What's Monumental? Arts Group Rethinks St. Louis Monuments | St. Louis Public Radio

What's Monumental? Arts Group Rethinks St. Louis Monuments

Jun 6, 2019

On a steamy recent afternoon on Cherokee Street, Chicago-based artist Josh Rios showed off his latest piece — a bicycle and attached wagon, both decorated with colored tape and fringe to vaguely resemble a large pinata.

A set of speakers, amplifiers, an MP3 player and two portable batteries were stowed on the wagon, allowing the bike to become a moving monument, complete with its own soundtrack.

Though Rios, Matt Joynt and Anthony Romero created the piece as part of the Luminary’s public-art show “Counterpublic,” it harmonized with a conversation going on at Pulitzer Arts Foundation. Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based studio that aims to shake up traditional assumptions about city monuments, is in residence there this summer.

Monument Lab envisions transforming monuments from pedestal-topping reminders of historical events into street-level designs that speak to the concerns of everyday people.

“Monuments usually have this nationalist narrative attached to them, and we’re thinking [of this] more as like a counter-monument,” Rios said of the bike, which the artists refer to as a mobile sound monument.

It was designed to proudly — and loudly — elevate the types of music people might listen to on the streets in a predominantly Latino neighborhood.

“It raises questions about how a monument is meant to function in society, what they’re meant to do,” Rios added. Unlike typical monuments, he said with a laugh, this one “moves around, and it makes a lot of noise.”

The souped-up bicycle challenges the idea that monuments have to sit still, frozen in time.

“Those in power build monuments to reflect themselves and the people that they look up to,” Monument Lab Director Paul Farber said in an interview at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. “The story of monuments is always a story about mapping power in a city. And it has the aura of permanence.”

Visitors to Pulitzer Arts Foundation sketch out their own proposed monuments.
Credit Virginia Harold

If monuments are typically about reinforcing an existing power structure, what sorts of monuments might reflect a more pluralist image of St. Louis? That’s a question Monument Lab will seek to answer this summer, in residence at the Pulitzer.

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On a recent morning, the Monument Lab team trained three researchers who will go out into St. Louis communities and ask people: What would you build a monument to, and where would you put it?

Monument Lab has done similar projects in Philadelphia. Though there were some suggestions there to build monuments to Malcolm X, boxer Joe Frazier and other people, most referred to concepts, like protecting the environment or combatting inequality.

Laurie Allen, Monument Lab’s research director, said what has most surprised her in talking to people on the street about monuments is just how much they mean to people, “how much we, as people who live in community with one another, need markers of our shared story.

“I don’t personally believe that we have quite the right set of monuments in our country right now, but the urge for sites of remembrance is powerful and beautiful,” Allen said.

Monument Lab will collect suggestions in St. Louis for a few months and publish its findings later in the year.

Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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