Monument Lab

Paul Farber and Ken Lum on reimagining symbols and systems of justice

Tania Bruguera, Monument to New Immigrants, 2017, wood, paint, clay, steel. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photo: Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Over the last few weeks, public statues and monuments representing the violent histories of slavery, colonization, and racism have been defaced, toppled, and disassembled through the direct actions of global protestors. Since 2012, the Philadelphia-based art and history studio Monument Lab, founded by curator and historian Paul Farber and artist Ken Lum, has worked with individual practitioners, museums, and municipal governments in cities across the US and Europe to reconsider the role of monuments in public space. Here, Farber and Lum discuss Monument Lab’s research-driven process and the future of public monuments.

AT MONUMENT LAB, we try to theorize public space in public space by engaging artists, activists, students, and municipal agencies. We operate as a research think tank, a public art studio, and in some ways as R&D for civic agencies. While we are steeped in conversations about policy and practice and are part of many networks of collaboration, all of this is guided by the notion that art is a force for reckoning and for reflection. Our work over the course of the last eight years all emerges from the idea that monuments are not timeless and universal. They have an aura of permanence, but to keep them up requires maintenance and mindsets. Monuments have never spoken for the full body politic, but they occupy important purchase in a city’s domain. The spirit of the Lab is to interrogate what we’ve inherited from the past—the histories that seem to be in perpetuity, but in fact, aren’t actually fixed. In so doing, the histories that have been forgotten, ignored, or suppressed come to the fore.

When we started in 2012, we were teaching classes about monuments and realized that the questions our students were asking each other didn’t fit in a classroom and in fact, challenged the disciplinary character of academia. For our first exhibition, we moved to the Philadelphia City Hall Courtyard—a crossroads of the city—with an installation by the late artist Terry Adkins and a research program. In the fall of 2017, we presented a set of ephemeral prototype monuments across Philadelphia. Our prototypes conjured the power of monumentality but also suggested that all monuments are in a sense, prototypes. They don’t last forever, although we are taught to believe they are eternal in the values they express, and they’re not propped up without the invisible infrastructure of the status quo.

Our approach is to reject the assumption that the most pertinent and powerful history of a city lives in marble or bronze. Statuary is but one slice of a city’s broader sense of itself, both in how it imagines and idealizes a civic identity and also suppresses the unknown, unreconciled strivings and wounds of its past. When you read a city’s history as an agonism between what gets commemorated amid the ongoing struggle for full democracy and justice, the landscape opens up in broad and compelling ways.

Karyn Olivier, The Battle is Joined, 2017, acrylic mirror, wood, screws, and adhesive. Vernon Park, Philadelphia. Photo: Mike Reali/Mural Arts Philadelphia.

More city governments are beginning to realize that there were no criteria established for who deserves a monument, other than as a reflection of the expression of influence and power. Therefore, the people who had access to power—largely white male property owners—were making history in their own image. Traditionally, most purported plans to engage more democratic forms of representation through monuments failed; they instead mirrored exploitative economic transactions. If someone was an enslaver, practiced police brutality, has caused harm against women, LGBTQ people, or immigrants, does that disqualify them from the public sphere?

This is the reckoning we’re in. If you are a municipal agency or a museum or an academic institution, the time has already passed for you to do that internal reckoning. On the flip side, the past ten years have seen a wave of artists, activists, and organizers reimagine the next generation of monuments. We have collaborated with dozens of artists, including Karyn Olivier, Tania Bruguera, and Marisa Williamson, among others, who experiment with the form and provocative force of monuments. Our Monument Lab Fellows include practitioners such as Alisha Wormsley (“There Are Black People in the Future”), A Long Walk Home’s Girl/Friends (“#SayHerName: The Rekia Boyd Memorial Project”), and Joel Garcia (“Decolonial Initiative Task Force”). And now is their time to help guide us into our next chapter.

Monuments as traditionally conceptualized are thought of as the endpoint of a historical event or period. What if we thought of them as a continuation, as the bridge between what happened and how time falls forward? Or as discontinuous eruptions? Time is not linear. The monument marks a site of struggle, but also of possibility. Rather than rushing to fill the now-empty spaces where racist or oppressive monuments once stood, the next era of monuments should draw attention to the connections between symbols and systems of justice. If the parameters are money, time, and the need to respond to issues of repair, a new generation of artists can help us come up with new forms of memory and meaning in public. How do we really see monuments as part of a broader reckoning with how the body politic operates and how we can live with one another?