Members of this Roundtable:
Christopher Hawthorne (facilitator) is the chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles, the former architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, and a member of the Civic Memory Working Group.
Alliyah Allen is assistant curator for Monument Lab.
Laurie Allen is director of research for Monument Lab.
Paul M. Farber is director of Monument Lab.
Leila Hamidi (facilitator) is an arts organizer and writer and a member of the Civic Memory Working Group.
Ken Lum is senior curatorial advisor for Monument Lab.
Rosten Woo (facilitator) is an artist and designer and a member of the Civic Memory Working Group.
Monument Lab is a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. Founded by Paul M. Farber and Ken Lum in 2012, it has been a leading voice in cultivating and facilitating critical conversations related to the past, present, and future of monuments. In October 2020, Monument Lab announced that it had been awarded a $4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant, titled “Beyond the Pedestal: Tracing and Transforming America’s Monuments,” will support the production of a definitive audit of the nation’s monuments; the opening of 10 Monument Lab field research offices through subgrants totaling $1 million in 2021; and the hiring of Monument Lab’s first full-time staff, which will develop significant art and justice initiatives. The grant is the first from the Mellon Foundation’s new $250 million Monuments Project, created to “transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces.”01 “Monument Lab Awarded $4M Grant from the Mellon Foundation to Develop Art and Justice Initiatives Across the Nation,” Monument Lab Bulletin, Oct. 5, 2020; “The Monuments Project: Our Commemorative Landscape,” Mellon Foundation website, undated, https://mellon.org/initiatives/monuments.
Christopher Hawthorne: Maybe we could start with a question about Monument Lab’s origins, particularly for those readers who may not be familiar with the organization—how it began and how it’s evolved since then?
Paul M. Farber: Monument Lab is a public art and history studio. We started as a series of classroom conversations. I was teaching in urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania—a class on memory, monuments, and urban space. I was really inspired by some questions left over from my dissertation. I’d moved home to Philadelphia after being away for the better part of a decade and [in 2013] met Ken. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ken was a new Philadelphian, having moved from Vancouver, and was teaching classes in fine arts. When we connected that academic year, we realized that we were asking very similar questions in our classes: about the monuments that we’ve inherited, about gaps in representation, and about the ways that artists, activists, students, and educators could engage public spaces in ways that are transformative. From that point, we began to talk about how we could spill outward as an experiment. We utilized our backgrounds in contemporary art and public history, but we really wanted to have this work live outside. We thought that it might lead to a scholarly or museum-based project, but we wanted it to be organic—to theorize public space in public space. And so we applied for a grant from a local funder in Philadelphia, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, to do an exhibition in the courtyard of City Hall, which occurred in the spring of 2015. [It consisted of an outdoor classroom and public sessions asking the question, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”] Working in that particular space made a lot of the projects that we did after that possible, because it was very clear even at that point, in 2015, that a conversation about monuments was a conversation about the past, present, and future together. It was a conversation about civic identity, how people find belonging, and also the moments of trauma that have not been resolved in the city’s past.
Leila Hamidi: I saw in a recent talk, Paul, that you said you thought you started that work on monuments late. Now that it’s a red-hot urgent subject, it seems that you actually had a head start when it comes to the national conversation about monuments and memorials. But as far back as 2012, you already felt that it was a late start. Was it 200 years late? Was it five years late?
PMF: I think it is important to register that any time you see a monument takedown in the headlines, there are always years of organizing, of activism, of art-making that have made that moment possible. And long after the cameras leave, those groups and those people continue to be the stewards of memory. So I think back to a few things. One, and Ken can speak to this in his own body of work, is the way that contemporary artists and activists for more than a generation had been pushing this connection between symbols and systems. I think about Occupy Wall Street as really important to this conversation. And, later, the Black Lives Matter movement and other ecological, critical feminist and queer protests, which pointed out not just the monuments that existed as points of struggle, but also used the spaces around them as places to organize and amplify.
I think of one moment in particular. This was after we decided to do this project. We got the [Pew] grant, but we were kind of walking around the city in Philadelphia, and this was right after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And there was a group of recent Philadelphia artist-activists—Lee Edward Colston and Keith Wallace, among others—who performed “die-ins” next to the LOVE statue.02 The BBC reported on “die-ins” as a form of protest in 2014. See Micah Luxen, “When Did ‘Die-ins’ Become a Form of Protest?,” BBC News Magazine, Dec. 9, 2014. The LOVE statue refers to the iconic installation just northwest of Philadelphia City Hall. Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1976, sculpture, painted aluminum on stainless steel base, city of Philadelphia.
And while tourists came to pose with them, one of the members of this group held up a sign that said “CALL US BY OUR NAMES.” It just really struck us, watching young people, especially young Black organizers in Philadelphia, go to the monumental core of the city to point out systemic racism and other systems of violence. It was another reminder that the conversation we were having, it would not break new ground. It had to respond to the tensions, the pressures, and the points of view that were already happening.
Ken Lum: We didn’t feel that we were prescient or gifted with some preternatural ability to see things in advance. We tried to see things from the neighborhood level of the poor and disenfranchised. They have long recognized the truth about their relationship to the systems of representation that subjugate them. From that perspective, we were the opposite of prescient, but late in recognizing the relationship between monuments and subjugation. Where we were not late, as it turned out, was in our formalizing of an entity called Monument Lab, whose central purpose is to address these issues of monuments, memory, and social justice. We put it into a kind of discursive regime, if you will, that was very open-ended and allowed for the projection of these concerns. But certainly, in terms of the kind of observations that were at play in the urban environment, we thought we were late.
Rosten Woo: Obviously, Monument Lab has a topic, a thing that you’re focused on. But would you say that there’s a kind of a working method or perspective that is specific to this organization—as opposed to, say, how Dolores Hayden might do this kind of work? Is there a Monument Lab way of working?
Alliyah Allen: The first thing that comes to mind is something that Paul always says when we do a project: you can’t hide in public. What distinguishes Monument Lab is the engagement process, the activation of these spaces through something as simple as a research form on a clipboard and a Sharpie marker to ask people what they think. Just thinking about my positionality as a young Black girl from an urban area—Newark, New Jersey—and then doing a project like Monument Lab, I was like, “OK, hold on, I can’t hide. I can’t hide. I am here. I’m not from Philly, but I can look like I can be from certain parts of Philly. And people are going to come up to me and ask me what’s going on, because we are in public.” But the rewards from that are really beautiful because we’re able to continue the conversation. It’s building relationships with strangers.
LH: Ken, you were saying that you’ve developed this discursive regime. And our working group has also been very interested in questions of process. I know that Monument Lab has developed a five-step process, so maybe you can share some details of that process. The deeper question is, what was the trial and error—how did you decide that step number two wasn’t step number four?
PMF: We have now come to language that we utilize to move across our projects. This process includes five steps. Number one is to question: to start by digging into research about a statue, site, or public space. Two is connect: to organize and exchange ideas with stakeholders invested in places of memory. Three is unfix: to redefine the conversation about the past, present, and future of monuments. Four is to prototype: to build experimental platforms for contemporary art and participatory research. And number five is to report: to share findings, reflections, and new directions. So that’s where we are now. But the process of getting there, of course, was trial and error. We wanted to occupy the space of being a connector, to have one foot inside institutions and one foot out, to have our process matter as much as outcome, and to be very clear about what we could and could not accomplish. Part of what we are ultimately trying to do is to recognize that the questions that we ask each other may hold more value than coming up with a so-called single fix or best practice. Those are concepts that don’t really work for us.
KL: We see ourselves fundamentally as a democracy project, a democracy-generating project. We’re very much invested in expanding public space and how we define public spaces, and in fomenting dialogue about space. We are very difficult to define. For example, I write quite a bit, including in scholarly journals, and yet I’m also an artist. Whereas Paul is an academic who thinks like an artist. That fluidity, I think, is our strength.
Laurie Allen: There is a certain kind of social science research methodology that Monument Lab is both drawing from and resisting. There are ways in which that methodology is extractive. It is good at asking questions and not always good at reimagining where the decisions are made. As Alliyah and Ken have said, we aren’t forcing ourselves on anyone, but we’re also being open. We’re not hiding. The idea is that this is an exchange and not an extraction. I think that our work is always trying to help our communities imagine ways of making decisions that can operate radically differently. It’s trying to reimagine decision-making, but in a way that recognizes the tremendous brilliance that exists in communities in all kinds of ways. Just hearing what people keep saying and being like, “Well, maybe that’s the thing. Maybe we don’t need a new thing. We just need to do the thing people say.” This approach—I think monuments require it because they make such a claim about objectivity.
CH: Do you think of the projects you’re working on as having specific lifespans? How do you know how many projects you can take on at any given point? How do you think about that in terms of your capacity?
PMF: The words “Monument” and “Lab” are very heavy and sound official, but as of October 1, 2020, we just hired our first full-time employee. Thanks to generous support from the Mellon Foundation, we’ve been able to add capacity. In our very early stages, Monument Lab went quickly from being a classroom experiment to being a passion project to being a studio. What that’s meant over time is that we’ve gone from project to project with a group of people who were bonded together by a shared set of values and questions before there was ever an official organization. And so those things happened organically. There are a number of ways that people have tried to tackle the monument question, and a lot of times I think it comes down to, “Let’s fix this one monument. Let’s find this one monument that is a problem and we’ll get rid of it.” I almost think of it as like the Where’s Waldo? approach: “Let’s look in the crowd and find that racist, sexist monument, and let’s get rid of it.” It’s like, “No, no, no. It’s the whole crowd, actually, that we have to address—the whole picture, the whole scene.” What we believe is that relationships—especially with people who have been doing the work before there was a spotlight, before there was a formal structure—build an ecosystem. Cities, museums, universities can be part of that ecosystem, but they have to be careful and be wary of the role that they play, because they can gaslight the very people who have been pushing for change. For us, by having a relationship model and coming up with elements like our fellows program, we’re looking for ways to balance local knowledge and expertise with strategy and tactic that can be built across locations to create coalitions.
RW: I would love to get into some details. Could you lay out some concrete details of two or three specific projects, initiatives, or places you’ve worked?
PMF: I can share two: St. Louis and Newark. In St. Louis, we were asked by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation to do a research residency. They had an exhibition up about iconoclasm in monuments,03 Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt, Pew Arts Foundation exhibition, Mar. 22–Aug. 11, 2019, https://pulitzerarts.org/exhibition/striking-power.
and they wanted a public engagement project. So we would not be for that phase of the work producing a public artwork; instead, we were meant to do the thing that we really like to do, which is meet people where they are, theorize public space while in public space, and enter into official and unofficial conversations about civic memory. We went to 46 locations around the city to collect forms that asked a question: How would you map the monuments of St. Louis? And that project was framed as a research discovery phase that would end with a publication of a map and a data set.04 Monument Lab: Public Iconographies, 2019–2020, series, joint collaboration between Monument Lab and Pew Arts Foundation, https://pulitzerarts.org/program/monument-lab.
That led to a conversation with the Missouri History Museum to initiate a new historic marker program that was inspired by conversations our team was having. It was really a collaborative effort, but it lent itself to a number of outcomes that didn’t have to be simply, “Are we building a monument or not?” It instead responded to and helped build on a set of relationships and networks that Monument Lab and our collaborators will continue to utilize for years.
Similarly, in the city of Newark, with New Arts Justice, where Alliyah is based and our colleague Salamishah Tillet is the director, we co-curated a project in Newark’s Military Park. It featured four prototype artworks by Chakaia Booker, Jamel Shabazz, Manuel Acevedo, and Sonya Clark. Half of the members of that artist’s cohort were from Newark and half were invited from outside to give fresh eyes and perspectives. And it was centered around a monument [“Wars of America”] that’s part of a long-standing conversation.05 Gutzon Borglum, Wars of America, 1924, bronze on granite base, city of Newark.
It’s by Gutzon Borglum, who is best known for Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain [and was associated with the Ku Klux Klan]. He braids together white supremacy and Americana. We staged conversations around it. After that exhibition, titled “A Call to Peace,” the conversation has continued. A member of our curatorial team, fayemi shakur, is now the head of public art in Newark, and I’m going to sit on a committee that she’s convening. There’s this ongoing dynamic. The exhibition itself is done, but it’s constantly referenced as if it’s active. And I think that that is where that kind of art and research come together. We’ve seen it in Philadelphia, we’ve seen it in Newark, and we’ve seen it occasionally in other cities that we work in, where even though it’s a “temporary” installation, it’s an ongoing reference point for organizing and pushing the local status quo.
LA: I want to jump in on the research data part, for just a moment, to draw that out. In both of those cities, as we did in Philadelphia, we relied on a paper form. They were different, though, in each city. In Newark, the paper form asked, “What is a timely monument for the city of Newark?” In St. Louis, the question was, “How would you map the monuments of St. Louis?” And the reason that we switched to “map” was because of the geography of St. Louis and the importance of geography to St. Louis.
CH: Can you explain a little more what you mean by that, the importance of geography and mapping in St. Louis?
LA: Lines, in St. Louis, are overwhelming. I mean, every city is shaped by segregation and white supremacy, but in St. Louis, it just screams from the landscape. And then the confluence of the [Missouri and Mississippi] rivers, and the ways that St. Louis has a role in westward expansion, with this giant arch calling attention to that. We invited people to map St. Louis. We gathered 750 hand-drawn maps. We had conversations about how people would map the monuments. Not just the ones that do exist, but where are the places where monuments should be? And the number of people who included the arch—it was less than half. I completely agree with Paul, that absolutely the most important part is the conversations and connections, but also there is now a kind of rendering of the city landscape that includes the perspectives of people across the city—in tourist places and in places tourists would never go. It is designed to bring out the places that are underseen. So we made sure to include the places that people identified that have been erased from the landscape, the places that have been demolished. Or this is the place where there should be a monument to this thing that is gone. And then also things that should exist: there should be a monument to this important person, or there should be a monument to the riots in 1917. So we mapped a kind of imagined landscape, to help bring that landscape into being.
AA: I wanted to add something about Newark, about the engagement and the activation, and what “A Call to Peace” and having Monument Lab in that park did for the city. The conversation that it sparked in the space is beautiful to see happen. Manuel Acevedo, who also is from Newark, he did this interactive piece where he covered the monument “Wars of America” that Paul mentioned. He used all these different materials. We were outside with him in the park all day as he was trying on different materials. And you had kids running and kids trying to climb it. We were like, “Let’s be safe!” But we had all different generations of people who are from Newark, who love Newark, who have this long history with Newark, and we were bringing them into this space. And now they’re kind of reconsidering how they fit in it. And just me personally, being from Newark, I would go to Military Park all the time. But now I’m occupying this park in a different way. And that’s not just because this monument is here, but it’s because of the research practice that is activating the space. Along with the relationships that are built, we’re telling stories, we’re inviting people in, we’re listening to people. We’re showing them, “Hey, this is your space, too.”
LH: I have a question about materiality and how you deal with things that don’t have material form, let’s say like redlining. What is your experience with materiality in the constellation of cities that you work with? That might help us think about where Los Angeles fits in and where we might take this conversation. Los Angeles doesn’t have a history of Confederate monuments the way other cities do, but it still has a lot to reckon with, to reconcile.
KL: I think L.A. is unique. Its vast horizontal scale makes it unique, but also because it’s a model for all kinds of urban development all over the world. So I think it can function and serve as a kind of an exemplar for future thinking about civic spaces. Now, in terms of the question of materiality, you cited redlining, and I’d say that does take the form of materiality. The color of people’s skins is materiality. The conditions of the housing and the live experiences attached to houses is also materiality. You can go across a street and all of a sudden, the housing stock is better or worse. I note that certain L.A. narratives are changing or have changed to the point of altogether disappearing. Blue-collar L.A., for example, is minuscule compared to what it once was. There are no longer broad strata of the solidly blue-collar. Today, it is much more of a high-salary/low-wage environment. That also pertains to materiality. Brown-skinned people work the fields that deliver to high-end supermarkets. A huge section of downtown is occupied by the homeless. All that can be mapped as different tiers of social space.
AA: I also wanted to bring up movements, forms of resistance. In terms of Black Lives Matter, and before that Rodney King and the L.A. riots, L.A. is a central space for so much of Black resistance and Black life. And that plays out in sound, in music. That’s the incredible thing when you think about monuments, they’re not just limited to the physical form. Hip-hop culture and Black culture are very much grounded in L.A., that West Coast sound and how that’s resonated. The Nipsey Hussle procession—when Nipsey Hussle passed, it was monumental in the way that, nationwide, people responded to it. [For more on the Nipsey Hussle memorial procession, see the essay by Sahra Sulaiman elsewhere in this report.]
PMF: Those are all brilliant points. We just put out a publication in which we wrote that “the past is the most contested public space in America.”06 Paul M. Farber and Laurie Allen, Reflecting Authority, zine, Monument Lab in collaboration with the High Line Network Joint Art Initiative’s New Monuments for New Cities, Fall 2020.
It’s a provocation. But I think it gets to one part of your question, Leila, which is that Confederate “Lost Cause” memorials, I think, have been revealed to us as somewhat of a red herring, because they didn’t have to necessarily correspond to any local sites or histories. They were built as a propaganda campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in places honoring figures who may or may not have ever set foot there, as a part of a Gilded Age initiative to reinforce white terror against Black citizens seeking freedom and civil rights. The scholar Mabel Wilson says they’re not Confederate monuments—they’re American monuments. They were built by Americans, in American public spaces. Or in Richmond, Virginia, in Marcus-David Peters Circle, which is on Monument Avenue. This is the reclaimed space around what had been known as the circle surrounding the Robert E. Lee’s statue. It has become an intersectional, intergenerational space. It’s also an example of a landmark that was part of a white real estate development that was punctuated by monuments. The perspective to see that panoramically might be an entry point to a really powerful part of your question, which is how might we make a monument to segregation or to redlining? I think that question that you asked us, I would love for that same question to be asked in the City of L.A., both in practice, by people who are constituents of their own spaces, and by artists, scholars, thinkers in and outside formal institutions—people who’ve already been mapping new networks of knowledge about the city that don’t have to happen on a pedestal.
LA: That’s what I was going to say: that this question—I so want you to ask it of the people of L.A.
PMF: One thing we know is that history does not happen because some dude rolls into town on a horse and looks off into the distance. We know how complex our histories are, but we’ve settled on that approach so often. I mean, imagine if someone said to you: “Pick one photograph of your life to represent you.” That’s not what we do. We take a lot of pictures of ourselves because we know that we contain multitudes. Part of Monument Lab’s vision is that we actually need periods of prolonged questioning, experimentation, and prototyping in order to produce a next generation of monuments that won’t circle back to some of the same issues of power.
RW: It seems like when you read about monuments, often you hear about controversy—some ham-fisted controversy, something easily avoidable, some really unfortunate series of events that have unfolded. That is not what I associate with Monument Lab. How do you feel about controversy, which is so often tied up with discussion about monuments these days? Do you try to avoid it?
PF: I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “controversy.” I think about Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”07 Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Apr. 16, 1963.
where he says the biggest hurdle, the biggest obstacle in his work is not the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens’ Councils. It’s the white moderate who says that peace is the “absence of tension,” versus the positive production of justice. I’m thinking about the way the word “controversy” is utilized. If controversy means scandal or problem or cause for alarm, look, these monuments have been deeply controversial from the very get-go. Forget what they even depict individually. We have more monuments to enslavers than abolitionists. We have more monuments to Confederate generals than freedom fighters in many cities.
KL: I would only add that controversy is often exploited by those in power to maintain order. We don’t seek controversy. What we seek is to be listeners to the voices of subjugated peoples, the oppressed, the people who have been unacknowledged for so long. But even in the act of listening, we recognize that what we do might be controversial because we are giving heed to voices that, in the normal course of things, society normally never gives heed to.
CH: Our report is coming out of a mayor’s office, which makes it somewhat unusual. You’ve worked with a number of cities and city governments. What advice do you have for us?
PMF: I think it is important to start with the internal work, even as you’re imagining the ways to make a public imprint. What is it that you want to accomplish? A lot of cities don’t have a commemorative policy for who deserves a street name, a school name, let alone the monuments you’ve inherited and you’re trying to make sense of. That’s something that you might work toward. We have found that when we are working with a municipal agency, we’re thinking really closely with them. We’re in cahoots. But the difference between us and them is also really important. We can propose ideas and processes and even model things through art, through performative measures, that the city then can decide to incorporate in other ways. For example, we’re currently working with a state arts council, a historical commission, collaboratively on a lead-up to the American Revolution commemoration in 2026. It started with a conversation between the immediate decision-makers from those entities and has turned into an artist’s residency to shape what the project will be. That’s a brain trust. That’s not an RFP. That’s not an end point. And it’s been really meaningful to have that. I do think that there are ways, especially if you’ve built platforms for experimental work, where you don’t have to worry about whether it is going to make or break a mayor’s term. Like, is failure an option? In art, failure has to be an option. In community work, you don’t have that luxury.
The last thing I’ll say is about community engagement and exchange. Do you have a question that you would like help answering? Start there. Ask that in a public forum. You may not ask the public directly to design a monument, but you could ask the public, “What are the stories that are meaningful to you?” You don’t promise them that you’ll build on every single idea that comes in. But you say, “We’re going to share with you as we go, and this is what we’re going to do first.” I think this report is a great example of that. Because it can lead to other things. We’ve talked to some municipalities that have said, “Look, we have to do a community engagement step.” And I say, “You have to? What is it that you’re trying to find out? What do you want to know?” And at times, they don’t have an answer. That’s empty effort. Instead, think about how you meet people at a point not just where it’s good for them, but it’s actually also good for you, so it can accomplish something or answer some key questions for you. Then you can have these moments of sincere exchange, moments that build not just different outcomes but stronger relationships over time.