According to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, sex trafficking is a $32 billion industry, and the numbers show that there are more slaves on our planet now than ever before in human history. Trafficked persons are the slaves of today, and this includes people trafficked for sex, domestic servitude, and labor.
New York based and Texas born artist Molly Gochman has seamlessly fused art and activism to open the conversation about human trafficking. Adapting a theme of cracks, Molly has incorporated the shape of the US and Mexico border, symbolizing the vulnerability tied to victims of sex trafficking, into a land instillation for her Red Sand Project.
Molly talked human trafficking, labor rights, the documentary film Food Chains with Ashley Jones for The Untitled Magazine.
Ashley Jones: What was the spark behind the Red Sand Project?
Molly Gochman: Well, a few years ago when I first found out about human trafficking, and I’m sure that I always knew …but I wasn’t really conscious of it… I ended up kind of leaving my art, because of the time that it took to really learn about this and how I might be of use to the movement. I was asked to speak to a group during Art Basel Miami about my art. [I] didn’t want to do art about human trafficking in a way that was forced, and I knew that awareness is a huge issue… but I didn’t know if I could add to this. I ended up thinking of this project, putting red sand in cracks on the street, because human trafficking is happening everywhere. What causes human trafficking is vulnerabilities, and that’s why it is a gender issue. It’s a gender issue, it’s a class issue, it’s a race issue. So addressing those vulnerabilities like foster care, education, [and] access to resources is a way to prevent human trafficking.
Cracks are vulnerable places that we see all the time, but we overlook and we’re not mindful of. I thought this is a great way to begin that conversation, because … when I heard it existed I was told 28 million people were trafficked today, and I thought wow I can’t do anything, how can I put a dent in that? More recently we have new data that says 36 million people are trafficked and are living in slavery today. I don’t feel that helplessness anymore …to combat human trafficking effectively… we need a critical mass. …no one thinks slavery is ok. There are laws against it in every country; it’s just that we don’t recognize it.
AJ: You’re a San Antonio native, based in New York. What made you decide that Houston was the best place to do a large scale, public project like this?
MG: I was born in San Antonio but I never lived there. I really consider myself more of a Houstonian in that I spent more time in Houston. …I was in the Houston art scene or whatever and… I didn’t know all these sexually oriented businesses or S. O. B’s were within five miles of me. It was when I was in New York learning about human trafficking and how to get involved [where] they said to me …Houston is a hub for trafficking… …one out of every four people trafficked in the US will pass through Houston.
Houston’s been really open to immigrants. Houston was also open to receiving people after Katrina. There are projects there like Project Row Houses which is an art but also social justice kind of project, and so [Houston] can be this incubator, and because it has such a high prevalence of human trafficking matched with this openness to try new ideas – I thought it would be a great city to kind of put my roots down as far as a land art instillation. The shape of the land art instillation is the shape of the border between US and Mexico. I invited the community to come participate by putting the final layer of red sand on top of it.
Human trafficking is hidden in plain sight. So the land art instillation, even though it’s this bright red line, it’s at the same level as the grass so someone driving by it won’t know it’s there. If people don’t see that land art instillation or the cracks on the street and realize that they have to do with human trafficking and raising awareness, I think that what they do is give people a moment to pause and be more in themselves and question. I’m a believer that empathy is necessary for cultural change… …I’m getting the conversation going and really that’s what makes cultural change … these little nudges.
AJ: Have many opportunities for activism in relation to sex trafficking opened up since beginning the Red Sand Project?
MG: I talked to an organization today …I don’t know…how much should I reveal… they work with trafficking survivors and they do 5k kind of walk things. So we talked about on the streets of New York, maybe we can give out red sand and as they walk they can have this imprint…that will raise awareness in the community. I think that it’s also just really beautiful visually, so if I’m just thinking about it as an artist … I can appreciate it just for that as well which makes it more valid as an art project for me. I think Red Sand Project has proved that it can …connect with different groups and bring them together in interesting ways.
AJ: Do you see yourself as an activist or an artist first?
MG: I think I wasn’t being honest and true to myself, because once I started combining them I woke up. I’m looking into other art projects, but that’s a hard question because it goes back and forth…
AJ: As an artist and activist, how has involvement in one field helped you in the other?
MG: It adds a freshness to whichever context. When I meet with trafficking people they want to hear about my art … and then when I’m with a group of artists or people working within the arts they want to talk about trafficking and learn… It’s great to be able to share something that’s of interest… under both circumstances.
AJ: Do you feel that actively contributing to both fields offers you a different sort of perspective?
MG: Through working on trafficking, I’m on my way to Nepal at the end of the month, I’ve been going to other cultures and learning about what’s going on there and what their struggles are in that context. Everywhere I go they say we need cultural change. When I first hear that I’m like, great, how? That’s pretty broad… It took a while for that light to go off… growing [empathy] through art is making me see the potential there in a way I hadn’t before.
AJ: Aside from sex trafficking, are there any issues you are looking to spread awareness of through art?
MG: You know what’s been handy about Red Sand Project? Because it talks about those vulnerabilities that lead to trafficking, it leads really easily into other issues. 60% of kids sold for sex in the US come out of foster care, and so I’m able to talk about foster care. I took it over to Thailand when I was dealing with trafficking in the fishing industry and it can relate to border issues which are huge… I’m also extremely interested in the tie between the exploitation of the environment and the exploitation of people.
AJ: While discussing the Red Sand Project, are there any common misconceptions about sex trafficking that you encounter?
MG: One is there’s no slavery today. In other countries you’ll be told that there’s no slavery in the US and that’s not true.
AJ: In your opinion, what can we all do to address and correct the issue of human trafficking?
MG: The US has this Trafficking in Persons office…They study who is not using the laws that they have in their country to go after traffickers and they rate the countries. …this rating really changes how countries are doing things. They can say Yeah I know … we have this trafficking problem and we’re really working on it …they might have a couple of meetings to show that they’re working on it but they’re not really… so holding people accountable is essential. …contacting your US Senator or Representative [and] telling them to increase the funding for the Trafficking in Persons office of the US State Department; that is something that everyone can do. … people can get help by calling the national trafficking resource center hotline. The number it’s 1-888-373-7888.
Another thing people can do is just talk about it. …go to a restaurant and order fish, ask where the fish is from. Even if they know nothing about it at least the chef is hearing that people care. If you hear someone say something that puts anyone else down… saying that makes me uncomfortable… the way you talked about those women was really objectifying, …especially if you’re another guy, … that’s what we need for cultural change.
AJ: Do you see sex trafficking as a symptom of a larger problem or as its own issue?
MG: I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem. It’s inequality and maybe people just not wanting to engage and be aware. …we can be so many levels of apathetic, and it’s people feeling like they don’t have the power to do anything. It’s part of how our education system is lacking in ways, and social services [are] lacking in ways; seeing people as other and less than are symptoms of all of this…
– Ashley Jones for The Untitled Magazine