An Experiment in Forms, from Rittenhouse Square to Meyerson Hall
The art installations and shipping containers that dotted Philadelphia’s iconic public squares and neighborhood parks in recent months have gone into storage. But Monument Lab, the citywide art and history project that was on view from September 16 – November 19, is a work in progress. It’s part of the plan of co-curators Ken Lum, professor and chair of fine arts at PennDesign, and Paul Farber, managing director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, who posed the project’s guiding question: “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”
While it was the sculptures and installations at Philadelphia’s five central public squares and five neighborhood parks that attracted visitors and press attention, a classroom in PennDesign’s Meyerson Hall has been Monument Lab’s unofficial base of operations. It’s there that students have been meeting for a course taught by Farber and PennDesign faculty member Matt Neff, director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Fine Arts, entitled Monument Lab: Public Art & Civic Research Praxis.
The course required students to report for weekly shifts alongside area high-school students at Monument Lab’s 10 sites (or “labs”) around the city, collecting proposals submitted by visitors. In preparation, students were trained not only in archiving and data collection, but also as guides to the artworks on display. Students’ work will also inform a report to the City that Farber and Lum will submit in 2018.
As Farber, a scholar of American studies and urban visual culture, directed the students in their first class meeting, “When someone comes up to you and asks, ‘What’s this?’, you might say, ‘We’re interested in experimenting with forms.’”
Even the course’s design was something of an experiment.
Neff explains, “We designed it as a ‘flipped studio’ civic-praxis class—a new pedagogical model for the Fine Arts Department, emphasizing learning and creative problem solving outside of the classroom/studio, where most of the work happens off campus and in public spaces. We partnered with the Netter Center to create an ABCS class (academic based community service class) and they provided us with funding to support public transportation costs for students’ weekly treks across the city and back to Penn.”
Farber, who has taught courses on public engagement in which students collaborate with artists elsewhere before returning to Penn this fall, notes, “This class begins with a push outward, and the rest of the semester is spent in conversation, making sense of the project, then sharing out the results. It’s an inversion of the usual format, where you build up to something.”
Along with Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden and her staff, Farber and Lum’s partner in all this is Laurie Allen, research director for Monument Lab and director of digital scholarship at Penn Libraries. It was up to Allen to develop a database for the proposals from the public—nearly 4,800 in total.
“I don’t believe in monuments,” says one student.
As the semester has unfolded, students have heard lectures by some of the exhibiting artists (including Sharon Hayes, an associate professor of fine arts at PennDesign), studied Philadelphia neighborhoods and communities, read the work of leading scholars on socially-engaged artwork, reported on their experiences in the field, and worked on a final research project for publication. The main assignment was for students to reflect on their interactions with the public as well as the proposals they received.
For the weeks that Monument Lab sites were open, a portion of each class meeting was devoted to discussing the previous week’s challenges and successes. “Part of what we’ve learned from students reporting on their experiences is true for any work of art. You have your work, and once it enters the world, it takes on its own meaning,” explains Farber.
The course attracted undergraduate and graduate students from Haverford, Swarthmore, Colgate, and Bryn Mawr as well as Penn—30 in all, with an eclectic mix of majors, including the natural sciences, city planning, and social work, along with fine arts and art history. Some are from as far away as the United Arab Emirates and India, and many grew up in Philadelphia.
“It was wonderful to see students share their diverse resources and expertise while collaborating on projects and working in groups to map, record, and contextualize their experiences,” says Neff.
Catheline Phan is an undergraduate biology major at Haverford College, where she first met Farber in a writing seminar he taught on monuments, memory, and space back in 2014. For the Monument Lab course, she was assigned to welcome visitors at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, a neighborhood known for its growing immigrant population.
Phan says, “At our site the shipping container is the monument itself, because our artist, Shira [Walinsky, from community center Southeast by Southeast] curates a selection of work on the walls. One of the works I really like is a migration map that people can draw on to show where they came from. We’re also collecting their stories.” Citing the diversity of visitors to her site, Phelan compares the experience to social work or canvassing.
For Heryk Tomassini, a Master of Fine Arts candidate at PennDesign from Puerto Rico, Monument Lab presented the opportunity to use his native Spanish while broadening his artistic practice. As the lab manager at the Norris Square site, in a North Philadelphia that is home to many Puerto Rican immigrants, Tomassini supervised a team of high-school volunteers along with two students in Farber’s and Neff’s class.
Trained as an architect, he relocated to New York in 2011 and began making art in earnest. “I don’t believe in monuments,” he says. “I always thought, if you’re going to build a monument to someone, you should contribute to the mission or idea the person was involved with.”
From its beginnings in 2015, when a more compact version of Monument Lab was produced, the project was conceived as a multi-channel, open-ended dialogue. Farber and Lum sought public-art proposals from several artists, and engaged the late PennDesign faculty member Terry Adkins to create a temporary pavilion in the form of an open-air classroom installed outside City Hall. There they invited visitors to submit their ideas for a monument to Philadelphia, receiving more than 400 in all. The proposals were subsequently exhibited at the Center for Architecture and Design. For this year’s iteration of the project, the proposals were digitized and projected at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
As Farber looks ahead to delivering the final report to the City, he enthuses, “it could be a PDF, it could be a parade—it could be both!”