Paul Farber (right), co-founder of Monument Lab. He and co-founder Ken Lum have released a book on the studio’s 2017 city-wide exhibit.

By Pete Mazzaccaro

Monuments have been in the news a lot in recent years. From the national question of what to do with the statues of old Confederate generals to the very local debates over the statues of Frank Rizzo and singer Kate Smith.

The life’s work of Mt. Airy native Paul a goes beyond that debate and into the question of just what monuments are. What stories should they tell? How best to tell them? These are questions he and his partner Ken Lum of Monument Lab tackled in 2017 for a series of temporary monuments across the city of Philadelphia. That exhibit has been meticulously documented in a book, titled simply “Monument Lab” that was released this month by Temple Press.

Monument Lab is, as the name implies, a project that studies monument and their place among us. It’s a project that works with artists and the public to both study and engage with monuments, both permanent and temporary.

“It’s a group of people that work to think about temporary art projects, participatory research projects and other kinds of engagements that aim to unfreeze the monuments and have us think about the next generation of monuments as a creative and critical process,” Farber said in an interview last week with the Local.

Farber, 37, was born and raised in Mt. Airy. He currently lives around the corner from his childhood home. He graduated from both Germantown Friends and The University of Pennsylvania, where he earned an undergraduate degree in urban studies and worked as a research assistant to renowned scholar and author Michael Eric Dyson.

After some time away from his hometown, at both the University of Michigan’s PhD program in American culture, in Southern California and Washington D.C., Farber returned to Philadelphia to finish his dissertation, which was on American artist interpretations of the Berlin Wall. While working on the dissertation and teaching a class at Penn on memory monuments and urban space, he went to see an exhibit of work by the photographer Zoe Strauss at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called “10 Years.”

Strauss’s work — the photos of everyday people on the streets of the city and her organized exhibits under a section of I-95, inspired Farber to think more about his hometown.

“I was thinking about how artists and writers who spend time in Berlin while the wall was up would think about division in America, especially around racism sexism homophobia,” Farber said of his dissertation. “It was coming back here and seeing Zoe’s work that Philadelphia, my home, became the place I was studying as well.”

This led to the creation of a classroom project with Lum and funding from the Pew Foundation in 2012 that served as the spark for what would become Monument Lab.

“We had very similar questions about the city,” Farber said. “Namely like: In a historic city, how do we think about democracy? How do we think about the stories that don’t always get carved into statues?”

In 2015, Farber, Lum and other scholars and artists staged a month-long exhibition at City Hall that asked Philadelphians to engage with the group and answer the question: What is an appropriate monument for the City of Philadelphia? More than 35,000 people participated in daily talks about the project and offered proposals.

“That took us from a classroom project to a real passion project,” Farber said.

In 2017, Monument Lab organized the exhibition that is the subject of the new book. Farber and Lum worked with the same basic idea but this time organized a large group of artists, scholars and other prominent people to propose and install 20 temporary monuments across the city.

With the support of the city and funding from multiple philanthropic organizations, Monument Lab secured 100 people to create the 20 installations ranging from performance spaces in Malcom X Park in West Philadelphia to a collection of salvaged front stoops in Washington Square Park. The sole installation in Northwest Philadelphia was in Vernon Park in which artist Karyn Olivier covered the monument of The Battle of Germantown with a mirror-covered encasement. It was called “The Battle is Joined” and invited passersby to consider themselves as part of the monument and the surroundings.

The book contains photos of each of these installations as well as reflections from each artist. Interspersed throughout the book are yellow pages with sketches and text from exhibit visitors who suggested their own monuments. Farber said the project engaged 250,000 people and 4,500 of them submitted proposals. 

“This book brings together the artworks and the research in the way that you see artists driven ideas and ideas from the ground up from people who are passersby who became co-authors of this kind of living study of the city,” Farber said.

Farber said his hope — and the hope of the Monument Lab team and participants —  was to get people talking about the stories our monuments tell and about the ones left untold. Many of the installations in 2017 considered experiences of those who are not often memorialized in monuments: immigrants, Native Americans, women and others. Part of that, he said, was built into the temporary nature of the exhibits.

“The perspectives of immigrant and refugee communities in the city, women’s and LGBT rights, narratives about racial justice — these are not really built into the permanent so it was important to put those ideas out there and to draw attention to the gaps in our public memory and our public history,” Farber said.

On January 27, Farber and Lum will be at the Walnut Street West branch of the Free Library, 201 S. 40th Street at 5:30 pm. See freelibrary.org/calendar/event/95610. For more on Monument Lab, visit monumentlab.com

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