LONG BEACH, Calif. — For the better part of the past year, artist lauren woods has been working on American Monument, a multi-media installation addressing police brutality and the killing of African Americans by police officers. The centerpiece of the monument (woods is adamant that it not be referred to as an exhibition) consists of a grid of 25 record players, each holding a record related to one of these deaths: Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and several others. The audio on these records is gathered from police reports, court transcripts, and bystander recordings. Flanking this central piece are 25 boxes of documents related to the cases, as well as blown-up transcripts of testimony by George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and Darren Wilson, the police officer responsible for Brown’s death.
American Monument was set to open this past Sunday at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach. However, six days earlier, on September 11, the museum’s director Kimberli Meyer was abruptly fired from her position. No explanation was provided by the school administration. More than the museum’s director, Meyer was a collaborator on the project, who invited woods to create a work for the museum as soon as she was appointed two years ago. “She was the first artist I called,” Meyer told me.
The tension her firing caused was apparent on Sunday, when several attendees interrupted opening remarks by Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, Dean of the College of the Arts, to ask why she did not include Meyer among the list of people she thanked.
Following introductory remarks, woods opened by describing her initial enthusiasm for the project. “I saw the potential for a unique collaboration in creating the monument in proximity to young people who are are actively discovering and staking out their place in the world, young people who are trying to understand what power and authority is.” She then played the record containing audio from the cell phone video taken by Diamond Reynolds as her boyfriend Philando Castile sat bleeding to death next to her on July 6, 2016, after being shot by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Several attendees wept as Reynolds’s words echoed through the stark space.
Woods then addressed Meyer’s absence. “Cal State Long Beach removed my primary and most committed collaborator and institutional steward, someone integral to the existence of American Monument,” she said. “To remove a key partner for this project from the directorship of the museum at this critical point and actually expect this project to continue indicates a profound lack of understanding about what this ‘work’ actually is … This is not an exhibition of objects. This is not a show of conceptual play. American Monument is a transformative process that wants to tackle the culture of police brutality through cultural production. It can only exist through collective authorship.”
“The University Art Museum, College of the Arts, and Cal State Long Beach, have kneecapped a project that is focusing on black lives and police brutality. They have killed a leadership initiative whose focus was to not only address white supremacy but to disrupt it. They have rejected the invitation for collective authorship.
“As it stands, the UAM is not capable of hosting this iteration of American Monument. American Monument can only resume its co-creative process when restored, which can only happen with Kimberli Meyer retained as director of UAM.
“And so with great disappointment and profound sadness, I hereby declare the process to continue building American Monument paused.” The entire statement can be found here and is also installed at the museum.
Woods then turned off the record player she was standing at, as four other women stepped up onto the platform and turned off the rest. She exited the gallery, leaving a stunned audience behind.
When reached by phone on Monday night, woods made it clear that the work was not pulled, only paused until Meyer’s firing can be addressed. Woods envisions this as a multi-venue project, not as a singular piece, which will grow and change at each host institution. “I want to see a restorative process taking place instead of them just escorting her off campus. The work cannot go on without the leadership to make sure it happens.”
As for the reason and timing of Meyer’s firing, the university administration has not offered any explanation. However, Dean Parker-Jeannette released a statement on Monday countering the claim that Meyer’s dismissal was sudden, stating: “While I cannot comment on personnel matters, I can say this decision was part of a longer-term process.” A source who wished to remain anonymous echoed this sentiment, saying her firing was not related to the monument, but to performance issues as director. Parker-Jeannette and College of the Arts Administrative Services Manager Chanel Acker will manage the museum until an interim director is chosen. Meyer says she will appeal the decision.
According to woods, there has been tension between Meyer and museum staff almost since she arrived in 2016, largely based around her unofficial mandate to address difficult issues of race and power. “My mission was to try to really look hard at what it would mean to stop propping up white supremacy, and to use a museum practice to see what that would look like,” Meyer told me.
“She doesn’t have typical leadership style,” woods said. “She had vision meetings with the staff, addressing what it would mean to have an anti-racist framework. A lot of them resisted. A lot of tension began with her trying to tackle racial justice from the micro level, not abstractly. It was then communicated [from the administration] that everything needed to be centered around art.”
Although woods was picked two years ago to have an exhibition at the UAM, the content of that show was not solidified until she made a site visit last December, and chose to initiate her monument project there. Woods said that once the administration learned that the work would be based around police brutality, they became concerned that it would invite backlash from alt-right groups. “In their fear of that, they started to micromanage and suffocate things,” woods told me. As an example, she cited their decision to limit the audio playback to inside the gallery instead of being broadcast on external speakers as well.
“They’ve had audio that had been in the plaza, but they censored this,” she said. “Out of their fear, the university is not supporting this. I thought, ‘can I work with a university that won’t stand up against police brutality?’”
According to woods, representatives from the Long Beach Police Department previewed the work recently and raised concerns about any video pertaining to a shooting in the local area in which officers might be able to be identified. She informed them that there was no video, only audio, in the work, and that seemed to allay their concern, she said.
A few weeks ago, woods said the administration asked for transcripts of all the audio on the records. She provided those transcripts last Monday, and Meyer was fired the next day. “I believe it was tied to those transcripts,” she says.
“It was shocking to be pulled away six days before the opening,” Meyer said. “I asked, ‘why?’ and they said, ‘we don’t have to tell you.’ The timing can’t help but feel meaningful.”
Amanda Fruta, a representative for the museum said they will support woods’s decision. “The University Art Museum is supportive of lauren woods’s choice as an artist and is committed to building a more restorative collaborative practice with her,” she said. “Programming related to this project will continue. We will remain open as an institution.”
According to woods, however, the pause extends to any programming related to the monument. Catherine “Scoti” Scott was recently hired as a Curator of Public Engagement & Participatory Practices, and had been working with woods and Meyer on programs intended to engage with the student body as well as the greater Long Beach community. These ranged from films and discussion groups to inviting linguistic experts to explore how “framing the narrative with specific references changes outcome,” she said, citing the difference between “victim” versus “suspect” in testimony. For now though, that will all have to wait.
“We can’t even get to the point of discussing police brutality,” says woods, “if we can’t consider institutional violence.”
Update, September 19, 11:15am: Terri Carbaugh, CSULB Spokesperson sent the following statement to Hyperallergic:
It is important to understand that the departure of Kimberli Meyer is unrelated to the exhibit’s contents. We view our campus as an ideal place for important — and sometimes difficult — discussions to take place. While Ms. Meyer’s artistic vision is supported by the College of the Arts, the day-to-day and long-term operation of a university museum demands more.
Regarding the request for transcripts — During Tuesday’s presentation at the University Theater, lauren woods herself described the recordings as ‘upsetting’ to her and her research assistant, and she shared how listening to them caused her emotional and physical pain. Campus officials sought transcripts not to curtail free speech or artistic expression, but to gain a clearer understanding if the campus would need to invest in counseling staff who could assist any student who might experience an emotional trigger as a result of the intensity of the exhibit. There is no link between the request for transcripts and the termination of Ms. Meyer. The decision to terminate Ms. Meyer had accrued over longer period of time.
lauren woods: American Monument at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach (1250 N Bellflower Blvd, Long Beach, Calif.) is currently on pause.