Where does the collective memory of a city reside? Is it in the design of its buildings, the books in its libraries? Most would point to a city’s monuments as pieces of its past — but monuments rarely tell the whole story. Sue Mobley and John Ludlam of Paper Monuments, who will put on a Public History as Placemaking mobile workshop at this year’s Walk/Bike/Places, have both had enough of oft-repeated statues of military men on horses. They’re shaking up what a monument means, focusing on the history of New Orleans in crowd-sourced, temporary installations for which the organization is named.
Q: What does the concept of “paper” monuments mean?
SUE: New Orleans took down four Confederate monuments last year, and all of the members of our team at Paper Monuments were in one way or another involved in that process, as advocates or organizers or spectators. We’re involved in the conversation around what comes next for the city and for its public spaces. One of the things that was very critical is that when you look at New Orleans and its sense of itself, of its story, it’s a very mediated understanding. We’re a tourist town, and have had a tourism economy for at least 60 years. So, we wanted to be able to tell stories that were not part of that tourism narrative; stories from alternate views and histories. Meanwhile, monuments are usually cast metal things that occupy a lot of space, and are a claim on space that is meant to be forever. We wanted to play with the idea of impermanence and transience. People who live in the city currently want to explore things that are a disruption to the idea of the monumental.
Q: This past year has sparked a lot of conversation around monuments — namely, who they are for, and what values they represent in our public spaces. How has this conversation played out in New Orleans, i.e. through the Take ‘Em Down NoLa Coalition?
SUE: The work to take down the monuments has been in play longer than I’ve been alive. There’ve been groups working since Brown vs. Board of Education, and groups that resisted them being put up in the first place. During the Civil Rights Era, there were numerous protests against white supremacy in public space in New Orleans. It’s been iterative over the decades, with many protests and marches and petitions and attempts at legal action.
This latest push was, for me, as an observer and advocate, fascinating in terms of how many of the folks from previous movements came out into the streets. So much of it was also contextual within the broader national conversation around monuments. We had Charlottesville as a big moment for this topic, and it’s changed how we view what the impacts are of having parts of the Confederacy occupy our spaces. I was not an active member of Take ‘Em Down NoLa Coalition, but watching them build on and take advantage of that context and history of protest was really something to see. Cynically speaking, watching the mayor take advantage of the opportunity to make his name on the national stage was also part of the context in which this all unfolded. The claiming of space is a political act, and taking monuments down is a political act — it comes with agendas.
Q: Why is community participation so important when it comes to monuments?
JOHN: Monuments are how history is recorded. It’s not a book or something in a museum, these are supposed to be the “best” of our society. They represent the things we value most, and these should be things that make people feel valued; that their existence is desired in a city and that their lives are important to others in a city. They give you the chance to see yourself and your story represented — a powerful feeling to come out of a designed object. When we’re talking about paper monuments, it’s important to have narratives that help people to feel valued in New Orleans.
SUE: Representation matters. When Wonder Woman came out, a conversation started for women. When Black Panther came out, social media went crazy. It’s about the idea of validating people’s stories that aren’t usually seen as monumental. So many of the submissions of monuments that Monument Lab, our sibling project in Philadelphia, received are not “epic.” They’re about grandmothers who hold communities together, or about teachers, or simple acts of humanity that knit us together. They’re things that make a place what it is.
Part of the advantage of being able to do this participatory, transient process, is to have a place to hold those narratives as part of an archive. This snapshot of New Orleans and what matters to its people is also a snapshot of a place that, 12 years ago, wasn’t sure about its future. We’re still not sure if we’ll make it, no matter what we build. It’s like we’re writing from Atlantis — this place is fragile. It’s what makes it beautiful, this fragility — it’s important that we capture what we can along the way.
Q: How does Colloqate ensure community engagement around proposed monuments in New Orleans? Can you tell me more about the story boards and maps?
JOHN: A lot of our work is inspired by Monuments Lab. But, we’re a city of about 390,000 people, and less dense than they are. It’s something that makes New Orleans beautiful, but means that our project is not going to unfold quite the same. So far, we’ve partnered with institutions like the Contemporary Arts Center, and the University of New Orleans, places that already have this infrastructure and have events off which we can build.
SUE: One of the things that’s fascinating is posting up in public spaces that are frequently used, and playing with the ways in which our built environment fails. We have a downtown and a main street, which both, like many others, saw disinvestment after white flight. There are underutilized storefronts, and buildings that have not been touched. We have a transit system that, because of the history of New Orleans, stops at Canal Street, forcing everyone to exchange at that stop. So, now there’s an incredible open-air gallery in that space, allowing us to blow up a poster that tells a history and put it in a place where people are forced to see it. Placing the gallery there also reveals under-investment and racially motivated patterns of under-service. We knit those together and say; “we are holding this space.” It exposes our work to our intended audience, someone coming in from the East, waiting for a bus just to get to work. That’s who i want to see stories of resistance from; of slave revolts and sit-ins.
JOHN: These events may have happened just blocks away, like the 1892 General Strike, which was three blocks away from this exchange stop. These buildings still exist. You are here. This is where this monument is. There’s an advantage of having our installation of posters in those places, in a tiny city like New Orleans. You’re not just reading a book, you’re in the space. But Canal Street is only one main street of the city — there are others. As we broaden the scope to installations along Broad Street, we’ve been thinking about these places that might not be visible to a lot of white folks like Canal Street is, but are main streets nonetheless.
SUE: We are a under-unionized, under-invested, economically vulnerable space. But after the Civil War, interracial unions in New Orleans brought about some of the best protections in the South — even as Jim Crow crept in. Expanding the realm of the possible is what this project is about. How can we look at what our ancestors did with fewer resources? How can we look at how people came together and made change, and see ourselves in that? If we’re not talking about a man on a horse in the military, like the majority of monuments seem to depict — and instead we’re talking about people fighting for dignity or security for their family, we’re talking about seeing the heroic in them and in ourselves.
Q: How is the map drawn for your proposed monuments in New Orleans — and what is in the works today?
SUE: The map looks like chaos, but it’s meant to look like chaos. We are hoping to have 1500 proposed monuments by the end of the summer. We are still talking about these four monuments that were taken down last year, but we want people to look at what this could be if people were remembering everything. The map is just a sign of what could be.
Q: What has been the response to the installations so far?
JOHN: The monuments issue is kind of binary in people’s heads, up or down. But, when you ask people “now what?” they lose their binary aspect and start thinking about what they value. They get intimidated and then excited. The installations help with the excited part. They see the opportunity to have what they value acknowledged, and they recognize how complicated the monuments issue can be.
SUE: In response to the installations, there’s often a pause that people have. The artwork is beautiful, and the stories are strong, and often previously unheard of. It’s been incredible asking about 90 storytellers to put forth their proposals at our Poster Series. I’ve learned so much doing this project, about stories I had never heard otherwise. They’re obscure, or even if they are documented, they aren’t recognized extraordinarily well. There’s a lovely sense of discovery, like replacing something in space with very little warning, illustrated with artwork that’s always a little different. We have 25 posters done now, 75 within the next few months. There’s a wide range of styles and media, and they’re reduced to a single frame, but it’s still very much a modern interpretation of stories — like an Irish domestic servant at the end of the 19th century. It’s a story you wouldn’t have expected, but the Irish domestic servants were fierce, working to define a class for themselves and support their families. There’s a way to connect to that type of story through artwork.