Paul Farber has been fascinated by cultural memory and civic engagement since he was a child growing up in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. Now the senior research scholar at the Center for Public Art and Space at Weitzman, he co-founded Monument Lab with artist and writer Ken Lum, the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Professor and chair of fine arts, in 2012. The public art and history studio has, over the last decade, curated exhibitions across the country that amplify local artists’ efforts to engage with cultural memory and civic identity. This fall, as director of Monument Lab, Farber co-curates with Salamishah Tillet Beyond Granite: Pulling Together, the first public exhibition of its kind on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Beyond Granite inaugurates a pilot partnership among the National Trust, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the National Park Service, with funding by the Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project.
Here, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed for clarity, Farber discusses Beyond Granite, the aims and experiments of Monument Lab, and what, exactly, a monument even is.
Tell me a little about how your interest in the role and possibilities of monuments began.
I’ve long had an interest and investment in memory, before it became a part of my practice. That comes from growing up in a Jewish household, coming up in Philadelphia amidst layers of history and public art, and just an understanding that the past lives with us. The past doesn’t merely exist behind museum glass. The past, present, and future live together. I graduated from Penn in 2005, majoring in Urban Studies. After my freshman first year, my first summer job was working for the chaplain’s office, helping and assisting in the first year’s commemoration of September 11th. What we were planning was a “participatory art project.” Those were words I didn’t know then, but it helped me understand that what you do, as you try to honor those who come before you, is come together in the moment. Later, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I wrote my dissertation about American artists and the Berlin Wall, and I kept bumping into pieces of the wall in public spaces around the US—presidential libraries, national museums and archives, riverfront parks, subway stations, food courts, and at least one casino. It had me thinking: if these fragments have been installed across the US, what stories are not being told in public spaces?
What does a monument do that a piece of public art doesn’t?
There are contexts where the distinctions are really helpful to unpack, and I love doing that in the classroom. But there is so much slippage, because there is no one single definition of monument. There are objects and practices that are called, resourced, or protected as monuments, but a monument is in the eye of the beholder. There are monuments that are made by official decree, but also that are shaped in the public imagination. If you have the time, money, and official power, you build a monument that’s important to you because it reinforces your place and perspective. If you don’t, you have power, nonetheless: you gather around monuments that exist, or you build your own, and that is the way you register your presence.
Which we’ve seen in the past few years as battles over monuments have intensified, during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movements. For a moment, people weren’t going into the office and had time to be in public spaces together, and look at them.
The space around a monument, strangely, created an ideal proscenium to convene.
When did Monument Lab come into being?
I met Ken Lum when we both began teaching at Penn, him in fine arts and me in urban studies. We realized we share values and visions and public art teaching and engagement. I graduated with my PhD and got a job at Haverford College as a postdoctoral fellow, and heard from Ken that he wanted to a Negative History Festival. I understood because we had talked so much about history in holistic terms, and what would happen if we inverted the narrative and looked at history as needing repair. We want to unfreeze monuments and utilize them to take on social and political issues that are grounded in challenges of the past, present, and future. Monument Lab became a framework for that.
"We want to unfreeze monuments and utilize them to take on social and political issues that are grounded in challenges of the past, present, and future."
What does that framework look like?
The first iteration was an exploratory exhibition in 2015 featuring the late Penn professor and artist Terry Adkins. It just changed our whole trajectory: we went from being a classroom experiment to being an upstart public project to a passion project, and more recently, a nonprofit organization. We work on projects with municipal partners, agencies, and institutions. We work to build the field of monument changemakers with artists and grassroots organizers. We function as a bridge. A lot of the closest partnerships are really beautifully nourished by people in and around Penn. But our work has brought us outward throughout Philadelphia and around the country. Deep down, we are a socially-engaged art project in the form of a civic agency. In the beginning, it was collaborative and also a provocation. In the ensuing years, the provocation morphed into an actual organization with a set of relationships and responsibilities.
How does this work on a national level?
For our Re:Generation project, we were able to sub-grant a million dollars across ten teams who were at a point of work that was already embedded in a local city, town, or region. It’s resulted in a remarkable group, including practitioners and artists in Montgomery, Alabama; Queens, New York; Dinétah; and Rapid City, South Dakota. An open call went out in 2021, and another will open up in late August. We’re asked often, “What’s the solution to the monument question?” As if there’s one solution.
As if there’s one question!
In the monument landscape, there is such a range of ways we imprint memory and keep it forward. So the goal is to instead say: “Well, the people on the ground who are working intergenerationally, intersectionally in coalitions—what do they already know?” It’s about learning from, resourcing, and spotlighting the people already doing the work. We have just launched a second open call this fall, as this initiative continues to grow.
Which brings us to Beyond Granite. What’s its genesis?
Monument Lab was invited last year to be curators for the first exhibition of a new initiative, a project about collaboration between federal agencies and non-profits and artists’ organizations—but especially with a group of six artists who have risen to the occasion and provided six distinct approaches to the way we can imagine the future of monuments as one that’s unfolding right in front of us. It’s the first curated public exhibition on the Mall, in a place in which artistic expression and protests have already been imprinted in this space.
The Mall is itself a monument, in a sense.
The Mall is an invented space. It was carved out of the Potomac River and from lands that were stewarded by Indigenous peoples and then shaped to create a compromise between northern and southern states. The Mall has changed over time but many of its main symbols are enduring and have an aura of permanence. They’re all creations of a moment in time. What’s most powerful is looking at the moments where the largest symbols on the Mall have been reinterpreted and reimagined through the work of people proclaiming and fighting for a fuller democracy. That’s why we anchored the first exhibition around the origin story of Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance on the Mall on Easter Sunday, against the backdrop of a segregated Washington, DC when she was barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing in Constitution Hall. She performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people. The educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune called it “a pulling together” of democracy. We thought about how the performance, her work of art, her presence, and its witnesses changed the course of the Mall for decades to come. We think about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the turning of the Mall into a space for the AIDS Quilt to unfurl with nearby actions by ACT-UP around the White House and federal agencies—the Mall is a space where we can grasp the heaviest burden and the most hopeful gestures in the American experiment. Those iconic moments lasted a day or the course of several days, so to have a month where we get to engage people is really meaningful. We’ve hired more than thirty DC-based paid artists, educators, and students to staff Welcome Stations where people can come answer the same prompt that has guided the whole project: What stories remain untold on the National Mall?
How do the artists answer this prompt?
Well, some have made works that will travel, and some made activations and provocations for the Mall. A Penn alum, Ashon T. Crawley [C’03], made an audiovisual sonic memorial to the AIDS crisis, focusing on Black queer church musicians. It’s a kind of open-air, sacred space called HOMEGOING. He created a funeral service that is essentially an album that you can also access when you’re not on the Mall, but will have pathways that you can move through. Whether you are able to come to the exhibition while it is up, or you’re able to read about it or access in other ways, the traces are really meant to look forward. Some of that means including artworks that will have other homes or be reconstituted somewhere else, like those by vanessa german and Wendy Red Star. But already this show has brought about new policy outlining the ways public art can be installed on the National Mall. So it’s both about what we see and experience in public space, and how there is now a different pathway to doing more work like this in the future.