We met in May, close to midnight on a quiet industrial street in Bushwick, in front of an unremarkable steel building. On the second floor was Alexandra Bell’s small, square studio, its walls plastered with blown-up reproductions of the front page of the most recognizable newspaper in America — specifically, the edition delivered to newsstands and doorsteps on August 25, 2014. In skinny strokes of red permanent marker, she’d circled words, crossed out sentences, and written notes and questions in the margins, a public humbling designed to present the paper of record as little more than a series of decisions made by human hands and brains — decisions Bell was now questioning with force. Earlier that evening, at Shoestring Press, a print shop in Crown Heights, we’d picked up copies of the finished versions of those same augmented articles. Michael Brown’s eyes seemed to follow us around the room, staring intently from beneath the jaws of a giant black printer. Bell rolled the finished product into cylinders and tucked them away.
Bell’s public art series, called “Counternarratives,” reworks or redacts text from real stories that ran in the New York Times, exposing the long, ongoing tradition of media reliance on stereotypes — itself a print term — in coverage involving people of color. By deploying marginalia, obscuring whole passages with fat black ink, and rewriting headlines, captions, and other text, Bell, who is 34 and a Chicago native, highlights the often overt bias that still survives the editing process. The series is a trenchant questioning of these sometimes baffling choices, made by workers in an industry that prides itself on its fairness, from reporting and writing to photos and layout. Next to her annotations, Bell presents an alternative.
Her work began popping up on street corners and subway platforms across Brooklyn last December. The first piece in the series tackles that front page from 2014, a controversial double feature about the killing of Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The Times ran the stories, each with its own headline, side by side, divided by a thin line down the center of the page. In the story about Wilson, the original headline refers to the officer as having had a “low profile” and the lede mentions the commendation he’d received after the arrest of a different black teenager. The story about Brown refers to him as “no angel,” a characterization that drew widespread derision and criticism; the original headline was “A Teenager Grappling With Problems and Promise.”
Bell began her version by using Adobe InDesign to reconstruct the front page before adding her annotations. She went through multiple drafts, experimenting with such meticulously thought-out details as the opacity of the black lines she would use to — in the finished product — redact almost the entirety of both articles. In the Wilson story, she retains only the information she considers most pertinent: “Officer Darren Wilson … fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.” The only visible text in the article about Brown is “Michael Brown Jr. … his shooting death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.” The black lines are completely opaque.
“I want you to really have to strain to find a reason for the other information,” Bell says. “It’s not necessary. Ultimately, this was a very simple narrative. There was a kid, who did not have a gun, who was shot and killed by a white cop. This is all that matters.”
Bell then constructed her imagining of a more appropriate front page for the story, opting, after much deliberation, for an enlarged version of Brown’s haunting graduation photo, his eyes locked in an unbreakable gaze, paired with a simple, powerful headline: “A Teenager With Promise.” The two covers are displayed as a pair, side by side.
That night in May, I spent three hours on Bell’s heels as she ducked into and out of subway stations and around street corners in north Brooklyn. Sharpied posters featuring the Times’s familiar gothic script poked out from the top of the black yoga bag strapped across her body; a white bucket full of homemade wheatpaste and paintbrushes rattled alongside her. Bell, working with a friend, moved quickly. First task: find a suitable wall space. They quickly assessed locations — how visible will the art be; is the surface good for wheatpaste? Once they’d picked a spot, Bell unrolled the posters, ran a wide brush covered in wheatpaste over the wall, then lined the posters up next to each other with precision. A second coat of wheatpaste, a quick photo, and we were gone. The whole process took no more than a few minutes, and Brown’s gaze became no less poignant as the chilly night dragged on.
Bell grew up in Chicago under the tutelage of a mother who encouraged critical thinking, even in seemingly mundane places. “Trying to look past what’s in front of me is something I grew up doing a lot of,” she recalls. Her mother often engaged her in conversations about the politics of the era, and sometimes that meant reading the Chicago Tribune. In middle school, a teacher encouraged her to read the Chicago Defender, a famous black-owned newspaper, right around the time much of the country was consumed by the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The controversial Time magazine cover in which Simpson’s skin was darkened to make him look more menacing stands out as one of the first times she remembers noticing how the media manipulates — in that case literally — the image of black people in the news. But it would take years before she returned to that image and other examples of bias with a critical eye.
After high school, Bell pursued a course of study at the University of Chicago that included classes on media, race, politics, and film; she graduated in 2005. Soon after, she moved to New York and found work in communications, and it was here, a few years later, that she began to take stock of an evolving national trend. While public violence against black people has long been a function of American society, a barrage of shootings and live-streamed death at the hands of law enforcement would rattle the black community in new ways, beginning — but not ending — with the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The 24-hour coverage of each new death, and the resulting unrest, furthered Bell’s understanding of the news as a uniquely precarious function in the lives of black people.
“Why do I have to read this shit every day? It’s just black people dying, drowning in the boats trying to get somewhere where they think they won’t die but they probably will,” she recalls thinking. She described the exhaustion as a kind of PTSD.
“Somewhere between a Kara Walker show and Glenn Ligon’s ‘America’ show” at the Whitney in 2011, she says, her admiration for text-focused art grew. Bell was encouraged, for example, by Ligon’s rewriting of runaway-slave broadsides, the newspaper ads taken out by slaveholders offering rewards for the return of their “chattel.” Bell’s interest in the manipulation and maneuvering of words and newspapers grew.
Her hometown is a city steeped in a rich history of journalism — the Chicago Defender. And while Bell says she was not hypercritical of the news growing up, it is perhaps unsurprising that she wound up a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2011.
It was then that she began to consume mass amounts of news media as part of the curriculum. But though the school is considered the premier training institution for journalists, her teachers did not engage her classmates in conversations about media bias.
Over the summer of 2016, Bell began tinkering with the Brown story, one that had stuck in her mind for what she considers grave but all too common mistakes. “I started thinking, you know, I should maneuver these things,” she recalls. She rented a car in late December and went on a solo mission to wheatpaste the first iteration of “A Teenager With Promise” in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It was a shove back at the New York Times,” she says.
Since then, she has gone on about ten late-night runs in Brooklyn and Manhattan to put up her work. A jumbo version of “A Teenager With Promise” was displayed, with permission, on an outside wall at Sincerely, Tommy, a shop in Bed-Stuy that sells clothes, housewares, and coffee, and at We Buy Gold, a gallery in the same neighborhood. It has sparked the interest of a diverse crowd of New Yorkers, sometimes in ways Bell did not expect.
“I want people to slow down and think more critically about what it is like to reframe what you read,” she says. “When I read something, I try to [think about] if these things were different, what would it look like? How would it change what I think and how I see something as important or valuable? That’s a big part of what I was trying to do. What does it mean to make space for another perspective?”
Her inbox on Instagram is frequently flooded with messages from strangers offering their thoughts, thanks, and links to problematic stories her fans believe could benefit from her annotations and alterations, an assumption of labor she has taken in stride. But she did not anticipate the ways in which black people would view “A Teenager With Promise” — her first public art piece — as a much-needed memorial to the teenager whose untimely death reignited protests against police brutality across the country.
“While I didn’t see this as a memorial, I can’t lie and say I didn’t see it as a sort of restorative justice,” she says. “What has been most rewarding for me has been when black people tell me they needed this. It matters to me when a black person is like, I needed to see it in the paper. And then other people are just like, Drag they ass! They can handle it!”
While Bell says she has felt personal swells of pride and closure as people all over the city — and thousands more on the internet — have reacted to her work, it’s the quiet ways we become acclimated to what was once new and surprising that have been symbolic. She described to me a scene at the Montrose Avenue stop on the L train, where “A Teenager With Promise” survived for eight days before it was taken down. While it had demanded the eyes and attention of nearly everyone who passed when it first went up, that day subway riders displayed a sort of quiet, calm reverence for the remarkable, in a way only New Yorkers can master.
“People are still really strongly reacting to [it], but there’s some spaces where it’s blending in. It just blends in to the day, and that to me is where the accomplishment comes in. If anything, that might have been the goal,” she says. “That you believe this [counternarrative] so much that it lives in your space with you. It’s there, you see it every day, and you’re sad because you know what happened, and you’re even annoyed in some ways. But it’s become the truth.”
The second piece in the Counternarratives series, titled “Olympic Threat,” tackles an egregious story from 2016: When it became known that swimmer Ryan Lochte and one of his teammates had fabricated a violent robbery to hide their vandalism of a gas station in Olympic host country Brazil, the Times ran the story on the August 19 front page. The headline, “Accused of Fabricating Robbery, Swimmers Fuel Tension in Brazil,” ran above the fold. Directly underneath it was a large photo of Jamaican track star Usain Bolt, a black man, who had nothing to do with the crime.
In “Olympic Threat,” Bell marks up the original story, etching such questions as “why this photo” into the margins, and adds a racial description (“White-American”) to the headline, something she says news organizations hesitate to do only when the assailant is white. Next to it, she mimics the layout of the original story but redacts most of the text, leaving visible the word “privilege” and the phrase “in a society where many Brazilians themselves often lament their exposure to alarming levels of violent crime and police corruption.” She replaces the large, vibrant photo of Bolt with one of Lochte and changes the caption. The decisions made by the editors who constructed the original layout so fail the test of logic that viewers often confuse her reconstruction for the real thing.
“I want people to have a clear sense of the history of journalism,” Bell says. “When you do, you understand what the implications are behind what you’re writing. You need to think more critically about how, historically, people have been framed in newspapers, what decisions you’re making that may be contributing to that even if that’s not your intention.” The placement of Bolt’s image (he’d just won the men’s 100- and 200-meter dashes, making him the first to win gold in each at three consecutive Olympics) above a story about a crime he did not commit, Bell says, is the perfect example of subtle, sexy, liberal racism.
“There’s no way, with a better understanding of race and crime and newspapers, that you opt to keep that there. We’ve been dragged through the mud so much. It’s time for a reprieve. This can’t happen.”
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of stories worthy of Bell’s — and all of our — scrutiny. The New York Daily News’s repeated use of the word “brute” to describe black men accused of crimes, as well as a third Times story, on a white man from Tulsa whose terrorizing of a Lebanese family ended in murder (the headline identifies the race of only the victim, and fails to name the violence as racism), are among Bell’s current interests. And while she hopes journalists will more carefully consider the power they wield with words, she is under no illusions.
“If I felt like the revolution was me scratching out articles and putting up posters, I’d have been done it,” she says. “I’m interested in the conversation.”