physical presence to struggles that are generally kept private. It is unique however, in that it holds a binary purpose by allowing the author to express their feelings, as well as actively involving the reader and offering them an intimate opportunity for response. This kind of graffiti gives a physical presence to the female psyche, shaping and transforming anxieties and trauma into tools of discussion, much like the work of Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, forerunners of the feminist confessional movement.
Unlike street art and other forms of graffiti, the artistry in this kind of work does not lie within each piece themselves. The work is made collectively, as collaboration between multiple authors, but also the readers themselves. In this way the confessional art mandate of connecting the personal with the universal is fully realized. Clearly the washroom stall as a forum for this kind of expression poses certain ethical questions regarding private property and the potential exclusion of trans* people, however with these factors aside, as a place of intimacy, the washroom stall is almost ideal. Although one could attempt to recreate this phenomenon, and many have tried unintentionally; by removing its primary function so as to focus on it’s secondary one, the aggressiveness of its location, which attributes greatly to its effectiveness, would suffer a near fatal blow. In the case of the women’s washroom, what the bathroom confessional has over all other confessional spaces lies in its physical placement. Unlike the work of established female artists shown in galleries and museums, scratching these words on the back of the washroom door ensures that the writers message reaches those who may not necessarily be looking for it. While the placement at first may seem humble, it creates a tremendous amount of impact, as the unprepared reader is made to face the words, whether or not they want to, for at least a good minute or two. This is one of the only spaces that can guarantee this kind of undivided attention. To write these words here, on the stalls of a women’s washroom, also implies a very select choice in audience. It more or less prevents people who have never had at least a semblance of a female experience from being involved. The outside world, including the art world, is still predominantly male-dominated. Those who deem what is worthwhile to say, write or express are largely men, men who are less capable of empathizing with female suffering. In a worst case scenarios they may even vicariously enjoy it, possibly without even realizing it. In this way, the bathroom confessional becomes a kind of miniature Womanhouse, a “feminist” art installation and performance space geared towards silenced female experiences. Perhaps this is why secrets of a sexual nature, either full of pride, but more often full of shame or trauma find their way to these walls as well as scribblings related to body image and abortion, very similar to the topics explored by Emin, Bourgeois and others. Whether or not you consider the washroom stall confessional as vandalism or as a piece of art, washroom stall confessionals definitely give you something to pass the time.