In 2017 Philadelphia took a serious look at the monuments punctuating its squares, boulevards, and parks and asked a simple question: “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” A two-month, city-wide conversation ensued, and a new book, Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia, documents what happened.
Contemporary artists were invited to answer the question with 20 experimental or speculative temporary works, which were placed around the city. The rest of us, whether intrigued passers-by or residents with thoughts, were free to comment, critique, and propose. And the creative class reflected on the results.
Not only the victors
All of this is chronicled in the volume edited by Paul Farber and Ken Lum of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art and history studio that initiated the project in collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia, which over three decades has worked with neighborhoods throughout the city, transforming barren walls and empty lots into open-air museums in places overlooked by traditional public art.
Vivid photographs lovingly preserve the temporary works that dotted Philadelphia’s landscape through the fall of 2017, accompanied by artist statements and essays from writers, poets, curators, historians, musicians, and academics. Interspersed are the imaginings of people who walked by the ephemeral exhibition and filled out comment forms. These snapshots into the minds of everyday Philadelphians are every bit as interesting as the fully developed professional works.
“Monument Lab insisted on direct participation, with hundreds of thousands of co-contributors invited to question and conjure the monumental landscape around them,” writes Farber, Monument Lab artistic director and research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Art and Space. “We should know by now that history is not written simply by the victors; it is inscribed by those who have the time, money, and power to build monuments.”
As the project began, Philadelphia had 1,500 public monuments memorializing mostly white European men. One statue honors a figure of color, civil-rights advocate Octavius Catto (it went up in 2017). Two recognize women, Joan of Arc and First Amendment advocate Mary Dyer.
At the time, Philadelphia was a city of 1.5 million who were roughly 40 percent Black and more than half female. If the varied artwork produced had a unifying theme, it’s this: hindsight is not 20/20, and it’s time to sharpen our historical vision.
Mel Chin’s Two Me, installed in City Hall’s courtyard, got to the heart of the matter. Consisting of two seven-foot granite pedestals with access ramps, it let anybody become a monument, and more than 50,000 waited in line for a chance to pose, proclaim, or interact with the throng below.
Seeing the future, projecting the past
If They Should Ask by Sharon Hayes filled in the gender gap. Her nine unoccupied pedestals in Rittenhouse Square represented women whose notable contributions to human endeavor were left on history’s cutting room floor.
Sound artist King Britt and painter/muralist Joshua Mays collaborated with high-school students to create Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny, a “monumental time portal” for one night in West Philadelphia’s Malcolm X Park. Through staging, music, movement, and augmented reality, the piece offers an experience of how artists of the African diaspora envision the future as audience members are transported through the park’s evolution.
Philadelphia’s Klip Collective acknowledged South Philadelphia’s immigrant history in Passage :: Migration, a sound-and-light experience in Marconi Plaza. Projected onto a fabric tunnel, immigrant family names washed over viewers as they passed through the installation, meeting generations of arrivals whose first home in America was here.
With assistance from his 9-year-old daughter Sassa, Duane Linklater lit up the Delaware waterfront with In Perpetuity, a sculpture in red neon script immortalizing the words spoken by Lenape Chief Tamanend as he signed a treaty of friendship with William Penn: “As long as the rivers and creeks flow, and the sun, moon and stars endure.” Sassa’s handwriting was reproduced on a clear support, enabling viewers to read the words and see the water, sky, and land beyond.
Labs as listening posts
Monument Lab staff set up research stations near installations to solicit feedback. “Paul and I wanted to…listen to all Philadelphians, about their city and give voice to those who too often go unheard,” wrote Lum, who in addition to serving as Monument Lab curatorial advisor, is an artist and Fine Art chair at Penn.
And notoriously opinionated Philadelphians did not hold back: over two months, Monument Lab tallied 250,000 in-person engagements and 4,500 monument proposals. As it happened, the thoughts of average Philadelphians about necessary monuments tracked those of the professional artists.
Some used words, others drew, but in general, people said they want monuments that keep it real, that resonate with them, that look like they do, that reflect their experiences and the city as it is today.
Speaking with statues
For the Strawberry Mansion section, a 22-year-old sketched a trumpet and saxophone to represent Philadelphia jazz icons Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Others nominated for tributes vocalist Billie Holiday, composer Sun Ra, and bagpiper Rufus Harley.
People suggested memorializing patients who come here for medical care, or those who served as subjects for experimental treatments in the past, some of them without knowing. A 34-year-old drew a giant hypodermic needle in memory of those affected by drug addiction and violence.
Numerous submissions honored unknown civil-rights workers, immigrants, Native peoples, and people of color. A 14-year-old drew a stick figure representing Harriet Tubman holding a plaque reading “Black Lives Matter.”
Some ideas had an undeniably Philadelphia flavor, such as the drawing of a snow pile topped with a chair, which the contributor labeled “Yo, That’s My Parking Spot!” Another suggested the installation of more trash receptacles around the city with a drawing they titled “Do You Want to Be Known as Trashadelphia?”
Maybe it’s in the wooder
From the city’s hoop history to its housing insecurity, Latinx culture to natural resources, the artistic ideas unearthed by Monument Lab revealed deep curiosity and a reservoir of creativity here, as well as something not usually identified with these parts: optimism. The works, those made and those on paper, expressed hope that things can get better, a concern for others, and a desire for unity. Documentary photographer Jamel Shabazz, whose mural honoring African American military veterans and their families decorated a brick wall in Vernon Park, captured the idea with his title, Love Is the Message.
What, When, Where
Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia. Edited by Paul M. Farber and Ken Lum. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020. 336 pages, hardcover; $35. Click here.
On January 27, 2020, at 5:30pm, Monument Lab editors Paul Farber and Ken Lum will present a free public talk and Q&A at the Walnut Street West branch of the Free Library, 201 S. 40th St., Philadelphia.