Shining light on the future and potential of public pedestals
With statues of slaveholders dropping like confederate soldiers across the country, many communities and individuals are having robust discussions about how and when to replace many monuments. But in Boston, one team of visual artists has already moved the dialogue forward by putting work in on the ground.
Conceived by Cedric “Vise 1” Douglas, the People’s Memorial Project is a “pop-up public video projection installation which addresses the current debate about public monuments and their controversial status.” Specifically, the crew has been illuminating the accomplishments of community heroes on the empty pedestal where a marble Christopher Columbus once stood in the North End.
“The intent of this project is to create a glimpse into the future by replacing an antiquated view of history with a vision of tomorrow where all people who have contributed to the growth and prosperity of the local community and the broader nation are recognized and honored” Douglas said.
To select subjects, Douglas and his team conducted an informal poll to gather nominees, then from “over 150 notable and accomplished local figures,” narrowed it down to eight significantly accomplished Greater Bostonians, past as well as present—Mel King, Elma Lewis, Keith “Guru” Elam, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Frieda Garcia, Chief Massasoit, Crispus Attucks, and Jessie “Little Doe” Baird.
We asked project manager Teresita Cochran about where the idea came from and what’s next…
Was there a project that any of you did before this that kind of set the groundwork?
There were a few different projects that were iterative. Cedric, while in residency at Emerson College, created the Street Memorials Project. It began as a way to bring attention to Black lives lost at the hands of police without a fair trial and turned into a poignant street art piece, culminating with Cedric handing out roses in the Boston Common as a way to memorialize Black lives lost.
Another project Cedric worked on, which venerated local community members, was Storefront Stories in East Arlington. For Storefront Stories, the team asked: Who are the people who run the tiny, specialized storefront businesses in East Arlington, and what makes them tick? They work hard, investing long hours with little time off. They take risks, their businesses are vulnerable to economic ups and downs, and they may not make a lot of money. From nominations by the public, 12 local businesses were chosen to represent a cross section of the commercial neighborhood along Mass Avenue. A visual story was created for each business and pasted on the side of their building, drawing attention and engagement from the community.
Another project Cedric created, Up Truck, was a mobile creative art lab intended to engage members in Uphams Corner Boston via a public survey of what kind of art they would like represented in their neighborhood.
Other members of our team—Vanessa Till Hooper, Jeff Grantz, and [Cochran]—in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 have brought to downtown Boston a free night time art festival, Illuminus Boston, which often includes visual art projects that are interactive and large-scale projections mapped onto building façades. [Cedric and Cochran] were both artist alumni from Illuminus 2015 and 2017, respectively. Jeff Grantz founded and Vanessa Till Hooper has creative directed Illuminus since 2014, and have worked with projection and interactive video installations for over a decade.
With the bringing down of public memorials and monuments around the country, our team started talking about what could be possible in working together to create an intervention, in particular at the now empty Christopher Columbus Memorial statue plinth in downtown Boston, as a way to bring underrepresented people in the Black, Latin, Indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQ+ communities onto the pedestal. Cedric started an informal survey among his peers and created a list of people that the community suggested would represent the people of Boston and the region, and whom they felt should be honored. We brainstormed how best to do that, and the People’s Memorial Project was generated out of this conversation and energy, as well as Cedric’s vision for how to bring his experience with past projects into play with this pop-up art piece. Cedric is focused on having this project continue and create a conversation and movement toward a new type of monument, one in which the people get to have a say in who is memorialized in their communities.
What are the main ingredients/materials put to use here? Was it harder to execute than you initially realized?
The People’s Memorial Project was made from reclaimed, large pieces of white styrofoam from an art moving company. They were repurposed and sculpted into a life-sized six-foot tall non-gendered statue form, onto which a projection could be shone. Our team worked with a video projector, marine batteries and cables, a fully-charged laptop, Photoshop, and MadMapper. This allowed the statue to be completely remote and mobile. The only issue that we had to take into account was the ambient light at the location so the projected image details could be clearly seen. Also, because it was styrofoam, we needed to be sure to weigh it down when out in open space.
What has been the reaction to the imagery so far? How, if at all, has that impacted the way that you are continuing with the project moving forward?
The reaction has been very positive and encouraging. People stop and take the time to read the narrative about each person. The general consensus has been that more of this type of intervention is wanted and needed. The families of two of the people we represented have inquired about having permanent memorials installed in their communities. Our team is talking about how to make the imagery we created and future images more compelling. Since this type of projection has the opportunity to play video, we are investigating ways to make the monuments become their own storytellers, elevating them beyond a static sculpture with video and audio.
This concept “is not just for the Christopher Columbus site, but for all locations, it is a proposal for a better process for nomination and giving tribute to the individuals who make our community and our world a better place.” What are some next steps to make that happen? How does something like this find some permanence?
One—to be sure the public has a method for having their voices heard through a survey or election process. Two—having artists and creatives at the table for the monument/memorial creation process. Three—making sure that a diverse panel is working to represent a broad spectrum of communities, voices, and cultures, as well as a variation of timelines. Memorials don’t have to just be of people from a distant past, they can be people from the local community who their peers want to elevate and honor. And lastly, a conduit from the people to the decision makers in the mayors’ offices in Boston as well as other cities across the country; a method for how the nominations get conveyed to the officials who have dominion over the pedestals and parks where these statues, static or otherwise, will reside. Conversation, partnership and collaborative design.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.