Paul Farber’s colleagues now joke that he is holding his meetings atop a monument.
It would perhaps come as little surprise to find Farber (C’05)—the co-founder and artistic director of Monument Lab—on top of such a structure, but it wasn’t until a recent trip to Newark, New Jersey, that he had ever actually scaled one.
“I've always said that the monument should be a perch in the city and this is one of the first times I actually [climbed] it,” Farber said.
The climb came amid his work co-curating a new exhibition in Newark, A Call to Peace, that seeks to offer new perspectives on such public monuments in the city and call attention to the stories they tell—and don’t tell. The project, produced with co-curator Salamishah Tillet (C'96) of New Arts Justice, marks the first big exhibition in a city other than Philadelphia using the model of Monument Lab, a public art and history studio that has upended conventional thinking about monuments and how we treat our past, present and future.
There’s more on the horizon. This fall will see the release of a book by Farber and Monument Lab co-founder Ken Lum, Marilyn Jordan Presidential Professor and chair of fine arts at the Weitzman School, entitled Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia. The studio has research residencies with the High Line in New York City and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. And Farber was also recently named senior research scholar for the Weitzman School’s newly formed Center for Public Art and Space.
Design Weekly caught up with Farber to talk about the latest developments for Monument Lab and the Center for Public Art and Space. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I want to ask about the book. Who the audience is for that and what can they expect from it?
Ken and I co-edited the book on Monument Lab and it’s a compendium of the work we've done with fellow artists and scholars. But it’s also meant to be a handbook for people who are thinking about what to do with the monumental landscape. We tried to think of the projects from our [citywide Philadelphia] 2017 exhibition that we produced with Mural Arts as each a kind of living case study. And each case study included perspective on process and outcome and engagement. The chapters include a reflection on each prototype monument by an author or an artist or a student. These case studies are meant to be looked at together with the idea that there’s not one answer to the question of what do we do with our monuments. Instead, we ask, how do we look at a variety of approaches and tactics that might be applicable to people in this city or other cities?
Monuments, by virtue of their physicality, have this permanence. How does one get around that?
Monuments have the aura of permanence but they are products of a place and a time and a group of decision-makers. I think our work has been to remind that they’re not permanent but it’s the claim of permanence that is part of the power. I’m not someone who says, “Well that’s technically not a monument, this is a memorial, or vice versa.” I’m interested in how they blend and in expanding the practice.
I define monument as a statement of power and presence in public space. Because what we’ve found is, if you have the time, the money and the power to build a monument that’s important to you, you do it. And if you don’t have the time, money and power, you stand or you gather next to a monument that exists to amplify your voice and make your presence felt. And you can see this from, in more recent times, practiced by activists and organizers associated with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, feminist, queer, environmental organizing.
There’s something about public work that pulls you in, and keeps you present in the moment, especially to engage the monument focus throughout our country.
I know that the idea for Monument Lab is seven years old and that it’s grown a lot since then. You had the [Philadelphia] exhibition, you have a podcast, the book. How does it square with your original vision for the initiative?
When it started, Monument Lab was at its core, a research project. I thought of it more in terms of, how would this eventually turn out as a scholarly book. And normally, when you write a book, you do your own research and as you go to archives and you visit with artists, you’re ready to show the finished product later. But this project—which is about monuments and in large part Philadelphia but also other cities and of sites and patterns and memory—actually needed to start outside and it needed a period of thinking about public space, while in public space, with others, as a little bit of an experiment. It was our initial work in the courtyard of City Hall in 2015 that changed my perspective and my practice. Because I thought we would write a grant and then, once the project was complete, we’d look at it in retrospect. But there’s something about public work that pulls you in, and keeps you present in the moment, especially to engage the monument focus throughout our country.
It is challenging and also incredibly rewarding because there’s a lesson in every footstep you take. If you’re open to listening and you’re open to learning, public space will teach you all you needs it to. You find all the text you need by reading signs and fliers, and paying attention to what you hear. You meet people who are their own owners of public space or denizens of public space. There’s a quote from historian Joseph Roach that I often return to, where he said, “I’m not saying historians shouldn't be in the archives, but we should spend more time in the streets.”
Our goal with Monument Lab is to not reproduce the same systems that have given us the same monuments and the same understanding but to try to explore new ones. So we have one foot in the university, because it’s the place of learning and community, and one foot outside in public spaces, for the purpose of gaining knowledge in new ways—especially by listening, learning. Which is to say, this Monument Lab has taken on a life of its own.
Can you talk about the Center for Public Art and Space?
The Center is a new platform for projects related to public art and civic engagement at the Weitzman School and at Penn. Ken Lum, Kristen Giannantonio, and I are co-founders. The Center is going to be the Penn hub for Monument Lab projects and also it’s meant to be a place for other students, faculty, staff to dream up their own projects and to explore the strategies and tactics of public art. Because this started as a collaborative research project, we are interested in opening up to understanding how this work has become a method, a way of seeing, a way of doing work. We’ve heard from other universities, municipalities, even elementary schools that they've done their own Monument Lab projects, and adapted them to their own pursuits and contexts. This is great. I think the Center for Public Art and Space is really important because there’s a desire to take these methods, which has been honed inside and outside of academia, and deepen the connections here at Penn and beyond.
Are there any other things planned?
We are thrilled to have been awarded a Pew Center for Arts & Heritage grant with the Village of Arts and Humanities for a 2021 participatory exhibition, Staying Power. We did our first year of Monument Lab fellowships which culminated in a Town Hall at the Free Library of Philadelphia in June and a trip for five of our fellows to go to Berlin on a research trip. We are just now launching another year of fellowships, thanks to a new partnership with the Goethe-Institut and Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education. We’ll be accepting applications from all over North America, including the U.S. Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and Germany. The idea is to have transnational fellows this year who works at and across national borders.
We have some bigger dreams. I really want us to be able to respond to pressing issues of our time with monumental perspectives, whether that’s voter registration and suppression, gun violence, thinking about the election year 2020. Monuments are meant to be, at their best, statements of truth that last over years. Of course, we have a history of them not actually telling the full story, especially when it comes to stories of enslavement and systems of exclusion. I think we try to be guided by that principle, figure out what needs to happen in public to respond. When you bring history out in new ways, in exploratory ways, you open pathways toward greater forms of truth and reconciliation and reckoning, too.