Whispers of Freedom

By: Reem Al-faiz, Jyotishka Biswas, Mike Drachkovitch, Argyro Nicolaou, and Felipe Lozano-Landinez

For our final project, we decided to tackle the thorny civic issues of empowerment and gender equality, with the focal point being the realities faced by the Saudi women community today (you can see our final presentation slides for class here). At the core of it was a survey-interview audio dataset in which Saudi women answered a set of questions related to the aforementioned civic issues. We presented the data set primarily through an art exhibit but also through digital platforms like a website and video. We conducted interviews at the exhibit to assess the impact of our work, and gained valuable feedback for future iterations. 

Our Audience for this project was Massachusetts School of Art and Design students and faculty. There currently is a serious conversation at MassArt about equality, between genders and with other communities, and we decided that this would be a good audience to interface with the Saudi women data set. The Goals were to give voice to Saudi women and to allow Mass Art students and faculty to engage in a conversation around gender equality. Our Call to Action was to ask MassArt students and faculty to share their voice and stand in solidarity with Saudi women; they could do this by recording their own message (whether via interview or post-it) in which they answered the question What is one thing missing in your life that you believe would empower you?”. This gesture of solidarity is a manifestation of an engaged audience for the issues that Saudi women voice, changing the dynamic of their current reality in which these voiced issues are not heard. While this Call to Action is considerably different than other calls to action that we have been exposed to in the course, we believe it is the appropriate one because of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the dynamics of an art exhibit-data sculpture combination. We didn’t want to have a call to action that in any way co-opted the voices of the women, implied that we or our audience “knows better”, or “imposed help”.  

The data set was collected via a survey of twenty-six (26) quantitative and qualitative questions related to the topic of empowerment, distributed via Twitter and Path. Over 500 answers were received in a few days, 75% of them from women. One of the questions, “What are you currently lacking that would make you more empowered?”, received a high volume of answers that talked about freedom, independency, more choices and confidence in their choices. The audio files (our final data set) that we ended up using represented a subset of these answers; they were the responses that were longer (not one word), not duplicates, and that were about the individual (e.g. we excluded responses like “Everyone lacks faith in God”). The recordings were originally in Arabic, and were subsequently translated for use in the project.

Our primary representation of the data set was an Arduino-powered art installation, in which bird-like electromechanical systems were suspended from a structure. We chose the symbol of the bird because of its legible connotations of freedom but also vulnerability. We used a non-human form as a vehicle for the women’s voices in order to universalize the exhibit’s message but also because visual representations of Saudi women are very marked images, which means that an audience might bring a range of biases to the exhibit if faced by such visual signs. The normal flapping of the wings was the invitation for passersby to become audience members. Once a “bird” was approached by the audience member, the flapping would slow and stop, creating a sense of conversation between the audience and the exhibit. The audio recordings, which were the translated responses to the survey question above, were on a continuous loop, creating the feeling that the voices are “always there, you just have to listen”. We purposefully chose the volume of the recordings to be low, in order to invite the audience to listen intently and have a more intimate experience.

The art exhibit was officially held on Monday, May 9th, 2016 in the Design Media Center building lower lobby area of the Massachusetts School of Art and Design campus. We had chirping ambient sound, natural light, and a window background to create a more realistic feel to the “bird” metaphor. The exhibit had two entry points, either a close-by wall where the project was described or the art installation itself.

In addition to our installation, we also created a website and a video (short version, longer version, and associated files) in order to create a digital counterpart to the physical experience of the project. We wanted to create a digital portal that would bring the subject matter out of the restrictions that the physical medium imposes (timeframe, location, etc.) and to a larger audience, especially the Saudi women who can’t physically access the exhibit but are very much a part of it. The article in the website puts the installation in context of the representation of Saudi women in Western media, while also incorporating the burgeoning Saudi art scene and demonstrating how some of the data from the survey might surprise a Western audience. The poem on the website is another literary vehicle for people to interact with the data set (it is made up of the same answers that were used for the “birds”). Finally, we included a video to create a digital version of the exhibit that is a bridge from the physical to the digital, capturing the complexity of the exhibit (sounds, movement, etc.) as completely as possible.

Our impact assessment for the project focused on the art installation itself (it was the primary representation of the data set). For the digital components (website and video) of the project, we didn’t focus on measuring their impact, though methods by which we would do this would range from as simple as number of views (and where the viewers are from, as it would be particularly interesting to see if there are viewers from Saudi Arabia) to gauging the quality of discussions that could arise from comments on those platforms (we are hosting the website on WordPress and the video on Vimeo).

Our audience for this project was Mass Art students and faculty. Our goals for this project were to give voice to Saudi women and to allow Mass Art students and faculty to engage in a conversation around gender equality. Because of our decision to create an art installation that embodies qualitative data, our method for assessing impact consisted of


(1) observing the level of engagement of the audience and

(2) conducting interviews regarding their experience.

Regarding the interaction between the audience and the exhibit, this is what we observed: at first, most people would stand a bit far from the birds until they realized there was audio coming out of them, and then they would come in close and listen. They would then go to the wall, read about the idea behind the project, and subsequently be interviewed and encouraged to answer a set of questions regarding their experience. We received a few mixed responses to the audio component. For example, one of our audience members commented in an interview: “These things talk the moment I leave”. This is representative of the type of conversation “feel” that we purposefully wanted to create: To truly hear these women, you have to have patience and listen intently.

The piece operates as much in the art space as it does in the space around empowerment. For this reason, we also wanted to assess how people responded to the topic of empowerment on a personal level, having literally heard some of the things that Saudi women are lacking that would make them more empowered. For this reason, we asked people to answer one of the questions that Saudi women were called to answer as part of the survey: “What are you currently lacking that would make you more empowered?” Around 15-20 people experienced the installation. We would like to highlight parts of the interviews we conducted:

Interviewee 1

On the experience and what it meant to them: “What struck me about the voices was that it was a different perspective from a different country. Hearing the problems and issues that other people have is very important for other people to hear. I think right now I have a lot of distractions in my life. I think definitely having more focus would help me start working on the things I really want to work on and finding the things that are important. That would give me more control of my life.”

Interviewee 2

On the other groups that face similar issues: Women here definitely work very hard to make a clear statement or make a name for themselves. There was a recent panel here that talked a lot about how a lot of those women had to work harder to make themselves feel as equals to men, and act as equals, as well. They have to be very careful about how they present themselves. I’m not sure if that’s true in Saudi Arabia, but if you’re going to make a giant change, you have to be careful about that giant step because people are going to have a big reaction, so either a slow transition or something that people can relate to is important. We saw that happen in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movements — it happened over decades.”

Interviewee 3

On the experience: “I wanted to hear all the sounds that they [the birds] were making. It was interesting to hear these viewpoints and struggles. I wanted to hear them all. But sometimes one of them would talk while I was listening to another one. And it was frustrating. The birds seem to be speaking right at the moment I moved away from them.”

On whether he could think of other groups that faced similar issues as Saudi women: ‘Many groups struggle with similar issues to different extents. There are groups that require more respect, more equality more opportunity to accomplish what everyone feels they deserve. I’m sure there’s similar groups.”

Post-it Written Response: “A job.”

Interviewee 4

On the experience: “I like it especially in this weather, when you see the birds next to the glass’. On other groups that faced similar issues: ‘For me, because it was in English, I didn’t connect it just to Saudi women. It’s very hard to connect it only to women: for me, it was about everyone who is oppressed.”

Post-it Written Response: “A good book.”

We learned a huge amount from the interviews about the effectiveness of our installation, which was inherently complex because the artistic nature of the piece, form (aesthetics), function and call to action all affect the experience of the installation. One of the most important takeaways was the importance of designing the experience of the exhibit as a whole (i.e. How do we make sure people follow the route we want them to? What can we do to make the exhibit more “inviting”?). In addition, while we focused many of our efforts on the technological development of the “birds”, we received feedback that the art exhibit component of our project merited more focus on the aesthetic piece. Perhaps the weakest link in our exhibition was the Post-It question component. We think that having a tablet on which people could respond would have potentially been less intimidating. However, this would take away from the public nature of the exhibit, which is predicated on these answers, or voices, being visible to all.

Overall, the goal of giving Saudi women a voice was accomplished through the installation. All persons interviewed were interested in the audio clips playing from the “birds” and wanted to listen to them and learn more about the subject matter. We also believe that our goal  of engaging MassArt students and faculty on a discussion about gender equality and empowerment was accomplished, since audience members engaged with the exhibit and provided interview and Post-It responses after seeing the installation. That almost all of the interviewees were able to relate the Saudi women’s experience to their own lives or to a group in their own country or environment that might be in a similar situation was an indication of our exhibit’s success in pointing to the broader applications of the data set and installation.

For future iterations of this project, we would recommend on improving the material components of the “birds” in order to improve what can be done with regards to function, form, and aesthetics. We would also recommend having a different medium than Post-It notes via which to gather non-interview responses and incite discussion around this topic, whether it is through a digital platform like Medium or directly with the website. Finally, we would recommend putting more emphasis on the exhibit design as a whole, establishing a more specific audience flow and having more purposeful exhibit contact points and milestones throughout. We also think that it would be really powerful to incorporate the audio responses that people provide via interviews into its own “bird” for future exhibits, and grow the conversation past the Saudi Arabian women community to other communities that also want to engage on the topics of gender equality and empowerment.

All in all, we think that this project was an appropriate way to represent our data set. We provided a physical manifestation that led to intimate interactions with our targeted audience and developed discussions around the target topics. We also provided a digital manifestation that extends the reach of our project to a wider audience. Finally, we provided a medium for the Saudi women community to be heard, but didn’t impose any sort of help or hubris on them. We respected their reality, stood in solidarity with them, and started a previously unheard discussion.