Paul M. Farber: Writing a new, more inclusive history

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“A certain silencing is created by who and who doesn’t get to be honored.” — Gary Nash

Philadelphia is the city of history. It is also a city of arts and culture, which is why it’s a shame that of all the publicly funded monuments built to honor our history, only two women and one person of color are represented as full statues. Monument Lab is a program that was designed to help change that narrative and generate new ways of thinking about monuments and public art. In 2017, along with Mural Arts Philadelphia, Monument Lab produced and organized a groundbreaking, city-wide exhibition of temporary, site-specific works culled from ideas proposed by artists and everyday citizens answering the question, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” The answers to that question and many more have been compiled into a thought-provoking, moving and inspiring book “Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia” from Temple University Press. We spoke to co-founder of Monument Lab and the book’s author Paul M. Farber. 

You have quite an impressive bio: curator, historian, author, research scholar, editor and educator. You’ve been invited to lecture and lead workshops at the Library of Congress, New York Public Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You’ve been included on Dell’s inaugural #Inspire 100 list, a group of “world changers” who use technology to empower social change. So my question to you, Paul M. Farber, is what does the “M” stand for?

Michael. I use it because there are several Paul Farber’s in the city, and a few of them are also writers and professors. One Michael Farber even tied for third place with me in Video Library Oscars in 1992!                  

Where are you from?

I’m a lifelong Philadelphian with a detour to Ann Arbor, Southern California, Washington D.C., and Berlin. I now live around the corner from where I grew up in Mt. Airy with my husband, Aaron, and our puppy Ziggy. 

Full circle. What did the folks do?

One was a professor, and the other was a physician and a poet.

You seem like a combo of both the academic and the creative side. 

Yes! I try to channel both their energies. 

Which did you lean toward as a kid?

I was always interested in the ways that people connect and come together, especially around issues of justice. But in school, I was an athlete and often had to be convinced to sit down to finish my studies. It still comes as a surprise to me that I’m now a professor and scholar! 

What sports did you play?

Some basketball and soccer but mainly track and field. I was a sprinter. Being involved in sports taught me dedication and discipline and how to be around and work with other people. 

When did you come out?

I started to come out at the end of high school, but college is where I started figuring out how to be an athlete and gay because, at first, those two things were hard to put together. It just didn’t compute at the time. I knew more about being an athlete than being LGBT. Sports had always been the place where I felt the most like myself, and yet in the process of coming out, it was also a place where I felt alienated. But since then, of course, I’ve met many other queer athletes and coaches, and it was really helpful to see that I was part of a bigger community. In my sophomore year, I was the co-founder of a group called PATH (Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia), which was the first queer and allied campus sports group in the country. 

What did you study?

I studied German, and I worked for the college newspaper. I was a journalist, really; I knew I wanted to write and teach. At the same time, I was also a founding member of a group called The Race Dialogue Project. We worked on ways to break the status quo. 

Did you go to grad school?

Eventually, but I first worked as a journalist part-time. I also worked as a research assistant for a scholar, Michael Eric Dyson, and his wife. He is an award-winning author, radio host and professor. He’d be on NPR one week and quoted in the New York Times the next. He taught me a lot and introduced me to a lot of scholars who were also activists like him. I later went back and got my Ph.D., but I wanted to get some real experience to understand not only where we are now, but how we got here in terms of social justice and equality. 

Tell me a little about that journey.

So I went to school in Michigan and studied American culture as an intersection of American art, literature and history. It was important to learn how history lives in the present. It’s not frozen or isolated from us; it’s an active force that we shape. I wanted to think about identity, gender, race, class, national belonging, and I found a topic, American artists and the Berlin wall that allowed me to study that. There were stories about American artists and activists like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Keith Haring, Langston Hughes, all of whom found a home in Berlin. I wrote my dissertation on that, in fact, I have a book about it coming out in March, but I kept finding stories about pieces of the wall that ended up in the U.S. as monuments in odd public places. From presidential libraries to casinos and food courts. I think being from Philadelphia, we realize that history exists outside of museums. It lives in bronze and marble and in public art and poetry, and in our communities. 

Why are monuments so important to us?

Monuments operate as statements of power and presence in public space. They draw our attention, and the way they’re typically built, they’re designed so you literally are looking up to a person on a pedestal. And that person is usually a white male. They have a perception of permanence, but they’re just a sliver of a city’s history. It’s the unspoken that surrounds them that draws me in. As a queer person, there are very few figures that are representative of us, so we’ve preserved our history for future generations in books, art, poetry and in our activism. I think monuments are important, but it’s essential that we start finding ways to have a more inclusive history through monuments. I want monuments to be a place where we rally, a place where we question, a place where we gather as part of the long arc of history, and a place where more of our true history is recognized.

Which leads to your project …

Yes, the Monument Lab. It started as a classroom project with my co-founder Ken Lum. Our goal has been to critically engage the monuments we’ve inherited and to unearth the next generation of monuments — to imagine public spaces through stories of social justice and equity. We want to acknowledge the contributions and the work of people who don’t always get recognized. To me, it comes down to the selection process and outcomes. If we use the same old processes to decide who and what to memorialize, we will end up with a city full of Ben Franklin statues. There are multitudes of stories that aren’t reflected in our public spaces. Part of the process is listening to people who have been marginalized for too long and understanding that the city’s history is one to be proud of. But we also have to address the traumas of the past, especially around issues of racism, sexism and homophobia. We aim to inform and influence the processes of public art, as well as the permanent collections of cities, museums, libraries and open data repositories. I think the president’s house, right behind the Liberty Bell, is a good example of that. Freedom and repression aren’t two separate stories; they’re one and the same.

I know that exhibit, I was surprised to see that in a publicly funded national park exhibit, they exposed what a terrible and deceitful human Washington was when it came to freeing his slaves. 

 Yes, and right near that exhibit is the historical marker commemorating the LGBT “Annual Reminders.” We all know that history does not happen because an old, straight, white guy on a horse looks off into the distance, we know that it takes collectives of people’s struggle and the shoulders of those who came before. I want to see monuments that reflect that. I hope that people who see the work or read the book will see that people are starting to do the work to change the way we see history in public spaces.

Give me the nuts and bolts of the project.

We started out in 2015 in the courtyard of city hall. We communicated with a variety of people who walked through, from artists to bus drivers, children to seniors citizens, people of all types. We had conversations about public art and what it could and should be. The primary question we asked was, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” From there, it grew legs and went from being academic to real-world when we teamed up with the Mural Arts program. In the end, we worked with over 20 artists and over 10 sites for new monuments. We worked with students and artists and spoke to over 250,000 people, face to face. That’s the equivalent of one in seven Philadelphians, and those engagements are represented in the book. We’re now expanding what we’ve done to other cities. 

That’s great. What were some of the projects that were enacted?

One of the first was a sculpture by Terry Adkins; it’s an empty classroom in the courtyard of city hall. He felt it was appropriate because Philadelphia is known for its great educational institutions like Penn and Temple, but we’re also known for school closures and budget cuts.

I read quite a few of the proposals from folks ranging from emotional to really silly but still thoughtful. 

Yes, we got about 5,000 proposals. Many of them were feasible, but a lot of them were more about values and visions. I wish we could make them all happen. 

What was your favorite proposal?

I spent a lot of time transcribing them for the book and read some of the most beautiful, haunting, sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious stories. People wrote about their lives or their neighborhoods and what was important to them. It’s like a book of history written by thousands of Philadelphians — something to get us a little deeper than just Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell and soft pretzels. So for me, the favorites were the ones about heroes that we don’t usually hear about, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was a singer, songwriter and guitarist who basically invented rock and roll. She was also Black and queer. Someone proposed a monument to her that would have speakers in it. I love that idea. I also loved one that we got from a guy who was 72 years old. It’s called “Rizzo’s Statue Arrow,” and he suggests in part that we “move the statue to Fairmount park where the [soldiers of color] monument was hidden for 60 years. It would be appropriate for Rizzo to be there for 60 years, when another public debate could take place. The [soldiers of color] statue is now prominently located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. But maybe a time will come when we can stop glorifying all wars, and they’ll all be moved to place less visible.” I loved it because it shows how so many Philadelphians are in the here-and-now in so many ways. I love the idea that monuments should have term limits. Overall, the proposals showed a real seriousness and focus on profound issues combined with more playful answers that had a bit of that Philly attitude. But in everything, there was a love of the process, even when it was couched in, “What? You don’t know about ———? Well, let me tell you something …” 

What are the project’s goals?                                                                 

I don’t know that it’s necessary that LGBT and other histories be immortalized only in bronze or marble, but we need to figure out how our history moves forward. Thankfully we have institutions like William Way and the archives there to help preserve our history, but I want to make sure that we value our storytellers and our pioneers that have kept the histories that nourish us alive and make sure that our public spaces give us access to that narrative as well. 

When you’re not doing this work, what do you do?

Appreciating art is a passion, so I enjoy going to museums. I still love to run, it’s a good way to just think and reset. I’ve lived here for most of my life, but I love exploring the city and always find something new to inspire me. And basketball is my, um…

It’s your jam! 

[Laughing] Yes, the way I reset from the day is to watch a 76ers game. I love basketball; some people have the symphony for a sense of calm and well being, I have basketball. I feel most at peace watching a game. I’m a diehard Philadelphia sports fan as well.

OK. Random questions. What three people would you want to see as monuments?

I think three people important to our cities history are: Nina Simone, Essex Hemphill and Gloria Casarez. 

Three things on your bucket list?

Traveling; I want to go to the Grand Canyon, Tokyo and Johannesburg. 

If you were on a reality TV show, which would it be?

I’d be the art curator and BFF for the new “Queer Eye” gang.

Favorite Motown song?

“Ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low.” 

Great song! Where can people find the book?

They can go to the Monument Lab website, monumentlab.com, and it’s also available on Amazon.