On October 15, as part of our Shelf Life series of virtual events, Paul Farber (Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia) discussed his work as a co-founder of The Monument Lab, which works with community members to reimagine public spaces through stories of social justice and equity; with Justin Reid, director of Community Initiatives at Virginia Humanities. Watch the recording of the event here and read the transcript below:
SARAH LAWSON: Hello and welcome to “Shelf Life” from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring livestreamed author events every Thursday at noon. I’m Sarah Lawson, assistant director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. In a moment, I’ll hand the program over to our speakers but first a couple notes: There will be time for questions, so please share yours on Facebook or Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your Zoom window or the Closed Captions function in your Facebook video. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events.
Now, I’m extremely pleased to introduce Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab. He is author of “A Wall of Our Own: An American History of the Berlin Wall” and co-editor of “Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia.” He serves as Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Public Art & Space at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome, Paul.
Joining Paul today is Justin Reid, a rural Farmville Virginian, public historian, and museum educator who is passionate about digital humanities and place-based learning. As state director of Community Initiatives at Virginia Humanities, he helps fund and promote cultural sustainability partnerships across Virginia. Welcome, Justin.
Today’s featured book is “Monument Lab,” a book exploring the work done by the nonprofit organization Monument Lab in collaboration with community members, to work to reimagine public spaces through stories of social justice and equity. “Monument Lab has taken the current controversies of public art and the future place of monuments and creatively engaged the public in serious and often playful ways. The organization leads the nation in working to achieve cities where public art is embraced by all, and this book reflects their many unique stories,” says Elizabeth Goldstein, president of The Municipal Art Society of New York.
Paul, Justin, thank you so much for joining us today. Tell us more about Monument Lab.
JUSTIN REID: Hey, Paul.
PAUL FARBER: Hi, Justin.
JUSTIN REID: This is a long time coming.
PAUL FARBER: That’s right.
JUSTIN REID: I’m happy we finally got to this point. We were supposed to have this conversation back in March and I remember being very optimistic that maybe the Book Festival would happen. I remember messaging you, “Okay, this could be the backup plan.” The next day, of course, we got the news.
PAUL FARBER: Yes but, you know what? We are here now. It is mind-bending to go back and think how that happened. If you said that we would be still connecting like this now, I would not have known it. Now just really grateful for the way that the Book Festival has continued the conversations. We look forward to coming back. One of the first books I ever worked on was presented at the Book Festival back in 2013. The book “This is the Day: The March on Washington”. No, we are coming back.
JUSTIN REID: Thank you for that. I was also thinking about all of the news that has occurred here in Virginia with the monument removal. I think there was a message I sent you, I don’t even remember, asking, “Are you working on another book? Maybe 2022 we could get you to come to the Festival? The monuments might not be here by the time we finally get to do this.” Obviously, that is not the case in this conversation. It’s more important than ever I would say. I feel like a lot of the conversations I have heard around monuments have been kind of targeted more towards university audiences. You hear a lot of artists, academics and scholars coming together. Talking among themselves, about these issues. I wanted to open up our conversation a little bit more and so I sent you 15 terms that I would like you to define. I want you to do it in five minutes.
PAUL FARBER: Is this a lightning round?
JUSTIN REID: Yeah, this is a lightning round of definitions just so we can make this conversation as accessible as possible. And I also realize that some terms that are used by designers and architects are used in a different way by everyday citizens thinking about these issues. Maybe we can see how many we can cover as quickly as possible. The first word I gave you was “monument.” What is your definition of what a monument is?
PAUL FARBER: So, for Monument Lab, we define monument as a statement of power and presence in public. A statement of power and presence in public. We came up with that definition to incorporate bronze, marble, stone monuments, but also the ways that people imprint history and art around them, through poetry, through music, through light, through activism. With the idea that if you have the time, the money and the power to build a big stone or bronze monument you do, and if you don’t you gather next to a monument that exists or build your own to make your presence felt and amplify your voice.
JUSTIN REID: That is broader than what we typically think when we describe monuments now. I see you often put the word “speculative” in front of “monument.” Can you break that down a little bit? What you mean by a speculative monument or a speculation?
PAUL FARBER: So, to be speculative is a future-making vision. When we say speculate, it is something you say in everyday conversation, like when you speculate about this. Let me do a thought experiment. Let me try this out together with you, or the people around you. But the term “speculation”, when it is used in cities is often by real estate developers or preservationists who make decisions about what matters, and who matters, and how that affects how we build and preserve in a city. We like to take that power back and put it in the everyday person to say that if you’re going to speculate on what matters, as a future-making vision, also do it to incorporate and value our history and our past and make the past, present and future go together powered by that imagination.
JUSTIN REID: Number three, “memorial” or “memorialization.” Can you break that down for us?
PAUL FARBER: Look, there are a lot of folks out there who want to split between monument and memorial and I think in lot of classrooms, it’s a great distinction. A lot of times they blur. I think a memorial, whether it is formal or informal is a place, or means, that we come to terms with loss. Some people do that in big war memorials, or society functions. A lot of times you don’t have the time to wait to grieve. Memorial can be protest. Memorial can be shrine. Memorial can be making space in conversation or in person for what we have lost. You know, in this moment of the pandemic, memorial is happening at the same time as we fight for justice, as we fight for representation, as we fight for resources.
JUSTIN REID: Another term we are hearing more often is “site of conscience.” Can you connect that to monuments and memorial? What does that mean when you talk about conscience?
PAUL FARBER: A site of conscience is a place of memory where there’s an active effort to fight erasure or silence. That can operate a number of different ways. That could be a marker. That could be a statue. That could be a program. Of course, history happens everywhere. You don’t need to have just cobblestones, or a spotlight, or a historic marker to say this is where something important happened. A side of conscience is a reminder for us to remember actively to make sure the past doesn’t get stuck in the past, but is tripping us up in really productive ways, or bringing us in the present.
JUSTIN REID: I am going to skip around a little bit. You are doing well. I’m going to challenge you a little bit more as we switch it up. We talk about public space. We also talk about public history. We talk about public memory. Public art also. We’re talking about all of these things – isn’t it always public, or not? Can you break that down and what it means when you put “public” in front of space, history, memory, and art?
PAUL FARBER: I think about this a lot. Sometimes I will say public art, public history, public memory. What it’s not is just things that happen outside, or things that happen where crowds gather. For me from all of those things when you put the word “public” in front. And let’s…the cousins – public education, public health, there is an ethos behind it. There is an ethos that we share our faiths, where we share resources. Where we acknowledge that those shared faiths and resources have not always been doled out equally. There is some kind of effort that is really thinking about the commons – what we hold in common. It is of course in distinction to “private” – private space, private property.
I think memory is an interesting one. For a society, memory that relates to American history is fundamentally personal. It’s also fundamentally, in some way touched upon and shared. A lot of times when we’re talking about public space, public memory, we are looking at the boundary lines between the private space, or the private property and those that we share. Again, it’s all about an ethos system. Just because art is outside doesn’t mean it is public. For me, it is about having the values of finding common ground and also recognizing the lines and legacies of division.
JUSTIN REID: That was really impressive. Thank you, Paul.
PAUL FARBER: Thank you. Trying.
JUSTIN REID: You are doing great. Another term that I shared with you, I guess this is a two-fer. We all hear of designers, artists, talking about “program” and “activate.” For me, we talk about memory. My memory of program is sitting at church with my grandma and her forcing me to fold pieces of paper to give out as people came in. You use program as a verb and activate as an associate for program. Can you break that down a little bit? When we program a space or we activate a space what exactly are we doing?
PAUL FARBER: You know, I think about this a lot and I was just having a conversation about this this morning. Of course, activating a space means putting time, attention, and resources into things that people in the public could gather around. Even in the moment of pandemic that could be an event. That could be a kind of digital feature. For me, there is another part of this which is programming and activating is trying to meet people, or meet objects in public where they are and working with what you have. To activate a space, I hope, is not to pretend that it is a tabula rasa, is a blank slate. It is instead to recognize the rhythms and rituals that exist at that land, right? If you’re putting on a project and on usual rush hour days, people walk in and around for work, that is part of your job of programming. If you activate a space, there is no public space that is neutral. Instead, you are in some way, whether you acknowledge it or not, you are working with a kind of ongoing take.
I remember early on, a public art officer in Philadelphia had said to me, “You know, technically the public owns this space but, actually, people feel like they own it personally. Whenever you get in their way, give them something to come in.” I think there is a split sometimes between the terminology of place-making versus place-keeping. I’m a fan of place-keeping or at least acknowledging the place is complicated and you’re never working with a blank slate so what are the relationships and investments that people have. What can you bring to it acknowledging, “Hey, I am an artist, I am a historian. I want to add a layer. These are terms or ways that I want to invite you to be part of my work or I want to meet you and learn more.”
JUSTIN REID: Thank you. I have a few more here. This might be kind of the level three of the lightning round. Can you define “heritage”. This is a term we hear thrown around quite a bit. And people often conflate it with history. What does heritage mean for you?
PAUL FARBER: Well, first of all, I want to say that I like this lightning round. Any time you talk with Justin, you have to step your game up no matter what. Especially it’s happening now. I want to share an understanding and I don’t believe that I have the only understanding, but it is actually analogous to my understanding of heritage. Heritage, to me, is a set of stories, a set of practices that come to describe what we know about the past. I want to say they are a set, or a series. I don’t believe even within any one community group there is one story. Sometimes we say, “That is a heritage site.” I want us to think about heritage as a collection. Heritage is a collection that may include conflicts. Heritage may include beautiful things that complement and build on one another. I also think about the word heritage, in terms of the ways that people have been critically unpacking it and pushing it the last few years.
When the Southern Property Law Center did their study of an inventory of Confederate Lost Cause monuments built over the last 100 or so years, they use the word “heritage” not to talk about something that was intact, like contents of a time capsule; but instead about a collection of stories, in that case monuments, names, that have been utilized for future-making projects, right? In that case, segregation, subjugation, displacement, and policing. I think heritage has to be seen as a collection. as opposed to one solid thing, one solid story, one solid past. It is what happened and it is what is said to have happened. It is a beautiful amalgamation, and also not always beautiful. Sometimes it is trauma. The things we are working through. And still dealing with today.
JUSTIN REID: I really like that. I haven’t heard it described that way. It’s a collection, right? It’s dynamic and it evolves. So many different parts to heritage versus history which we know is something that is singular, that did occur. Heritage is a little bit more, it’s a little bit more interpretive, I guess.
PAUL FARBER: I would say history, too. In English we use the word “history” to both talk about what happened in the past, and the way we wrote it. Other languages have other kinds of separations, right? I think “story” is so fundamentally part of the word history, let alone the word “his” which gives you another distinction, right? I think history is the past and it is also the way that we remember the past. It’s a way we shape the past. I think, for me included, we grew up with an idea that history is something that fit behind museum glass and was fixed, and I more realize history is the part where it collides. Where the glass breaks. Where it confronts you. Where you are haunted. You are captivated in other ways. I like that idea of actually all of these things are about collections and how we come to terms with them over time. Even as we are trying to recover and understand what happened in the past and how we got here.
JUSTIN REID: Perfect. I’m going to combine two words here because I think they just go well together. Can you give us your definition for a “Lost Cause” and “white supremacy”?
PAUL FARBER: Okay. Lost Cause was a narrative, but also a set of public policies and public actions perpetuated to whitewash the legacy of the Civil War. To diminish the role of emancipation, and the legacies of enslavement. In favor of holding on to, and even increasing upon white racist rule, white economic development, and kind of operated in all kinds of ways. Of course, monuments dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans happen all across the country. Not even just the states of the former Confederacy. Those are kind of like tips of the iceberg because underneath that, and that recasting of what happened, it had ramifications and still does for education, for curriculum, for economic development.
Think Monument Avenue, in Richmond was not just punctuated by Confederates, but was a white real estate development using the monuments as a way to reinforce segregated living. Lost Cause is important. I want to acknowledge also, in a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a great architectural historian, Mabel Wilson. (A shout out to UVA and Mabel Wilson.) Also, the idea that she said they are not Confederate monuments, they are American monuments. They are built not during the time of the Confederacy, but afterwards. Really coming to terms with the way that we have, as a country, privileged a story of reconciliation of the Civil War over the symbolic and systemic form of Reconstruction, right? Actually reckoning with that legacy.
Likewise, when you talk about white supremacy. You know, we are talking about systems and mindsets that aim to hold on to a lie, a myth of white people as being superior. We have seen it disproven time and again in science. It is a myth. It is a lie. Nonetheless, we have an American apartheid. We have a system. We know it. We know it exists. Monuments have historically been the signposts of American apartheid, and more and more over the last decade, and especially now we are seeing them actually as the frontline to confront American apartheid.
JUSTIN REID: Thank you. Thank you. Okay. “Traditionalist” is a term that I hear used often. Can you break down what traditionalistic approach means when it comes to this work?
PAUL FARBER: Look, for me, tradition is a little bit of a double-edged term. There are some beautiful things about tradition. You know, there are ways that, especially in our resilience, our resistance gets played out in tradition. Those terms of phrase that you use, and also you are like, “Wait a second – did I say the words that my mother, or father, or grandmother used to say. How did that come to be?” Right? And a lot of times traditions carry down through generations, especially for folks who have experienced trauma, enslavement, war, migration. Holding onto tradition is a sense of knowing one’s self and knowing one’s past, and then knowing where you’re going. The flipside of that is when we use tradition as a blunt instrument, or as something to freeze in time it can end up hurting people. It can end up hurting us, because actually there is power dynamics in tradition. We don’t always adapt what we have learned from the past moving forward. I think of tradition as two-sided in all kinds of interesting ways. Ultimately, I’m interested in learning about what traditions have sustained us against great challenge. What traditions can we add on to? You know, at the risk of offending those who come before us, remixing and adding to and working with what we have so that we are able to bridge from the past to the future.
JUSTIN REID: Alright, last word here. “De-colonize.”
PAUL FARBER: It is a word you will hear across many different sectors – museums, education, nonprofits. I think of it as a set of interventions around the way that knowledge is constructed and resources are allotted out. I think of really important work by indigenous, black, and brown activists. I think de-colonized this place, for example, as a group out of New York City that really pushed narratives that felt neutral or felt calm that we could turn away from. In museums, like the Museum of Natural History, and pushing us to see how even so-called objective or neutral forms of knowledge reflect with long legacies of colonization, of enslavement. Actually, we can play an active role. Truly, one thing I do want to say is, I don’t think it is something you can check off your list. “Did we de-colonize our process? Great, let’s move forward.” It is something you have to keep with you. It is going to hover with you. Especially for predominantly white institutions. I think of it is an ongoing process. It’s an investment and not just trying to say I want new outcomes, let’s have a new outcome, or let’s make a quick announcement. What is the work? What is the process? What is our budget? What is the time spent? And how do we resist the practices of the past that continue to haunt us and create unequitable structures in the present and ongoing?
JUSTIN REID: Alright, Paul, I’m going to give you a pass. You did a good job there. I believe in pass/fail right now especially amid everything else going on. You definitely got a pass plus.
PAUL FARBER: I will take that. Right now, we have urgent work that we have to do, but we also need grace for one another and we are figuring it out. So, I was trying to balance. How do we stay urgent? That is why I appreciate you pushing those terms and I have to continue to evolve, think, and listen. But also, grace. You may have heard things that I didn’t say like, wait a second, why didn’t he say this? We can build and grow that together.
JUSTIN REID: Definitely. You know, again, there is so much happening right now. We are in the middle of a pandemic. I feel like you and I, we are going through it, especially early on in the pandemic era that is 2020. But of course, there is so much else that has happened, right? We think about the uprisings that have occurred all across the country. We think about the police violence and murders that occurred here in Virginia. We have seen legislation passed. We have seen monuments get removed. We have seen court injunctions preventing monuments from being removed. We are in the middle of a crazy election. We’ve lost Justice Ginsburg. We are in the middle of nominating a replacement. There is a lot. I can understand why some people might feel as if the conversation we are having is a distraction from some of the things that may be more consequential or more substantive. I guess I’m wondering, if you were to come across someone who says this is simply a distraction and we need to focus on everything else that is going on. What would your response be? How would you make the connection between this conversation around monuments and memorialization, and the other injustices we are seeing right now?
PAUL FARBER: You know, I have heard this before. I will continue to hear it, right? The binary. Should we do this or, should we do that? We all know life is more complicated. We live in the gray zone. It is a false choice to think you can only focus on symbolic forms of representation, or systemic ones. I follow the lead. I think about Virginia-based activists in the monumental justice movement. I acknowledge Bryan Lee from Charlottesville, a Monument Lab fellow, but long before that was changing the national, now international conversation, part of constructing that. I think, when I follow the work profoundly across the state of Virginia, in particular, and other people who have built outwards. You understand again that monuments, markers, modes of commemoration, they might be on the surface but they are deeply connected to the systems of justice and injustice, of democracy, and of repression.
It’s not an either/or. There is room in this work to be creative. There is work here to be critical. It’s not an either/or. I think about, again, it’s not just that monuments to the Confederate Lost Cause stood over time, or here in Philadelphia we had a monument to a former police commissioner, and mayor, who was known and celebrated in some cases for practicing police brutality, for intimidation of marginalized folks. You know, those stood. But they were always part of broader systems that reached into education, that reached into the allotment of public resources, of police policy, right? So part of what we have when we see a monument, we have an opportunity to see a landing point, or a kind of surfacing point for things that are much harder to access. In a way, if you are invested in protecting our democracy, in improving our systems, or dismantling antiquated ones, frankly, the monument is an entry point. It is why whenever you try to move them, or touch them, you start hearing these things like, “Don’t touch history”, right? We are worried about the history when people walk by it every day and it was collecting pigeon droppings. If someone tried to move it. In fact, I think we understand our history or clearly when we start to move monuments or change them or even remove them.
Look, let’s be really clear about history. We know history doesn’t happen because some dude rolls into town on a horse and looks off into the distance. We know history happens because people work together over time. There is ongoing questions and struggle. We learn from those who came before us. We try to push forward in ways that they couldn’t. Time doesn’t move like an arrow, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison, it moves like a boomerang. So, wear your helmets, right? We settle on the monument as some kind of technology of history. We know it’s like picking one snapshot of someone’s life and say that is his history, don’t do anything else, keep that in place. I think if we follow the lead of those on the ground, and we follow the lead of those envisioning other possibilities for commemoration we see it as part of this ongoing struggle.
The last thing I just want to say looking into histories from the perspective of the United Nations, of peace and reconciliation, commissions and standards – part of the way that you deal with restitution from past harm is acknowledgment of pain. Is acknowledgment of what happened, right? People would not be so eager to guard the monuments now, would not be so eager if they weren’t already also trying to squelch the conversation of the past. I think acknowledgment of the past is a fundamental human right and it is part of a broader system, not outside.
JUSTIN REID: Okay. I want to share a verse, a quote from the book here that has so many quotes, I know I can’t share them all today. But, this one really resonated with me. “We elevate a disproportionately wealthier, whiter, more militaristic and overwhelmingly male version of the past above others in our monuments, and our social systems. History is not restricted to our past. It is a force in the present.” That to me, kind of sums up a lot of what you said. I think, you know, why for so many people think these monuments are so important and interconnected to these other conversations and fights that we are having today. History is a force and it continues to be a force in our present.
PAUL FARBER: I appreciate you calling that out. That has been our mind. I have to say, you know, I am white. I am Jewish. I am queer. I’ve gotten mixed messages throughout my life. Everyone has their own complex identities. Something that I think I grew up with and I’ve had to unlearn over time is that history is somehow a hierarchy and that the people who are elevated higher, or more often, that is where history is. It’s taken time to understand not just what you see, but what is suppressed and what is not there. Even to just think, for any one figure who has been elevated up on a pedestal, who got them there in the first place? Who made it so that the so-called “great figures of our society”, who did they benefit from? Who do they collaborate with? But also, if they benefited from institutions of enslavement, or subjugation. Who did they take from to get there?
At Monument Lab, we have a free field trip on our website called “Monument Lab Field Trip.” We have this exercise called “Expanding the Pedestal”. Find a monument in your city. Try to picture all of the people named and unnamed that made it possible for that person to be there. I am based in Philadelphia. One of the most famous Philadelphians, not born here, but from here in a way, is Ben Franklin. I’m going to tell you that on the north side of City Hall alone there are three likenesses to Ben Franklin. One on the building, young Ben Franklin doing his letter press. Another one went in across the street, like 10 years ago. Now let me tell you, across the city, not just a dozen Benjamin Franklin statues and busts, but we’ve got the Parkway named after him, the high school, the scholarship program. My favorite basketball team logo has him dribbling.
Ours is a city that has one full figure monument to a person of color, Octavius Catto, who is a 19th century freedom fighter and educator. The moment that statue went in, you see a new curriculum utilized in public schools in Philadelphia. There are documentaries, a mural. Right now, when you’re turning in your votes at City Hall, you line up next to the Octavius statue. Yes, Ben Franklin may keep a statue or two, or other structures, but whose stories are we missing? And then you go to this idea: these are not hidden histories. These are not undiscovered. Look across the landscape. In Philly we have 4000 murals, we have societies, we have people who kept the memory alive of folks who don’t always get risen to the level of monument. We just have to listen. The conversations are actually already happening. There are not official structures to uplift, resource and value those in the same way.
JUSTIN REID: Okay, so, for those who have not read the book, can you quickly tell us what “Monument Lab” is, and maybe when was it was started. Because I know you mentioned counting the number of Ben Franklin statues. We have some other figures here in Virginia that have a lot of statues, and buildings named after them. But, can you tell us what “Monument Lab” began as? What was the big ideas of this project that you undertook?
PAUL FARBER: So, “Monument Lab” now is a public art and history studio. We cultivate conversations about the past, present and future of monuments, especially around stories of resistance, justice, of hope. We started as a classroom project. I am from Philadelphia, I moved away for 10 years. I wrote a dissertation that is now a book about American artists and the Berlin wall. People like Audrey Lord, Angela Davis, people who went to Berlin while the wall was up to think about division in America, especially racism. Symbolic, but also physical boundaries. I kept coming across pieces of the Berlin wall in the places I would visit, like when I went to UVA there’s a piece of the Berlin wall now, right on the edge of Grounds. The subway station in Chicago next to the teriyaki shop. Under the space needle in Seattle. I was thinking, if these are here and these are monuments around the place of United States over the last 30 years, what is not here? What is this taking up space from?
I taught a class in 2012 called urban monuments. We tried to talk about the monuments that have been built and the ones that have yet to be built. Thereafter I met Ken Lum, a public artist. We were both asking questions and kind of exploring. We set out first in our class. We first did a pilot project in the courtyard of City Hall in 2015. We asked a question rather than coming up with a thesis. Our question was “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” We borrowed that word. We appropriated “appropriateness” from public art juries who were like, “This must be appropriate.” We were like, the word appropriate, like the word beautiful, doesn’t mean any one thing. It is utilized and filled as a vessel by those who have power to justify what they do or don’t want to do. In that project I thought I would train my students who were working with me, and the social worker, and public historian that worked with us and lean back and do this, and write about it. It pulled me right in. Every day you are pulled in. We held all of our events outside, 35,000 people came within our three weeks of working hours.
We built one prototype monument by the late artist, Terry Adkins, who said “I want an empty classroom sculpture. Because Philly was known for its educational innovation but now we are known in 2015 for school closures and budget cuts. I want a sculpture that is critical, but I want to invite people in. I want them to sit in it.” The only seats at City Hall at that time, other than the sculpture, were left from the filming of “Transformers 2”. They didn’t want people to sit down. Once that went in it became a gathering space. That opened up other possibilities. We did a citywide exhibition in 2017.
We started doing projects with people in other cities, like in St. Louis with the Pulitzer Foundation, with New Arts Justice in Newark, New Jersey. This has led to an ongoing practice for us. Our art form is a municipal civic agency but there is a team of us. When I am here speaking to you, I am here with a lot of other brilliant folks in Philadelphia, in Newark, in New Orleans, and elsewhere. Of course, again, I mentioned our Fellows program, a group of fellows across the country and now outside of the country. These are the memory leaders. These are people doing the work. Another Virginia-based person I want to shout out is Free Egunfemi Bangura, a really important voice in what is happening. She’s been doing the work, and now institutions are noticing. She’s going to keep doing that work very powerfully.
The “Monument Lab” book is a record of the exhibition that we put on in Philadelphia that engaged 250,000 people in person and 20 remarkable artists that answer the question of “what is an appropriate monument?” It is really kind of a handbook, a set of inspirations for people. I have to say we started our work in Philly, and we would hear from people in other cities all the time informally. And so, as we have formalized and we have become a nonprofit and the studio, we’ve always tried to build in that mutual learning and exchange. It is a book to know about a historic city. But it’s really a cookbook, meant to spur other recipes, other works, other ways of thinking about monuments.
JUSTIN REID: I’m glad you described it in that way. I was thinking any locality no matter where you are in the country, if you are thinking about how to reinterpret a space, if you’re thinking about how to memorialize a group of people, if you are reimagining your locality, your urban planning landscape, this is a book that really serves as inspiration. I think it really shows you what is possible, and it will hopefully break people out of more traditionalist mindset when it comes to activating these spaces, designing these spaces.
PAUL FARBER: There is a way, in which, when you hear the question on the news “What will we do with monuments?” it is said in a way that is literally gas lighting. What a great question. Here’s the deal – you should ask really, actually ask people that are doing this. When you see a headline of a monument being removed or contested, go back to the hidden footnotes. People have been organizing. People have been creating art around it. People are going to see a new future to that space. You know, our hope is that this book has other volumes, but also other chapters that are being written all around us and we are just so inspired by artists, by organizers, people we work with, people we haven’t met yet. Especially members of the public. That book includes records from the nearly 5000 monument proposals we received. It kind of punctuates the whole book.
I have to say, when you do public engagement, you have to figure out what question you have. We didn’t know. We don’t believe we have the only answer. We thought about different ways to collect that information, but we kind of said, you know what, let’s put all of the complicated data gathering on the backend. Let’s lower the bar for entry. Keep integrity high, barrier for entry low. Our tools up front are pieces of paper, clip boards and Sharpies. What we got was profound. People shared in some of the most beautiful, haunting, innovative ways. There are monuments that you can build from that list that we shared in our report to the city and in this book. There’s also just a lot of value statements, gut checks that we absolutely need to think about to rewire our senses of not just what a monument is, or who we replace, but what are we doing by marking the past in the present? What are the values and visions that we want to impart to future generations? And recognize that, like our monuments, we are not permanent either, so what lasting contributions can we make?
JUSTIN REID: I have looked at this book and read it so many different times. This is the third attempt we have tried to do this program. But, it’s incredible what I missed. Each time I picked it up I gained something different. I remember the first time, in my own colonized mind I was looking for the essays and completely skipped over the submissions that people provided. It’s really remarkable to see, as you mentioned, Sharpie-drawn value statements of what people hope to see in their city or what they consider to be an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia. The way to enter this text is pretty extraordinary, because there are so many different ways to enter and engage with the work that happened in Philly.
PAUL FARBER: And I would just say, everyone’s ideas didn’t just free flow. It wasn’t an online forum, it wasn’t a drop box. There was an artist educator, a paid high school student, a college student that weaves research from the University to have the conversation. The monument proposals are kind of like receipts, but truly there were hundreds of thousands of conversations, and imprints and other projects we have heard about. I get calls all the time from the folks that say we “Monument Labbed” at our school. Like it’s a verb. What did you do? We had a debate. It was like unfreezing. Unfixing. That is part of it. When you are saying that, you know, I’m a Philly guy so I love Philly. I love that there are more stories. This is part of that. This is the history of the city, too.
What would the Charlottesville “Monument Lab” book look like? What would the Richmond, or Chicago look like? Every city has more stories than would fit in any monument or any book. This book, the “Monument Lab” book in Philly will be outdated soon, because we’re going to see institutions that are making changes that people have pushed for that change. I’m just excited for these milestones, and stepping stones to keep centered around this idea that none of this is timeless. Monuments are made to change. We want to create networks of collaboration around that.
JUSTIN REID: You’ve said that every city can potentially have their own “Monument Lab”. How did you all overcome the challenge of government officials and bureaucrats being a little boring, a little unimaginative at times. They can be traditionalists. Things can get weighed down in the planning commissions, and other community meetings, or whatever it may be. How did you overcome that in order to do something that was so imaginative and ground-breaking?
PAUL FARBER: I mean, you have to work like an artist, like a community organizer. You’ve got to work with the creativity you have, and you have to work with the parameters that are put in front of you. I had to learn another language. It was Municipal. There is a lot between yes and no. I know creativity is important but, what’s the parameter? The parameter is we only have x amount of time. All right. Or, the parameter is we did not get the grant we wanted, but we got this other thing. Let’s leverage this and do that. So, I think in this work understanding powering through imagination, but also your parameters is really important. I think recognizing that you’re not the first one, trying to tap into who are your collaborators, network, always building as you go.
So, your process matters as much as your outcome. You’re not just looking to crown new ideas in public. You actually have to sometimes come back off of what your plan was because someone who you trust was around you, right? I think, also, try to balance this always. I feel this especially now. Someone asked me, last time I was with you, last fall, I was at UVA. We did a presentation to a group of German professors who were thinking a lot about legacies and memory. They said, “How long will it take? Will it be done? When will the work be done?” I was like well, this is urgent. We can make changes today. It’s going to take our lifetimes and then some. How do we balance the work that has to happen today with the resources, materials, parameters that we have, which are like grains of sand in an hourglass disappearing before you know it? And then how do you have the long game?
I think especially a credit to the activists, organizers, and selected elected officials in Virginia who made sure a conversation was going on around monuments even when the state limited the kind of access for local municipalities to have a say. The conversation never went cold. The conversation didn’t have to get picked up. There was legacy work happening. I think that is important.
Also, something I would just say because we hear from municipal agencies all the time that want to work with us: a few years ago we would get calls and we would go on and on with them. Really exciting opportunities. They never really came to fruition because everyone had their eye on everything and let’s just redo the same thing that you did. Or let’s do it together. We ended up being too late or too early. Let’s just lower the bar. So, we’ve started doing workshops for municipal agencies. We wanted to do something different. We didn’t even know how to do it. Maybe in those workshops we invite some of our fellows in. They already have ideas. We will say all right, before you commit to figuring out what you’re going to do to make changes, let’s figure out what you actually have going on. Let’s do a research project. Let’s do an inventory. Let’s create a little residency. We’re doing a project with a state government around the long-term plans for the American Revolution commemoration in 2026. Before we even propose the project, let’s have a residency. Residency includes a group of artists and historians that are predominantly black and indigenous. They are going to help, not at the end point, but in the making of set values. And we are very clear. Come up with big ideas. They may not happen, but they are going to set values. Working with our group has been so rewarding. Because it is about the process. We are able to get in the process and get deep with it.
JUSTIN REID: “Monument Lab” sounds very busy.
PAUL FARBER: [LAUGHTER]
JUSTIN REID: And you made some headlines, what was that last week or the week before last?
PAUL FARBER: It was technically last week but it feels like five months ago.
JUSTIN REID: It was exciting news. My reaction was, “Paul is about to cancel on me.” He’s not going to be able to make this “Shelf Life” talk. The Mellon foundation announced they are pledging to $250 million towards work around the country related to monuments. I guess you are the inaugural poster child recipient. You received $4 million to go towards the work that Monument Lab is doing. What does that work look like? I know you are conducting a national audit. Are you going to be ranking statues like, “this one is racist, this one is extra racist, this one is boring?”
PAUL FARBER: Power rankings?
JUSTIN REID: What does a national audit look like of monuments and what is your vision for this project moving forward?
PAUL FARBER: I mean, we are so grateful to the Mellon Foundation for their leadership, President Elizabeth Alexander, and their whole team who, if you asked me a few years ago, “What would it take to make generational change in our monument landscape?” – this is the kind of thing that has to happen. Every institution, whether you are a funder, museum, or house museum you can be a part of it. That is what I think is really exciting here. This isn’t just “find the fix and make it go away”, this is “let’s create communities, and networks of people”. So, we are grateful. This is transformative for us. Also, we have a group now of colleagues that we are looking forward to building with.
There are three ways that this grant is immediately going into action. One of those is a national monument audit. You can tell a lot about people by not just what they keep, but by what knowledge or understanding they keep of it. For those folks that have spent some of their pandemic time carefully going through your photographs, and records, and artifacts in your house and labeling it, you know what you have. The people – I’m not saying which camp I am – that pushed stuff in the back of a closet and it’s there – do you value it? We want to know what we value. The way we are going to do that is gathering data sources on monuments – federal, state, and local. We are hiring an amazing group of folks. We have a great advisory board. People who are going to help us find that information.
There are over 3000 counties in the United States. More if you count U.S. territories. I want to know how many of them keep a list of what monuments they have. Do they include statues, markers? That is where we are going to start but of course you could make that go outwards. Maybe that’s not part of this audit, but it will be another chapter. We do want to know by graphical information approximately how many monuments are dedicated to white people? How many are dedicated to women? We also want to look for the absences and the gaps. What don’t we know? The audit is going to be a publication that will be free. It will be a data set that you can download and will be machine-readable. Of course, we are artists. It’s going to be an event. It’s going to be something that comes to you, too, even in this social distance moment. Shout out to Sue Mobley, and Laurie Allen that are co- directing the audit with me and our amazing group of folks. The full team will be announced in a few weeks.
We’re also going to be opening ten Monument Lab research field offices around the country starting in 2021 and 2022. These are temporary locations but we are not even going to limit it to that. We are still writing this. It’s going to be an open call. Essentially, independent coalitions of people, small teams would apply. We are going to subgrant a total of $1 million from the $4 million. $100,000 per site. We are open, at this point, to a city, or a town. But also a region, you know? The Mississippi Delta. Or the U.S./Mexico border. We will have more details about that after the audit is done. We really want to use the audit as a launching off point for that, but it’s really exciting. It is modeled after projects like our Fellows program and our work in St. Louis where we locally have unearthed stories of the past, present and future of monuments together. Hopefully, again, follow the lead of people doing it on the ground.
The last thing I will say about the Mellon grant that is transformative. “Monument Lab” has never had a full-time staff member, me included. We have run off fumes. We are resourceful and scrappy. The words monument and lab are so heavy that people have mistaken us sometimes for an intermunicipal agency. But, what this will allow us to do is hire full-time staff. We are hiring a Director of Partnerships now. It will allow us to be able to continue doing the other projects we are up to. I do sleep every night. But I am able to do this work with a team of people because the team, from graduate students, to a research team, to the curators we work with, the spirit here is coalition. That is the way that we work as well.
JUSTIN REID: I’m going to hold this up really quickly. I was going to wear this today, Paul. But then after that Mellon news I thought “I’m going to look so thirsty wearing my “Monument Lab” T-shirt.”
PAUL FARBER: A wearable monument!
JUSTIN REID: So, I wore this to a recent rally here in Charlottesville, kind of right off the Corner of UVA. Here’s another shirt that you all came out with that I really liked. Maybe everybody can see this. I do have a soapbox that I want to get out really quickly. It doesn’t say topple individualism. I look at a lot of these monuments that are going up, people are saying, “Let’s just take down this monument, and put a black civil rights hero. Let’s put an indigenous leader.” We are mimicking these very traditionalist approaches. I think a problem is that we are still perpetuating a myth that progress is made by individuals. We are putting individuals on a pedestal instead of acknowledging our collectivist tradition in this country, collective action. We are considering who to replace Robert E. Lee with right now in the U.S. Capitol. What would you say to those of us who are trying to figure out what comes next? What would be your advice or insight?
PAUL FARBER: First of all, I just want to say it’s amazing to see you, not just with the merch – thank you for the plug. The fact that you are wearing it to actions outside. That was the intention. You know, like I said, we are trying to think about different platforms. The store idea was always a way to make wearable monuments. And of course, we are grateful for the foundations that have supported our work. But as many artists and nonprofits know, if you just wait on the cycles of foundations you don’t always get to do the work when it is urgent. We started an online store. It benefits our work. When we do artist partnerships, we have a 50/50 split. We have an amazing collaboration with Ursula Rucker, with Michelle Angela Ortiz. We just did a new shirt that says “Count every vote. Count every voice.” All proceeds go to the Movement Voter Project. We do a lot of organizing work. We don’t have a voting arm. So, let’s partner and team up. It’s a model. It always supports us and we are grateful for it.
I do want to point out something that you said that really sticks with me. Not just the individualism part. When you went to a collective action, you wore a shirt to share that you are part of a group. You’re part of an ensemble. Part of a collective. That is always what a collective is. A group of people coming together. Sometimes we share an interest. But ultimately, in this sense it is many people. I think an important moment for me in thinking about monuments was the instinct we had, but it was made very clear by our colleagues and friends at Colloqate Design, Bryan Lee, and Sue Mobley, who is now a member of our team, when they founded Paper Monuments, a sibling project to Monument Labs. They talked about how they were involved in the takedown efforts in New Orleans for the four Confederate monuments. They were wary of what they said, as one-to-one replacements. Like, if you get a one-to-one replacement, you might uplift a new story or a new figure. Most likely you’ll get someone who is already in the popular imagination. What does it do to ongoing needs to address redress/repair of the pedestal?
I think about whether it’s in the Capitol building, or Monument Avenue in Richmond. Like what is amazing about Monument Avenue, to me, and shout out to StudioTwoThree, from Richmond, (I picked up one of their signs behind me when I was there a few weeks ago) is the collective there. The lie of the Lost Cause. The lie of a simple equality is exposed there. It’s not a site without trauma but it is a site where we are able to acknowledge the ongoing struggle for racial justice in our country. It is a struggle made clear there not because one person is there. In fact, the statue of Robert E Lee is such an afterthought to everything else going on around that pedestal. Marcus-David Peters Circle.
I just think that what you say is so spot on. Part of what we want to do is topple individuals. Part of what we want to do is recognize that history doesn’t happen in a vacuum with one person deciding to make a change. It is about collectives. History is not written yet, it has to keep being written. So, when I look at cities across the country that have made promises to build a new monument, I’m cool with that, but I want to see the follow-through. You know who does the work of follow-through? Organizers, activists, elders, students, artists. And so their work is what we should follow through. That work is not individual. We celebrate. Let’s be clear, let’s celebrate and uplift some figures who deserve more love and admiration. We shouldn’t just say, nope, we are done with monuments. No one ever gets honored anymore. At the moment we are democratizing and diversifying our monument collections. While we are at it, let’s not bring with us the toxic practices of the past.
Let’s actually say, “Hold up, nothing is permanent in and of itself.” Our civic institutions are permanent. We have to uphold them. Post boxes don’t sit on their own. If you don’t do the work they will disappear, right? For example, let’s think about what is on the pedestal. Let’s think about what is connected to the pedestal and that is where our work can continue. Wherever you’re at in this country there is work to do. I hope everybody on this call is able to keep on joining. Whether it is with Monument Lab or other places like Virginia Humanities. We can do that work now and continue that work.
JUSTIN REID: Paul Farber, thank you, thank you, thank you. There is so much that we couldn’t cover.
PAUL FARBER: Part two?
JUSTIN REID: I would love to. Say the word. But, you know, you have an incredible podcast that I encourage everyone to check out. “Monument Lab” you can search it on Spotify wherever you listen to podcasts. Definitely listen to some of these powerful conversations that are happening. Grab the book. Grab his books from your local bookseller. Also, be sure to check out additional “Shelf Life” events on VaBook.org. We host these every Thursday now at noon. Again, Paul, thank you for the work that you are doing. For the collective that you have helped to pull together that is doing this work across the country. You know, it is an inspiration to all of us and I hope folks listening in today we will walk away with inspirations and new ideas and fill a little bit more motivated to get out there and continue this important work.
PAUL FARBER: Thank you, Justin. For all of our dialogue, and our conversations past, present, and future. It always leaves me with an uplifted spirit. Also, continue the lesson for the work to keep going. Really grateful for that. For everyone at the VA Book Festival. For everyone, for that matter, in the broader Virginia Humanities world. I’m really grateful. I’m glad we keep getting to do the work together.
JUSTIN REID: Thank you.