Ben Davis: One thing happening right now, particularly with memorials and monuments, is a huge discussion about reconsidering what they mean and who they mean it to. It’s a battle defining life in the USA at this point. There are artists inserting themselves into that conversation, and it’s funny for me to navigate where the arts sphere is helping this conversation along and when it’s kind of containing it. It’s easiest to question where the stakes are the lowest, like in front of an audience that mainly already agrees that there’s a reckoning going on. Whereas these same questions are completely combustible out on the streets where there are huge institutions of civic power and institutional memory and very scary political forces who have attached themselves to very regressive symbols. So it’s easy to become very dismissive of the arts conversation—a conversation that we’re having amongst ourselves about memorialization—because it kind of takes the edge off. But I think that’s too cynical too. Since you all work between these different spaces. How do you think of the one conversation connecting with the other?
Paul Ramirez Jonas: I think your question is sort of like a bomb exploding in my head. Collectively, cultural scholars for five or six decades were working on a master narrative. My history is different. This was left out. We start to create this fight for a plurality of voices. Some voices are repressed, some realities are hidden. And I would say we won that cultural camp. The repercussion is that that right is not anti-factual. We are in a funny moment: what happens when you suddenly totally de-center the story? The people or the power that use that master narrative to control, now also has that same tool, to de-center the story, to de-center facts that creatives and cultural intellectuals have, in a way, created. Now it’s out there in the public domain. And it’s being used by people with a different sense of ethics. How do you respond to that? I see it on TV all the time. A fact is presented and 8 hours later it is, “No, that is not a fact.”
Hands down, there is a healthier, more complex discourse going on outside the art world than within it. The broader public sphere is more diverse. In ethnicity, social class, ideas. The art world is very insular and homogenous, even intellectually. I find, making work in the larger public, that I can encounter a better discourse that can then be brought into the art world.
lauren woods: For me, the question isn’t so much about truth, it’s about the public record that has the power to push itself. I would say that in the issue of monuments, particularly Confederate monuments, I think [artists] do have a specific skill set that we haven’t inserted into the conversation or we haven’t been asked to [insert]. If we talk about here in Dallas, when the Lee monument finally became a big public moment, there was a commission formed. The majority of people on that commission were not artists. Artists were not consulted. I think that we have a knowledge of the technology and the power of these symbolic objects to be able to then put forth ideas of how to actually deal with them.
It’s very personal what ties all my work together: performing “active witnessing,” as James Baldwin says and materializing it. I’m still a little bit hesitant about what are we conflating? What are we empowering this alt-right to do? Alternative fact is not dealing necessarily in any form of fact. We all have our own truth, sure, but how does that relate to the structures we speak of? And if we can’t come to consensus about actually examining this structure then whatever, go write your story. I don’t feel then that [artists] are in the same conversation or world.
Jill Magid: I’m really interested in how structures of society work. The first many years of my practice were about government systems, mainly. A lot of surveillance and CCTV, and that kind of organically led to getting commissioned by the Dutch Intelligence Agency. In trying to understand systems that are closed to citizens—the general public—and yet we pay for them and they are part of our society. How can I engage with them? How can I create a dialogue with closed systems of power? How can power become more fluid by one’s participation with it?
For the surveillance system of Liverpool, I read everything I could on that system to understand how it works. I found that the bureaucratic system has poetic space because it’s so strict there are ways to undercut and see through it, how to enter and participate in it. Sometimes the document is a kind of map showing how a structure is intended to work.
The Barragan Archives project was the first time investigation led to corporate control as opposed to government control, but then I found out that governments are kind of mixed into corporate control. So these are the themes in trying to access power and do it through ways that are kind of romantic and very human and intimate.
Alfredo Jaar: The model I have used my entire career has always been the same. Before acting in a world I need to understand it. I always thought that artists cannot represent the idea. We cannot. What we do is represent and create a new reality. It’s never real. The representation of the real becomes a new reality. What we do, in a way, is we create models of looking at the world. Or in my case ideally, models of thinking the world. We superimpose a model on top of an existing model. The truth is there. And we represent it and by doing so create a new reality which is in the intellectual world. This is our freedom. This is our right.