Since May, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, citizens across the country have defaced, destroyed, and advocated for the removal of racist, colonial-centered monuments. At the Minnesota State Capitol, a statue of Christopher Columbus was ripped from its pedestal and thrown face down on the pavement. In Richmond, Virginia, the Robert E. Lee Monument was covered in spray paint and has been the site of weeks of protests. In Salt Lake City, red paint was strewn across the “Serve and Protect” sculpture of bronze hands that resides in front of the Downtown Public Safety Building.
In this context, Kathy Tran, a design educator, and Alex Moya, an artist who migrated from Mexico to Utah as a teenager, enacted Tomorrow’s Monument. This participatory art piece is a part of Pain and Possibility, a community art series hosted by Sugar Space Arts Warehouse and Mestizo Institute of Culture & Arts. It is in this context of destroying monuments that these artists envisioned and launched a new sort of monument — one that embraces community and participation.
At 8 p.m. on September 3, I walked along the grassy median right outside the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse. The sun was low in the sky, offering an orange haze for the last few minutes of the day. In the center of the grass stood a large white arch constructed from stretched white spandex offering the impression of marble architecture. The organizers scampered around the structure in a buzz of last-minute construction: adjusting cords, repositioning laptops, and angling projectors.
In just a few minutes, the neighborhood was swarmed in darkness. Several lampposts that reached above the tree tops gleamed like little moons in the surrounding sky. The monument was illuminated by the contrasting darkness and glowed with stoic presence.
Words filtered across the top panel of the arch: “We don’t need another monument. But people dedicated to eliminating racism.” Meanwhile, projectors cast the image of two white men that moved ever so slightly. The choices of these figures provoked questions for me. Was their presence intended as a parody? Were they meant to invoke the essence of so many historic monuments? Were they chosen as an intentional criticism of the dominating presence many monuments entail?
As I mulled over these questions, I felt an itch — that I did not want these figures on the monuments of tomorrow. They don’t belong as the front facing images of the fight against racism. For a monument that reaches to the future, that calls upon solidarity, and acknowledges the need for change, I craved for two white men not to be the projected relics.
Tran and Moya structured Tomorrow’s Monument with participatory action. Individuals and groups of people were directed to walk and stand under the arch. Once underneath the structure, the projection recognized the presence of bodies and progressed in segments to read:
And then, a tree appeared that quivered and stretched while small green buds pushed out of the branches. The light evening breeze seemed to mix with these electronic pixels and ground the experience in reality.
I loved watching families entering the arch together. Several kids pulled their parents back around to the front, to line up, and take a turn at entering the arch again. These families would stand in the arch, huddled together, in a shared moment to acknowledge the violence of racism and breathe in a commitment toward future action.
This cycle of text and images took about 30 seconds to complete. This offered time to the audience. This was a moment where participants breathed together, reflected, and perhaps considered actions of future change. Upon exiting the archway, the back of the monument billowed in clouds of smoke that expanded like gray parachutes. I was struck by the implication of the temporal. Logistically, this monument is only on display for two short nights, unlike so many other permanent, unchanging monuments and memorials. The smoke added the implication that this arch was in the process of being destroyed. What remains when the physical structures come crumbling down? When symbolic forms are torn to the ground, what do you do next?
If you have shown up to demonstrate your solidarity for anti-racist work, what do you do when Tomorrow’s Monument is no longer standing? What action do you take after the symbolic gestures are completed? Will you continue to show up and engage in anti-racist work?