Terra Lopez Is Callin’ Out the Catcallers

Through a new art installation targeting catcalls, the Rituals of Mine front-woman is making her voice heard beyond the stage.

By Remy Ramirez

When I walked into downtown Berkeley’s UC Theater to check out Rituals of Mine, the electronic dance band recently signed to Warner Bros. Records and fronted by Cali-native Terra Lopez, I wasn’t prepared. The instant the 28-year old singer took the stage, belting hard-edged and harrowing vocals akin to P.J. Harvey, her jaw-to-floor talent sent the audience into a mass hush. But Lopez doesn’t only use her voice to stun audiences. When the Sacramento-based collective ArtStreet put out a call to artists for interactive exhibit concepts, Lopez, who would tell me later that night that she is “not a visual artist whatsoever,” drew an idea onto a napkin with her partner’s help, snapped a pic, and sent it in–along with 500 other artists. The interactive auditory installation, titled “This Is What It Feels Like,” was not only selected, its opening was a colossal success, with over 30,000 people experiencing the piece in just three weeks. I caught up with Lopez backstage to chat about gleaning inspiration from her local feminist book club, tfw your art brings a room of men to tears, and the artist’s favorite kind of “vocal”: the kind that changes the world.

Tell us about “This Is What It Feels Like”—what it is and what inspired you to create it.
It’s an auditory [catcall] listening experience that’s designed for men in the hopes of educating them about what it feels like to be a woman in our culture. The goal is to shift perceptions and treatment of women. What inspired me was seeing my mom and her experiences with men throughout my childhood; there were times when she didn’t return men’s catcalls or advances, and the response she received was sometimes very violent and traumatic. I remember feeling so powerless and knowing my mom felt so powerless, and I’ve always been angered by that.

And then more recently, my partner was at her feminist book club, and one night everyone was sitting around talking about how terrified they were to walk around our neighborhood during the day because of the catcalls and various kinds of harassment they received on a daily basis. They were literally sharing escape plans, and I just thought, This is normal. This is how women think every day. Men aren’t out there thinking of an escape plan—it’s just crazy to me how different our lives are. You know, people think catcalls are harmless—even a compliment—but as I started to do more research, I started to see that they actually trigger a lot of physical violence, trauma, and even homicide. So my overall goal was to use catcalls in a way that proactively prevents violence, something to keep me, my loved ones, my friends—all women—from feeling helpless.

Were there any surprises that came up for you in the process of creating the exhibit?
Men’s reactions. So, the way I started out was by interviewing 100 women about actual catcalls they’d received–from “hey baby,” to really vulgar, graphic ones. Then I went into the recording studio with 10 men—none actors, some I didn’t even know—and recorded them reading these catcalls. Some of the men started crying, other men were totally disgusted, another man asked me what a catcall was—he didn’t even know what the term meant. It just really showed me how different our lives are from men’s. But yeah, having men come up to me and say, “I’m going to rethink my actions,” or, “I’m going to tell my friends to knock it off next time,” that was the most surprising.

What was it like for you when it first went up? How did it feel?
You know, it hadn’t even opened yet, and a volunteer for the art space–a man–decided to go through the exhibit, and he cried for like 10 or 15 minutes afterward. And then another man walks through, and another, and I realized that the men weren’t leaving. After the experience, they wanted to stay and talk about it, share their experiences, apologize, understand. So immediately I knew it was going to create a dialogue, which was exactly what I wanted. It was a little nerve wracking, but I was more so just blown away by the response. I’m never proud of anything that I do, but I felt like this was bigger than me, and I was proud of that.

It sounds like it triggered a vulnerability in men. Can you sort of unpack the role that vulnerability plays in the piece?
That’s an incredible question and great insight because yeah, it’s wrapped in vulnerability. One aspect of the piece is that there’s nothing explaining what it is—it’s just a 9’ x 3’ blacked out box with some ambient street noise outside. There’s a lot of vulnerability involved in walking into a space where you don’t know what’s going to come at you. Also, while the men have the headphones on and are listening to the recording, there’s a dimly lit mirror to look into so that they can really reflect. And at the end of it as they’re coming out, there’s a wall that asks, “How Does It Feel?” where they can write a response. People really allowed themselves to be open and vulnerable; there were so many men who wrote that they felt disappointed, ashamed, who said, “I have done this.” It felt very human. The thing is, every woman has dealt with this, and I really wanted men to understand the repercussions it has on women’s psyches and on our struggle to feel safe.

It reminds me of that adage from ‘60s era feminism, “The personal is political.” I would say this work very much speaks to that, especially in this climate.
Yeah, for so many reasons with the current political climate that we’re in, it’s vital for women to use their voice in whatever platform they have. Women have been silenced for so long, and in my own experience, I’ve been silenced–even still, I’m still fighting that, especially in the music industry. I’ve always felt very strongly about social issues and injustice. If I can help in any small way, I personally feel like it’s my job.

So how does art intersect activism for you then?
It gives me the platform; it always has. Anything I’ve ever felt super passionately about, I’ve been able to write music about and share at my shows. It goes hand in hand for me. I know there are some artists out there who don’t want to get involved in activism, but for me, it’s why I create art. Especially right now when there’s so much shit going down and so many people who aren’t being represented, who don’t feel like they have a voice—now that our band is on Warner Bros., I want to use as many platforms as I can to create positive change.

If you could describe the ideal world that this project could potentially create, what would that world look like?
I would love to create a world where men treat women better. It sounds so simple, but I wish men understood what it feels like to be a woman and were empathetic and compassionate. I said it before—women have been silenced for so long. I just don’t want women to be dismissed anymore. I want women to feel powerful and vital… because we are.

For more on the installation, check out the vid below, and watch out for This Is What It Feels Like, comin’ to LA and NY this summer.