Philadelphia’s Monument Lab Asks, “What’s Right for Public Space?”

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Michelle Angela Ortiz, “Sequimos Caminando (We Keep Walking)” (photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts)

Five years ago, Philadelphia curators Paul Farber and Ken Lum launched a speculative project called Monument Lab to ask Philadelphia artists and residents a complex, yet necessary, question: What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia? In 2015 the group invited the public to City Hall square, where a makeshift classroom, designed by the late Terry Adkins, functioned both as a monument to Philadelphia schools and as a creative space to consider this question. This autumn Monument Lab undertook its fullest realization yet with a new urgency, as the topic of monuments became a lightning rod for controversy and scrutiny post-Charlottesville. “This [conversation] started before the recent spike in monument removals, though has now evolved in important ways,” Farber said. “We have a hunger to learn about our related goal of unearthing the next generation of monuments in ways that honor social justice, solidarity, and alternative uses of the past.” Now partnered with Mural Arts — arguably Philly’s most powerful engine for public art — the project has installed ten “prototype monuments” across the city from September 16 to November 19, each created by an artist or artist team seeking to answer this central question.

Monument Lab’s roster of artists on this project changed significantly after it was announced in February 2017; among the dropouts were Ai Wei-Wei and acclaimed Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss. Despite this, the roll-out of Monument Lab earlier this month was met with excitement and curiosity about the ambitious project. The majority of participating artists are based in Philadelphia, and feature a range of media and approach, from video artist Marisa Williamson to the sculptors of RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residence). All of the prototype monuments explore and challenge the concepts of remembrance and paying homage, focusing on different elements of what Philadelphia is about. “Whether in memory or in future-minded iterations,” Farber explains, “these monuments will carry significance if they can influence the ways we think about monuments in this city: as statements of power, presence, belonging, and in need of renewal.”

So far, the piece that has garnered the most media attention is Hank Willis Thomas’s “All Power to All People,” an eight-foot-tall gleaming black Afro pick with a clenched fist for a handle. “Power” is installed in provocatively close proximity to an existing statue of controversial former mayor and police commissioner of Philadelphia Frank Rizzo. In recent months there have been calls for the Rizzo statue’s removal, due to his persecution of Philly’s African American community. Acts of vandalism against the statue event prompted the Philadelphia Police Department to stand guard over it for several days. This has imbued Thomas’s piece with an additional level of urgency. (City government is currently reviewing proposals to remove the Rizzo statue). Although the location for “Power” was chosen a year ago, and with no explicit consideration of the Rizzo statue (or direct knowledge of the controversy that currently surrounds it), the piece openly engages a consistent and prevalent misunderstanding of political movements that support black voices and identity. Thomas addressed this misperception at a talk for Monument Lab’s launch in the City Hall courtyard: “This idea sometimes that black power is supposed to be a negation of other people’s power – rather than an elevation of all of us to an equal level — is forgotten about the Black Panther movement.” The physicality of “Power” is inviting and engaging, with its shimmering surface and spindly comb teeth — the total opposite of Rizzo’s domineering bulk descending the stairs.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas with his monument, “Power to All People” (photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts)

Although not a direct call to action, Karyn Olivier’s “The Battle is Joined” approaches the question of what might be done with existing monuments to update their contemporary resonance. Olivier turns “The Battle of Germantown,” a monolithic rectangular monument in Vernon Park commemorating the 1777 conflict, into a dynamic, mysterious physical space that pulls its surroundings into a new, amalgamated monument to the present moment. Surrounded by a full-scale box made of mirrored Plexiglas, the original monument is turned into a shimmering, reflective void. The monument is almost invisible from some angles, mirroring both a dense green canopy of leaves and a bustling but economically depressed strip of Germantown Avenue bordering the park. Altering the face of this often-overlooked monument to early American history to make it an inclusive reflection of the present community has particular resonance for Olivier, who lives in Germantown and has spent a lot of time discussing the monument with her neighbors. Olivier paraphrased a comment she heard from one during an artist talk at University of the Arts: “If the city is willing to spend this money on this park and this neighborhood, maybe they realize we’re still here, maybe they’re seeing us.”

Karyn Olivier, “The Battle is Joined” (photo by Karyn Olivier for Hyperallergic)

Many of the monuments pay tribute to elements of Philadelphia that are often forgotten, yet remain foundational to its development as a city. In Society Hill’s Washington Square, Kaitlin Pomerantz’s “On the Threshold (Salvaged Stoops)” calls attention to the rapidly changing landscape of the city by recreating a somewhat innocuous — yet much beloved — ubiquitous piece of architecture: the front step. Pomerantz temporarily replaces a row of park benches with stoops of various shapes and sizes, each rebuilt using materials from demolished buildings salvaged from the waste stream. While the project is immediately enticing (“Everybody knows what to do with a stoop,” Pomerantz said of park-goers who unquestioningly accepted their presence by sitting on them as soon as they were installed) it tackles a major issue for this old city: the protection of historical buildings and sites in the face of rapid development. The installation of heavy slabs of rock also serves as a reflection on the original role of Washington Square, as a potter’s field for the local African-American community.  By pulling what would be lost elements of architecture — pieces of marble, brick, and brownstone — from salvage yards, and working with a local bricklayers’ union to re-form the stoops, Pomerantz holistically embraces the form, function, and creation of monument, while simultaneously paying homage to a beloved element of architecture and symbol of urban community.

Kaitlin Pomerantz, “On tbe Threshold” (photo by Kaitlin Pomerantz for Hyperallergic)

Some of the prototype monuments are ephemeral, composed of light and sound. An animation by Michelle Angela Ortiz honoring mothers incarcerated at Berks Detention Center, entitled “Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking),” is projected bi-weekly onto the face of City Hall. Some are interactive, like Kara Crombie’s “Sample Philly,” a sound bank of samples from Philadelphia musicians that is also a programmable loop station where visitors can make their own songs. But all of them challenge our fundamental understanding of monuments and public art, and the very function of a “monument.” Visiting the sites of installation is as much about seeing the physical work as people-watching; the pieces transform the landscape of the parks they inhabit, and locals investigate these new objects with curiosity and interest. Sharon Hayes’s “If They Should Ask,” a cluster of empty platforms intended to serve as vacant reminders of the lack of representation of notable Philadelphia women in the city’s roster of monuments, often hosts children jumping from one plinth to the other. In memorializing absence and vacancy, the monument (intentionally or otherwise) invites living Philadelphians to fill the void. In the City Hall courtyard, Mel Chin’s “Two Me” proposes this idea more literally: the viewer is directly invited to become the statue atop one of two matching plinths, following a winding ramp to arrive at the top of one of the pedestals, each labeled “Me.”

Mel Chin’s “Two Me,” with City Council members Mark Squilla and Helen Gym (photo by Samantha Mitchell for Hyperallergic)

In addition to the prototype monuments, Monument Lab has established mobile Monument Lab hubs that invite the public to submit proposals for monuments. This collection of data streams to an installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (where visitors can see it accumulate live in a viewing room) and will be analyzed in a “final report” that Monument Lab will present in 2018. “When we rush to ‘solve’ monumental dilemmas we cut out the creative process,” Farber explained, “as well as meaningful modes of remediation.” He sees this multi-phase approach as an important element of the project’s ultimate goal: “to unearth the next generation of monuments in this city.”

But even as Monument Lab examines public art, new permanent monuments are going up that reflect changing views on what deserves to be memorialized. On September 26, Philadelphia unveiled a permanent statue of civil rights activist Octavius Catto — the first monument dedicated to an African American on public land in Philadelphia. Catto fought for and won the desegregation of Philadelphia’s horse-drawn trolley cars in 1869, and was murdered on his way to vote on election day two years later. A sculpture of Catto, mid-stride with arms outstretched, now occupies the southwest corner of City Hall. While monuments everywhere are currently under a critical gaze, their future — at least in Philadelphia — looks more inclusive. “We get a sense of the hierarchies of history,” Farber said. “In this city, there are statues that punctuate so many of our public spaces. When you look closer you can see the gaps.”

The Monument Lab project is on view through November 19. More info here.

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