For an artist and educator to pause her own groundbreaking project at a university museum, something had to go terribly wrong.
The “sound sculpture” of the paused, American MONUMENT. Photo courtesy of Paused blog
The Administration at California State University Long Beach, in September, removed University Art Museum director, Kimberli Meyer from her post mere days before the opening of lauren woods’ American MONUMENT. The artist spells her name in all lower case. This prompted woods to pause the project in protest, which she subsequently announced 30 minutes into its debut.
The act also removed Meyer from helping steward the project she co- created with woods.
American MONUMENT urges consideration of the circumstances under which African Americans have lost their lives to police brutality. It’s a nomadic project that was to be continually expanding. The UAM was to serve as its launch site and steward.
At the heart of American MONUMENT is an interactive sound installation that utilizes sources from open records requests including police reports, court transcripts, witness testimonies and audio files captured by bystanders. Visitors would have been able to pick up the needle on any turntable positioned on multiple stands in the gallery, put it on the record, and activate the “sound sculpture.”
Meyer and woods still want to see the project move forward and woods is intent on that happening at the university. On the American MONUMENT blog, “Paused” woods said the most important reason for wanting to work with Myer and the UAM to launch this work was the context of UAM itself – the university. The artist continued, saying the idea to present this work in a university art museum allowed the intersection of art and cultural production with the thinking and learning community.
“The emerging citizenry from this institution has the potential for great impact and I wanted to build a useful tool with and for them,” woods said.
About a month after the project was paused, RLN spoke to Meyer. She and woods have suggested a plan to CSULB to move forward by creating a parallel museum. The idea developed as woods and Meyer navigated this unexpected situation and considered what it would take to unpause American MONUMENT.
“In many ways, this is not just a territorial situation with lauren pausing the work,” Meyer said. “I (approached) the whole thing like an institutional transformation. This is not just a show. We’re trying to do something on a more structural level.”
They would not move the work at the UAM. It would be unpaused. The MONUMENT was meant to be a process requiring much work and research. Trajectories were going to continue to happen with help of classes and members of the public during the run of the MONUMENT. Meyer explained that could happen, but the parallel museum would bring in its own crew that would immediately have a mission to conduct this anti-racist process. The regular museum can then just go about its business.
Meyer said supporting this kind of work requires a “full throttle commitment, institutionally, to disrupting white supremacy and all that that means.” That did not work when they tried to do this in the regular institution. But with a parallel space the work could actually happen, and at the same time it could provide an alternative structure alongside the UAM. And it could model what institutional transformation could look like.
“It’s an experiment of course,” Meyer said. “…. it could be used as a trademark or mirror so that the regular institution doesn’t have to question itself by changing itself.”
However, with something right alongside the museum that attempts to question it, the logic goes that there might be learning possibilities between. That relationship could become the foundation for the restorative justice process. It’s conceptual as much as it is physical. In particular, woods and Meyer have provided space for the administration to “pivot” from removing Meyer from her post, to regroup, face the situation and correct it.
“That’s restorative justice,” Meyer said. “We all know this race stuff is hard…. But the only way to get it right is to step up to where we’ve made mistakes and try to learn, to in good faith work together.
She mused on imagining an institution would take it upon themselves to be that reflective and wise, to really try to do the work they say they want to do.
“There’s a lot of words out there but still not enough action from the administration,” Meyer said.
In a video posted on Paused, woods spoke to the opening-day audience about American MONUMENT, noting the use of language in the project.
“There is a narrative that occurs with these cases and the statements by the people who murdered the victims,” she said.
Meyer and woods put a call out for internships for help with the open-records requests and research. Students put this project together utilizing that narrative woods mentioned. They reacted very positively to that process. The respondents were enthusiastic as a team, as were the students of color who worked at the museum.
“They were excited that something was (emerging) that addressed their realities more than things have in the past,” Meyer said. “It’s also something that pains me. It was a real loss. Kids were starting to feel less disenfranchised and more that this … was a part of them.”
In fact, with regard to Meyer’s removal, arts students wrote two open letters to the administration wherein these students actually taught the administration about disenfranchisement and oppression of people of color. Both letters are on the Paused blog.
“I just wish that (the administration) would be open to being teachable because these students are brilliant,” Meyer said.
Meyer noted one of the things that became clear with their research and that woods pointed to is that culture and the law are the same; they inform each other. woods tried to identify places where you could overtly see the longer historical cultural narrative about blackness, for example.
“There are incidents where people were being fed back through the legal system through law enforcement and then it becomes a case law,” Meyer said. “How did these biases and mechanisms start and how was this articulated in real life for people of color? That is something that you can pull out (in) the way that she was handling the cases.”
Each of those turntables that have records on them with the sound pieces were about one specific case. They also had the case materials pulled from the open-records request. Meyer said this was an interesting process because woods was going through and putting in liner notes for each case. Each case actually then had a real material effect. For example, before the district attorney decides if they will press charges, they usually hire use of force experts to write a report and carry out forensic analysis on whether or not the killing was justified. That’s critical because it’s what the police always claim.
“There is a man named Jeffrey Noble who stands out among use-of-force experts,” Myer said. “Because he uses the word victim when he describes the person who is the victim. Everybody else in the reports we read, uses the word suspect. Legally, first of all, these people are not even suspects. They were minding their own business.”
Meyer noted the idea that from a tiny change in language, you could shift from treating someone as a suspect to treating them as a victim when analyzing whether or not a killing was justified is huge. They did close readings of cases and planned to bring people in like Jeffrey Noble. Every one of the cases had a cultural narrative embedded in them that was flawed and that started to break down that space between the law and between culture.
“All of this was an opportunity to get specific (on how) these narratives were enacted,” Meyer said. “That’s where lauren is such a brilliant artist. She comes from journalism and film so she’s very specific on how she looks at mediated narratives and at language.”
With the Tamir Rice case, for instance (the 12 –year-old boy who was killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014), woods identified the 911 sheet, the location the call came from, and how it eventually got routed to the dispatcher. When the call came in the person said,
“It looks like a kid, it’s probably a toy gun.”
“That then gets routed to the police who finally show up on the scene and it changes to, ‘There’s a black man with a big gun,’” Meyer said. “How does that fatal game of telephone transpire? What’s going on there? Those are the points where lauren shows us there is this human interpretation act that is happening at every single moment.”
Meyer continued that this is also dictated by prejudices we all walk around with, many of which that are actually informed by media, whether it’s a movie or the news or what was said in the paper.
“She was also trying trace that back and look at cases from the 20th century, similar kinds of things, similar kinds of media attention, similar kinds of uses of language,” Meyer said. “That’s (what) we were just starting to really get into and be able to do a deep read. That’s what we were hoping to accomplish so that people would really start to see what’s in play.”
~ woods also spoke about what plans she has for the project at this point.
“This is the thing that many people may not understand,” woods said. “People have said with me pausing everything the students are missing out. I don’t know how to say it differently but the project cannot go on without the person I collaborated with. I don’t live in California and I’m not a resident of CSULB campus.”
What they were launching in September was the beginning of a public collaboration to complete this first iteration of the MONUMENT. They were talking about basic organizing and mobilizing around the issues to generate content that would complete this iteration which would have theoretically been unveiled it this week.
“If this appeals process does not bring Kimberli back, if the university is interested in having their students participate in this project, then they would have to figure out how to bring the people I collaborated with back to steward the MONUMENT,” woods said. “It’s not something that the UAM or the staff there is capable of doing.”
In pausing the production of the MONUMENT woods was trying to put forth a good faith effort that this appeals process would open to fairness, or that dialogue would open up. But “to be honest,” now, from what she knows, woods doesn’t have any faith about that appeals process being anywhere near fair … or dialogical. She knows that it’s not going to go toward reinstating Meyer.
“An appeals process means the parties have to … talk and sort out how we got into this mess,” she said. “It’s to look at not placing fault on one person but look at what places there could have been a better move and solutions and being willing to work on that.”
So far the process has been one sided. wood’s added, because Meyer is an “at will” employee, they don’t have to say anything. So, it’s not really an appeals process.
“I don’t think they’re interested in how they could have done things better,” she said.
The artist’s candidness comes from “being at the end.” She’s lost the optimism around an institution being willing to participate in a process that requires accountability. She doesn’t believe institutions willingly embark on that unless there some sort of legal or financial consequence.