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The weeks following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Philly’s own Dominique Rem’mie Fells — and subsequent protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism — have fundamentally altered the city’s landscape, making the lessons of Monument Lab even more relevant than in 2017. In lieu of Confederate statues, Philadelphia’s monuments celebrated more recent acts of white violence: for 22 years, Frank Rizzo — the city’s notoriously racist and anti-LGBTQ “top cop” mayor from the 1970’s — leered at citizens in the square across from City Hall.
Under current Mayor Kenney’s direction, the statue vanished in the dead of night on June 3, following nearly a week of protests. It was a cloak and dagger affair, sweeping under the rug years of Kenney’s own stalemate with those demanding the statue’s removal. The very next day, Mural Arts Philadelphia announced it would decommission a three-story tall mural of Rizzo in the Italian Market. The speed of its removal was shocking, given that like Kenney, the organization had failed to act for years.
Rizzo loomed large during Monument Lab’s 2017 phase. He is directly referenced multiple times in the book, especially in relation to artist Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture “All Power To All People,” which consists of an 8-foot-tall, steel and aluminum Afro pick. Its handle features a clenched black fist — a symbol of the 1970s Black Power Movement. Installed in the same square as the Rizzo monument, its proximity was perceived as an inherent challenge to Rizzo’s ideology.
The necessary counterpart of dismantling racist monuments is the elevation of the histories and symbols often omitted from public space — of Black and Indigenous people, as well as immigrants, women, and queer people. This is a mammoth undertaking. As Ken Lum describes in his essay, “Memorializing Philadelphia as a Place of Crisis and Boundless Hope,” it was not until 2017 that civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto became the first African American honored with a monument in city limits, even though African Americans comprise over 40% of Philadelphia’s population. This occurred 316 years after the city of Philadelphia was formally established. Lum also astutely notes that only two monuments in Philadelphia are of women: Joan of Arc and Bostonian Quaker Mary Dyer, neither Philadelphians and both white.
This absence of women in public space was the subject of Sharon Hayes’ project “If They Should Ask,” an installation of empty pedestals engraved with Philadelphian women’s names. As Lum concludes, “our departure point must be from the view that the city is a place of many voices that deserve to be heard.”
In the essay “Reading Imagined Monuments,” research director Laurie Allen points to how the monumental figure of the lone (white) man on horseback has become so synonymous with exclusion that most Philadelphians pass by without a glance. As Allen explains, such monuments omit the painful complexity of Philadelphia’s true history. Her essay describes how Monument Lab sought to begin the work of rectifying this tremendous lack of representation for non-male and non-white versions of history by obtaining data that truly represents Philadelphians. By asking passersby “what is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia,” Monument Lab obtained answers as practical as “Monument To The Black American Soldiers” to a “pop-up reading room” on wheels, to jazz performances in the park.
Allen’s essay breaks down the messy work of cataloguing answers to such an open-ended question. Rather than rejecting the complexity of these answers, which include rambling paragraphs and purely conceptual proposals, Allen insists upon the value of carefully sorting this trove of public opinion:
“We need forms of data and networks of information that don’t simply reinforce the power of the powerful and we need to imagine systems that optimize care, complexity, and justice over efficiency in the service of capitalism.
Hers is a utopian rendition of data analysis — as are the artworks of Monument Lab’s 2017 iteration, which sought to reimagine the function, value, and history of public art. This research project is an artwork unto itself, producing few concrete answers but acting as a poetic prototype and a path forward in the movement for better monuments, and this book proposes we broaden our conventional, static expectations of such an object’s form to better provoke public engagement and care.
Such “speculative monuments” are no longer relegated to the purview of arts organizations, but a vital part of protest and public discourse. In 2020, Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia is not merely a living handbook as the publisher suggests, but an uncanny prophecy.
Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia (Temple University Press, 2019), edited by Paul M. Farber and Ken Lum, is available on Bookshop.
Every utopia is a social experiment, the artist suggests in this commission for the Performa performance art biennial, and we’re ultimately the guinea pigs.
“You can’t live in a house that’s built upon your back.” This is one of the more memorable phrases spoken by the scripted lovers of Tschabalala Self’s Sounding Board, what Performa describes in its promotional materials as an “experimental play.” That phrase, uttered by one romantic partner to the other, operates as guidance, warning, dictate,…
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