Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project began with a conversation between Paul Farber and I five years ago. Farber had just returned to Philadelphia after completing his PhD in Michigan and I had just arrived from Vancouver. We both had new positions at the University of Pennsylvania, where we taught classes on public space—he in urban studies and I in fine arts. During our first encounter, we discovered that we had been asking parallel diagnostic questions about the complex narratives of Philadelphia’s memorial landscape. We mused about organizing an exhibition for understanding the mechanisms of memorialization, particularly by questioning the status of the monument and how we might challenge a monument’s canonical character. We were also interested in issues of embodiment that are inherent to the ambivalence that is part of any construction of symbolic unity, as well as the negated or unacknowledged histories that have been evacuated from the monument and yet remain palpable as an absence.
The extant memorial landscape of Philadelphia is identified with the dominant citizen class. This is expressed by the near total absence of officially sanctioned statuary of African-Americans and women anywhere in the city. Philadelphia unveiled the first public memorial to an African-American individual in September 2017, a statue of the great nineteenth-century civil-rights advocate and educator, Octavius Catto (1839–1871). We noted that African Americans make up more than forty percent of the city’s population, and the story of African-American struggles and contributions are central to any appreciation of Philadelphia’s greatness.
We noted also that there are only two historical women represented as full figures within the immense inventory of Philadelphia statuary, Joan of Arc (ca. 1412–1431) and Mary Dyer (ca. 1611–1660), a colonial-era Puritan-turned-Quaker and advocate for First Amendment rights—both important and tragic figures but neither with any affiliation with Philadelphia. This topic of the absence of public monuments to historical women in Philadelphia was the subject of Sharon Hayes’s (b. 1970) If They Should Ask, a Monument Lab project in which an array of reduced-scale pedestals, modelled after existing Philadelphia monuments to men, were gathered in Rittenhouse Square in an agglomeration that formed a complex sculptural assemblage. Inscribed at the base of the empty pedestals were the names of important local, national, and international women from the Philadelphia area. If They Should Ask is a work predicated on what’s forgotten by the exclusionary pronunciation of historiography.
This absence of the commemoration of women is not an act of omission but a willful structuring action that produces and reproduces the conditions of patriarchal society. The many monuments to white men in Philadelphia would have us believe this is the natural order of history, achievement, and remembrance, without need for the acknowledgement of the enduring violence that has been perpetrated against women, African-Americans, and other peoples of colour. Given this vacuum, Paul and I aimed to create an exhibition that would embody democracy through the participation of a wide and varied audience engaged in public dialogue. We wanted to listen to all Philadelphians about their city and give voice to those citizens who too often go unheard.
We also saw Monument Lab as an exercise in spatial production, in which the spaces of the city are opened to question. Monuments tend to render their sites incontestable, where different readings of space are not permitted and where it is assumed that one system of values is shared unequivocally by all. We wanted to make an exhibition about monuments that challenged these assumptions. Philadelphia is a vast metropolis, with more than a quarter of its 1.5 million inhabitants living in poverty. Given that poor areas of the city also suffer more acutely from underfunded public schools, high crime rates, and familial fracturing, we erected Monument Lab containers, or labs, in sites located both within and far beyond the centre of the city, including Norris Square, Malcolm X Park, Marconi Plaza, Fairhill, Penn Treaty Park, and Vernon Park. Each lab offered a busy schedule of activities. Karyn Olivier (b. 1968), whose prototype sculpture, The Battle Is Joined, was sited in Germantown’s Vernon Park, noted the local residents’ surprise and delight that an important art project would be installed in their neighbourhood, felt to be largely devoid of civic attention.
Monument Lab also took on, as part of its project, the re-animating of public art as art in the service of the public, or art in the service of activating public space. With the adulteration of public space by private interests, public art has become increasingly instrumentalized in two directions. On the one hand, public art is called upon to compensate for the shrinking of public space with its sheer symbolic presence. On the other hand, public art becomes an instrument of real-estate development logic, as the gifting portion of private interests.
In Fairhill, at the intersection of Indiana Avenue and A Street, Tyree Guyton (b. 1955), an artist from Detroit and founder of the Heidelberg Project, produced The Times, a work of community participation that featured community-painted images of giant clocks affixed to the facade of an empty, block-long, brick warehouse. Each of the clocks denoted a different time but together they existed synchronically. Guyton’s piece is imbued with a strong sense of political protest against poverty and the abandonment of the civic body. Fairhill is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Philadelphia, which is itself the poorest of the large cities in America. The people of Fairhill are at some distance from rapid transit. During my visits to the area, there were always people trying to fix old cars. Transportation is a significant problem there, as is the cost of getting to work. I spoke to a woman in the neighbourhood who worked three part-time jobs: as a cleaning lady and as a worker in two different fast-food outlets that were far from each other. The Times meditates on the ways in which time and money are intertwined cruelly for the poor. People are not just poor because they lack money; they are also poor because they lack time. The lack of time to think or to properly attend to things, including the most mundane tasks of everyday life, demands of the poor that their mental concentration be devoted to the most immediate deadline, thus producing a steadily spiraling and compounding accumulation of other deadlines for which there is never enough time, let alone room for hope for the future. The constraints imposed upon the poor by capitalism are unceasing and compulsory. The Times is a work that demands the end of the system of forced obedience to hegemonic conceptions of time and space by which othered bodies are made to suffer.
In West Philadelphia, Hans Haacke’s (b. 1936) proposal consisted of an archeological dig of a razed triangular block. The idea was to reveal the original foundations of the buildings that once stood along Lancaster Avenue in the Belmont neighbourhood. That portion of Lancaster was once a lively commercial street left to abandonment. Haacke’s work is best remembered as an image of an area, fenced in with chain link, with backhoes and workers digging up the ground. For the person driving by (which constituted most of the viewers), the image was highly ambiguous. Was what was happening a sign of redevelopment and all the associations that brings? Was the recent positive turn in the city’s financial resources resulting in infrastructural improvement for an area in sore need of such improvement? For a person of the neighbourhood walking by, there was a different set of associations with the narratives of local memory, which are too often unrecognized for their insights into the nature of collective memory and historical consciousness.
To take in Monument Lab was to traverse and be present physically across every precinct of Philadelphia. We wanted to prompt the public to identify with the flâneur, a figure who wishes to “rush into the crowd in search of a man unknown to him” and to throw “away the value and the privileges afforded by circumstance,” as Baudelaire wrote in “The Painter of Modern Life.”1 We wanted Philadelphians to visit places within their city that they had never visited, to experience their city through the lives and spaces of others.
We were interested in the idea of public memory serving as future speculation. At the labs, members of the public were asked to respond to the following question: “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” By asking what would be appropriate rather than ideal, we opened conceptual space for respondents to subjectively interpret the question according to whatever criteria they chose. Indeed, the most common and immediate response from the public to this question was: “What do you mean by ‘appropriate’?” Indeed, what is or would be appropriate? The amorphousness of the question was meant to evoke something more than the recollections of memory, as well as the fundamentally democratic ideals of the origins of new historical knowledges.
The depth of public memory surprised us. Many proposals dealt with the terrible state of Philadelphia’s public school system. Others dealt with the city’s distinctive neighbourhoods, some at the most immediate street level. There was a small but significant number of proposals calling for a memorial to the 1985 bombing of the compound of MOVE, an African-American liberation group. The proposals revealed that Philadelphians are animated about the application of public art and public history to this city. And if they feel their ideas and experiences are valued, they are willing to participate directly and contribute ideas in a process of creative speculation. Through this project, we were reminded how rarely the public is asked to think about which histories, places, and people are worth remembering and commemorating in official contexts.
As we learned, Philadelphians are distinctly aware of the impact of politics on debates about memory and advocacy, the importance and significance of a broad range of monumental sites, and the city’s historical sites and perspectives. It became clear to us that the people of Philadelphia were already thinking about our central question—or at least about some form of the notion of what the city is, what it was, and what it can be through a process of participation and monumental production.
Philadelphia is the home of the Liberty Bell. We saw the crack in the bell as a discernible fissure that haunts us, a collective wound that refuses to heal. For all the glorious language that makes up the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America is a place founded on the wounded bodies of others—Indigenous, Black, indentured, gay, impoverished, and many more.
Monument Lab operates between digital humanities and civic engagement, offering key ideas and methods for Philadelphia and other cities. Seeing a shift in the public understanding of monumentality, we created a welcoming site-specific research method and the conditions for a more nuanced discussion about public art, public history, and social practice. The message of Monument Lab is that the city is a place of limitless possibility, and that in reflecting on this city, we can begin to understand the power of being a human among other humans. The city is itself a living monument to humanity, with all of its potential and all of its challenges. Monument Lab aims to unearth possible solutions to a better collective future for Philadelphia. But such solutions can only come about if we recognize that we must start with the fact that the city is a place of many voices, all of which deserve to be heard.
1 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays (London: Phaidon Books,  1964).