Reflections on public spaces in the age of COVID, protest

Ken Lum and Paul Farber of the Weitzman School of Design reflect on how public spaces are observed through a new lens during the pandemic. 

An empty Times Square during a rainy day
An empty Times Square during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent months have placed new light on public spaces, summoning new perspectives on what they are, what they represent, and why they matter.

Here, Chair of the Fine Arts Department Ken Lum and Senior Research Scholar Paul Farber react to images of an empty Times Square, respond to the removal of controversial public monuments amidst protests across the globe, and tease out the themes of several books they—and Monument Lab, the public art and history studio they co-founded—have had published in the past year. These books include “A Wall of Our Own: An American History of the Berlin Wall,” by Farber; “Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life 1991-2018,” by Lum; and “Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia,” co-authored by both as an extension of and reflection on the ongoing Monument Lab, now connected with the newly established Center for Public Art in Space at the Weitzman School of Design

Statue of woman holding stuffed animal

First up: Collectively, why did you decide to publish this book for Monument Lab, and can you describe what it is and why you think it might be useful for practice and further study?

Lum: The book doesn’t quite fit in any real category. It’s part catalog and part document of the exhibition, but it is also a research project book. It is also a theory book concerning how to approach public spaces, monuments, and so on. It is many things at once, not for a singular way of reading. That reflects the methodology of Monument Lab. We open up the framing to generate different possibilities of thoughts and responses to the problem of the monument. 

The template is that at this point we like to keep things hovering, unfixed, and unstable, and that allows for all kinds of voices to come into it, and that’s why you see within the book, repeated throughout, entries in terms of the public input. There’s no thread we try to build in terms of, ‘This is what the public is thinking.’ We’re not even encapsulating it. We’re saying, ‘These are the voices.’

Farber: The book was imagined to model our practice in public space—to value leading contemporary artists, to incorporate knowledge produced in public spaces with participants, and to bridge theory and practice in the service of social justice. We wanted people to be able to pick this book up and teach it in a course, at a university, but also be able to stumble upon it in unexpected ways, and either learn something they didn’t know about their city or find common ground with one of the artists or contributors and, therefore, shared recognition of the city.

Did you always intend for a book?

Farber: As Monument Lab has evolved from classroom projects at Penn in Fine Arts and Urban Studies, it’s been a wild ride and one that’s been really meaningful for us and our circle of collaborators. We always knew it would be a book, but we didn’t know if the book would be the endpoint. And now as our work continues in Philadelphia and across numerous cities, and has really grown, the book is a stepping stone. Because although it speaks to Philadelphia’s specific historic and artistic context, readers identify with the stories and struggles in the pages. In a way, it’s funny but welcome; the book is not the endpoint of the research. It’s really a way to evolve, deepen, and jump onward.

Lum: I agree. The book is not a conclusion to the exhibition; normally you have a catalog, you have an exhibition, and then, subsequently, it’s followed up by the catalog and that’s seen as this marker in history. It is important to note that we are both pedagogues: We both teach. And so, putting words down in a formalized fashion is very important in terms of communicating to a [different audience]. That’s a recognition of the power of a book format. Whatever lessons can be gleaned from what we learned through Monument Lab is distributable to a wider audience, but I would also say the book is a kind of iteration, in terms of the life of what we’re interested in, in Monument Lab, because even as we’re tackling monuments today, monuments are changing in terms of all kinds of new tactics.

Writings on Art and Life text

I’d like to also chat about your books; you both coincidentally have your own separate books published this spring. Ken, can you tell me what prompted your book of essays and why it’s out now?

Lum: My book is a collection of writings … The idea for the book started well over 10 years ago when a noted Swiss curator, now chief curator at Serpentine Galleries in London, Hans Ulrich Obrist, came upon some of my writings and said, ‘I didn’t know you wrote; I really like this essay.’ I said, ‘I have more,’ and when he asked for them, I sent him a compilation of my writings. He then said, ‘This needs to be in a book.’ We had a good publisher. The book project started at the end of ’07, but got waylaid by the ’08 financial collapse. As it turned out, it is a good thing this happened as I have written many more essays since then. More recently, the former associate curator for the Serpentine contacted me. She asked; ‘Hey, did that book of yours ever come out?’ She set in motion a series of steps that made the book possible.

What do you hope people will take away from it?

Lum: One thing that makes my book different, I would say, from artists who have written essays and ultimately a collection of writings in book form, is that if you go through my book, one thing is clear: I don’t try to make my writings a justification of who I am in the art world. Maybe that’s a mistake and that hurts me in terms of my strategic sense of trying to promote myself in the art world [Laughs], but I think you see that I don’t write about myself or my own art very much. I guess the book reflects my philosophy of art and that being an artist is a lifelong endeavor and a lifelong pursuit, and so it’s about maintaining an intense questioning and curiosity about the world, and to look at the world with the most critical eyes for the sake of those oppressed and less fortunate. 

That’s what I want people to take away from it; that it’s my view of how we should role model ourselves as citizens of the world.

Image of a soldier and Wall of Our Own text

Paul, tell me why you decided to examine the intersection of arts and activism at the fall of the Berlin Wall in your book. And did the book turn out how you thought it might?

Farber: This book started as a dissertation. I had 10 different dissertations I wanted to write for a Ph.D. in American culture, and I spent a summer in Berlin thinking I would have a critical distance away from America. I quickly realized I would bump into all these people from the United States or elsewhere around the world who went to the Berlin Wall for the same reason, but what I kept finding was the people I was interested in writing about—especially artists and activists contesting racism, sexism, homophobia, in the U.S.—the thing they had in common was they spent time in Berlin while the wall was up, thinking about division in America. Photojournalists like Leonard Freed, writer and activist Angela Davis, poet and activist Audre Lorde, and then countless others. 

Anyone I was interested in writing about, from Paul Robeson to Langston Hughes, Keith Haring to Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Jackson, even Alvin and the Chipmunks, had a Berlin Wall story. When I went back to the U.S., I found all these stories missing from the broad public history of the wall, told in museums and commercial and tourist sites, which was the connection that civil rights activists made between the wall and segregation, all these other important cultures that linked art and activism in the U.S. And when I kept looking, I should say one of the reasons I started the project was I kept bumping into, literally and metaphorically, pieces of the wall installed in American public places over the last 30 years as monuments. 

I kept thinking, ‘If these are installed in Washington, Seattle, Chicago, etc., then what hasn’t been installed here and what story is not told?’ And it was in fact that question that led to my first class that I taught about monuments at Penn while doing that dissertation. So, this is a book that has taken over 10 years to write. I didn’t know how relevant the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the idea of monuments would be in this time, but I do think that following the lead of artists and writers and how they understand geopolitics makes it an important book about the history of the Cold War. It also makes it present in important ways today.

Coronavirus: How do you see [the arts] adding to the dialogue as we move through this crisis? 

Farber: Early on, one thing we started to track is the images of surgical face masks put on monuments around the world, at a moment when we’re withdrawing from public space. This was the case in Lombardi, Italy, Wuhan, China, and New York City, and yet again a reminder of how people communicate through monuments and really take these public symbols and connect them to everyday politics. People see monuments and channel through them the demands of what it means to need and imagine democracy. Through symbols, to understand when it works and when it doesn’t. We already think of artists as having their ears to the ground. Especially those who utilize tools of public engagement in their work. For artists, this was a time where they’re getting to work. Finding new forms of civic duty, working to forge connectedness in the face of distancing. As we think about what it means to imagine our public spaces, artists are figuring out ways to bridge gaps and also speak truth to power in ways that address inequities and injustice even in this unprecedented moment.

Lum: I see the coronavirus as an opportunity for people to think hard about the future, given how clearly unsustainable the prevailing or just past conditions are. In all this talk about globalization and so on, we’re still functioning independently, as autonomous units that are in competition from one another, including from nature.

Farber: I’d just add, as people withdraw from public spaces, just think about empty museums and galleries and stages and venues. You’re going to see a city you don’t recognize or want to live in. And the fact that if this was not a public health pandemic but a work stoppage or day off, all those places would be packed. As the city first shutdown, I even saw, from a safe social distance, the Rocky statue and there was a line there over the weekend. What is really important and picks up on what Ken is saying, is art is not just a luxury for decoration. It is the way that humanity recognizes itself, and the important differences and connections. And this moment where we are, art is a sustaining force and it is a time when artists are pushed to reinvent—they have to deal with fault lines, but also are some of the most important sources and muses for understanding our profound connectedness. Part of the difficulty we’re facing right now is confronting the challenges of that connectedness, and art is vital to our vision of our world around us and our democracy.

I’ve been looking at photos of a virtually empty Times Square during the stay-at-home orders and thinking of public monuments. It’s almost like it has become a monument of life from not that long ago. It’s a strange reorientation of a busy commercial affair.

Lum: It’s actually a trope of science fiction: This post-apocalyptic city where you see these landmarks, Big Ben or Times Square, and they’re empty, right?

Farber: We have the aphorism that if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did the tree fall at all? If you’re standing in the middle of Times Square and there’s no one around, are you truly in a public space? I think this is a moment to think about and reckon with what makes a public space public and vital. It is of course the presence of people, but also the value system of understanding health, understanding belonging, and understanding issues of justice and connectedness.

If you’re standing in the middle of Times Square and there’s no one around, are you truly in a public space? I think this is a moment to think about and reckon with what makes a public space public and vital. Paul Farber, artistic director and co-founder of Monument Lab

On June 3, the controversial bronze statue of former Philadelphia Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo was removed after years of calls for it to be taken down. How do you see that fitting into the narrative of what’s happening on the public monuments front at large in the past few years? And are you surprised it took as long as it did for it to be removed?

Lum: What is happening in the United States today is a reckoning with the past. A past, to borrow from William Faulkner, that is never dead and not even past. The social upheaval confronting the nation today converges in many symbols: the badge of the police officer, the inequity of the tax code, food deserts, FICO scores, and officially sanctioned monuments and statuary. There are many other examples. But in their aggregate, they reproduce the narrative of who has the power and who does not, who has the right to speak and who does not, and who is worthy of being listened to and who is not. The questioning of monuments is a step forward in the questioning of the status quo because it exposes public monuments as instruments of power and as tools of an increasingly repressive apparatus that produces greater inequity and social injustice. 

Frank Rizzo was a hateful human being. But in the form of a monument, his hate is subsumed within the operative character of all monuments, as secondary in significance to a universalized narrative of public exaltation that disallows challenge. While I support the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue, I also think an alternative of allowing the statue to be permanently enacted upon (I am thinking of past examples of the Rizzo statue adorned in a pink crochet bikini or in stark dialogue with Hank Willis Thomas’ giant Afro pick for the Monument Lab exhibition) would have opened up the problematic statue to all kinds of creative and subversive responses. Yet I recognize that such an alternative may just be wishful thinking on my part, given how untenable the presence of the statue had become.

Farber: In the Fall of 2017, the city announced ‘the Rizzo statue will be moved to a different location’ with the ‘goal moving forward [to] seamlessly relocate the statue to a new, more appropriate public location in the city.’ This announcement occurred on the heels of years of organizing around the statue led by Black activists, including the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL (Racial, Economic and Legal) Justice; the Monument Lab citywide exhibition including an installation of artist Hank Willis Thomas’ ‘All Power to All People’ adjacent to the Rizzo statue; and the former Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy’s public proposal process in which 4,000 people submitted ideas about the Rizzo statue, reviewed by the city, in order to determine the statue’s fate. That announcement felt like an important breakthrough for the city and a sincere moment of potential repair. Within several months, however, the city began delaying the move and even undercutting their own efforts. Fast forward three years later, and the most recent protests in defense of Black lives and against police brutality pushed the city to stop delaying its promised removal any further. In 2019, I wrote about the delayed takedown, and last week, about the recent removal removal in the Inquirer.

Any discussion of a proposed new site for the statue must reckon with the idea there is no neutral public space in this city that can absorb and heal the trauma of this statue on its own accord. The city will have to devote time, resources, and efforts to heal. The takedown of Rizzo, like the removal of Confederate monuments, confirms that racist exclusion has been built into our public spaces. From the statue’s dedication in 1999, the bronze statue loomed over the civic spaces around City Hall. But the Rizzo statue’s rise is not part of our city’s ancient history. For example, Allen Iverson was [two years] into his NBA career when the statue was dedicated. This statue is part of our city’s contemporary history. We are not just fresh from the removal of the statue, we are rethinking the very systems and approaches that deemed it worthy in the first place. 

Now, as the city and its residents attempt to thoughtfully respond to and reckon with our roles in dismantling systemic racism, we have to dig deep. Our approach to public art, too, must reflect a radical revisioning toward justice, repair, and regrowth.