Artist lauren wood, AmericanMONUMENT

Unpausing American MONUMENT

  • 11/16/2018
  • Melina Paris

An Opportunity for Restorative Justice

By Melina Paris, News Reporter

It’s been two months since California State University Long Beach removed University Art Museum director, Kimberli Meyer, from her post and no explanation has been offered as to why she was removed.

Meyer’s firing occurred days before the opening of the exhibition, “American MONUMENT,” a lauren woods multi-media installation addressing police brutality and the killing of African Americans by police officers. woods protested the firing by putting the exhibit on “pause,” essentially freezing the exhibit so that it can start up at anytime.

American MONUMENT was supposed to become a continually expanding nomadic project with UAM to serve as this project’s launch site and steward.

Meyer, in a written statement to CSULB Dean Cyrus-Parker Jeannette, called the university’s decision to fire her, the institutional collaborator on American MONUMENT, six days before the exhibition, “aggressive.”

“(The action) put an artwork of great importance on hold. It also created the impression that CSULB is incapable of overcoming institutional racism. It suggests that a healthy working environment and thoughtful protective leadership is incompatible with an anti-racist practice. This impression sends a fatal signal to our students and our learning communities.”

This isn’t the first time an art museum in Long Beach got cold feet showcasing a project that cast a critical eye at police brutality.

In 2015, a street art exhibition called Vitality and Verve featuring the work of street artist “Saber” at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

The museum was apparently oblivious of the subversive nature of some of the art form. In an installation at that exhibit, Saber attempted to fit all the names of the people killed by police that year (557 by August) in to the mural, but ran out of space. The museum censored his work by not allowing him to finish the installation or post an artist statement.

RLN spoke with Meyer about a month after American MONUMENT was paused. She and woods have proposed a way forward to Cal State University Long Beach by advocating the creation of a parallel museum. The idea emerged as woods and Meyer 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, Meyer explained. 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 in 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.

Meyer mused about the kind of institution that would take it upon themselves to be that reflective and wise – to really 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 the American Monument blog, woods spoke to the opening-day audience about the installation 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 interns to 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, art 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 Paused.

“I just wish that (the administration) would be open to being teachable because these students are brilliant,” Meyer said.
Details: www.americanmonument.blog

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Melina Paris

Melina Paris is a Southern California-based writer, who blends her passion for writing and connecting people to their local community into pieces centered music, cultural events, the arts, and most recently, the intersection of art and social justice.