Episode 003: Designing Justice in New Orleans with Paper Monuments (Bryan C. Lee Jr. and Sue Mobley)
Paper Monuments from New Orleans — led by Bryan C. Lee Jr. and Sue Mobley – grew out of the takedown of four Confederate monuments in the city last year. The takedowns were the result of sustained pressure from activists, including Take ‘Em Down Nola. In each of the takedowns, the scenes were tense, though also defiant and celebratory. Rather than look to replace the toppled figures and move on, Paper Monuments has gathered hundreds of under-told stories about the city’s history on posters designed by artists and storytellers, and wheat pasted them across New Orleans. They have been tapped by the city of New Orleans to help re-imagine public spaces around empty pedestals. They will stage temporary installations of public proposals throughout the city next Spring.
Lee and Mobley are also co-directors of Colloqate Design, a Design Justice practice focused on shaping spaces of racial, social and cultural equity. Paper Monuments is sibling project of Monument Lab.
Paul Farber, Host: Sue Mobley and Bryan C. Lee Jr. of Paper Monuments, thanks for joining us.
Sue Mobley: Thanks for having us.
Bryan C. Lee Jr.: Yeah, thank you for having us.
Farber: In Spring 2017, four Confederate statues were taken down in your city of New Orleans. You were there for the take downs?
Lee: Yeah, we were there for all of them. Yeah.
Farber: What was it like to be there?
Mobley: The first three were taken down at night and the first one was very secretive and very fast. With each successive take down, the crowd grew, both those who were for the removal and those who were against the removal, so by the time we got to the third of the take downs, which was [the] Beauregard [site], it was quite a large crowd that the police had separated by barricades came back along Esplanade Avenue. When walking up, I was joking that because of the way they'd separated us, it looked like a wedding and I wanted to make big cards that instead of bride's side and groom's side said "Right Side of History" and "Wrong Side of History." The Right Side of History had a brass band and people sharing food and drinks and kids and pets. The Wrong Side had flags and torches.
Lee: It's interesting, the first couple take downs were again, as Sue mentioned, at night, but [the] Jefferson Davis [site] specifically, there were a lot of people representing Confederacy that were toting and carrying arms throughout the evening and threatening people more aggressively, so a lot of the people you saw in Charlottesville a month or so later were there in this place and so it was chaotic. It was a bit unwieldy to say the least. The ability for people to get firm in their belief that we should be out there, even in the face of these folks was built over time. Again, I think Sue mentioned the brass band, New Orleans has a interesting way of handling crowds because we deal with it so often that you saw the barricades splitting up monument supporters and those who support taking down the monuments, separated again by this main aisle, which is really, really interesting because I didn't see that in other cities. I think that we saw people being funneled into center spaces, and so the way in which we've handled public space as a city directly had implications on how we took down monuments, which is really fascinating.
Mobley: I think people's willingness to respect the barricade as a barrier also comes out of that.
Lee: Yeah, it comes out...
Mobley: It doesn't really occur to people because we're so socialized into parade routes and crowd management looks like that. Those are actually much more significant boundaries than I think they would be in a lot of other places. The last of the take downs, the Lee statue, was during the day, and it took really nearly the entire day and we turned it into a block party. Friends showed up with speakers and sound systems and jump ropes and bubbles and sidewalk chalk and we raided the neighboring gas station for champagne which seems, in retrospect, a weird thing for a gas station to have, but they had quite a lot and we drank them out of it. We started with mimosas at about 8 a.m. and rolled through just straight champagne over the course of the day.
Farber: You described a party environment, but of course there's a hostility in the air and a kind of contentiousness. What was the vibe like between those two sides of people who gathered at the takedowns?
Mobley: It varied with each take down in a way that is sort of hard to envision if you weren't there, perhaps, that the Jefferson Davis site had seen prior conflicts, had seen prior people throwing things at each other and screaming matches over a period of weeks. I think to my mind, that was the one that was the most likely to become a pitched battle and felt like it could become a pitched battle. By Beauregard, that seemed a little bit deflated on the part of the supporters and there were a lot more pro takedown folks. There was still fighting and there was still arguing and yelling, but it didn't seem as much like it could be...
Lee: Could inflame itself, yeah. I think part of that is about the positionally of the two monuments as they exist, right? Jefferson Davis, the pro monument supporters were basically blocking off the monument itself. They were surrounding the actual piece and those of us who were anti were on the other side of the street. There was this almost impending hoard trying to take down this piece. They were pretty violent that day and that was a different set than Beauregard which had us a distance away, all kind of as spectators rather than participants in the takedown.
Mobley: Yeah, it didn't feel like you were trying, I think from their perspective, there was no protection of ground. It didn't feel like you could have battle lines, but I think that that also is the difference between the Lee response when Take 'Em Down led the second line and when the actual statue was taken down. When they led the second line, there were 2500 of us in that second line and I was legal observing on the front corner, front left corner of it, so I got to see what happened when we turned the corner. All of the Neo-Confederates were up on the base, were uphill, and had taken a battle position and they suddenly had to pivot because we came from an unexpected direction because NOPD wanted us to come from an unexpected direction. That was another occasion where it really looked like marching uphill to engage in direct battle and it felt like it. I think for the final takedown, I think one of the things that NOPD got better at as these went, was making sure that they didn't create or didn't allow people to create that sort of paradigm.
Lee: Yeah, the space between us got larger and larger, to the extent that the last take down, the pro-monument supporters were on a completely different street essentially.
Farber: What was the most intense interaction that you had with someone from the other side?
Mobley: [Laughs.] I am not sure that either of our attorneys is going to allow us to answer that question, Paul.
Lee: What I can say is that the intensity around trying to claim space around whether or not someone is racist/ non-racist/anti-racist happened a lot in these conversations. "Well I'm not racist. This is our heritage." That intense, intense conversation happened, flared up, probably 30 times during the Beauregard takedown. I remember one particular instance, this is right before the band came and it was just really, really heated, so it wasn't really myself in this particular conversation, but two young women were on opposite sides of the spectrum were arguing about this at a really high vocal level and the energy started to build. Then all of a sudden a brass band comes down the street and just interrupts that thing. Everyone stops, everyone dances, and then goes back to being mad at each other a few minutes later. That was, I think, well not the most personally intense, it was one of the more unique experiences around this particular set of conversations.
Farber: Who was the coalition of people that you were gathered with at these takedowns and how did they get there?
Mobley: For the two years before the take downs, Take 'Em Down NOLA was the lead organization far and away and they were drawing on the elders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They were drawing on some of the activists out of Afro-nationalist arts spaces who make up a huge part of our city's culture. Also, over time, it just kept getting bigger because it's not about the statues because it's about human rights and it's about civil rights and it's about the right to the city and everybody has a stake in that. When you start to build the right side of history, everybody who doesn't have a vested interest in the status quo ends up finding their way to your coalition. By the end, it was all the people. It was half of Indivisible NOLA and folks from Voice of the Experienced and it was teachers and school kids and the head of the ACLU and half of City Hall.
Lee: It was the political organizations and departments were in a lot of ways. The progressive and even just centrists, a lot of organizations were directed in this fight.
Mobley: I think that's a thing within the political moment that we're in. There is something to be said for the ways in which wielding the torches and the pitchforks or calling for family separation or threatening to burn the whole thing down makes it very clear which side people want to be in and it moves people away from the center and it moves people out of apathy. For all the many things that are daunting about our broader political moment, it is a moment of clarity. I think there's something precious about that. Something that needs to be valued and protected about that because everyone does need to be involved. Everyone does have a stake.
Farber: What do the sites where these monuments were, these empty pedestals, what do they look like today?
Lee: They remain empty pedestals. I think that's the key to a lot of these conversations in the first place is that we have spent years upon decades talking about and living into this lionization of false idols and propaganda that has been put up in our public spaces and in order to remediate this condition, we have to take the time. Remediation in general takes time, it takes support, it takes flowering of spaces in order to realize the full potential of what this space has in it. Putting something back up was not an immediate option and right now what they exist as is symbols to that injustice that had been portrayed across the city for so long.
Mobley: But I will say that just like each of the takedowns was different, each of the remedial actions has been different.
Lee: Yeah, you're absolutely right.
Mobley: The Liberty Place Monument which was sort of secretly was the first one taken down, it was the most contentious, it had already been moved to sort of a hidden behind a mall location. Nothing's happened there, nothing needs to happen there. I'm not sure most people recognize that it's missing. There's no pedestal. It had already sort of been removed from public space and the public view. Jeff Davis is there and the base is used. We've used it. We used it for Stories at the Crossroads for Paper Monuments. People have built statues on it for a video shoot. People have put cat toys on it, like a cat climbing tree as an alternate statue. The Neo-Confederates continue to gather there occasionally. That's the most, just like it was the most contentious of the takedowns, it's the most used and contested of the spaces.
Lee: It's the most communal of these spaces, right? And it's low lying enough that people engage with it at that level, so regardless of which end of the spectrum you're on, people are using it in that fashion.
Mobley: In Beauregard which was City Park's property and is an epicenter of a traffic circle, they left the pedestal up for a long time. It was interesting because they took off the plaque on the front, which rendered it very similar to our tombs, so for months, it sat there looking like a tomb in a cemetery. Then they have recently taken down the base and it's been planted and at this point, it looks like part of City Park and not a site that is contested. It's just been swallowed back into...
Lee: Consumed, yep.
Mobley: Lee Circle is exactly where it was with a giant white marble phallic symbol in the middle of it. It's a lot.
Lee: It's a lot.
Farber: What is it like to attend a political or social action around the empty pedestal? What is the feeling that surrounds that kind of gathering?
Lee: I don't know that it changes all that much, to be honest. When you're in protest or when we have been in protest in this city, the recognition that white supremacy is abound in all of the buildings that we exist with in this city and really across this country. Ultimately those symbols exist whether it is in monument form or city hall form or sewage and water board. It exists in the spaces and places regardless. I don't know, for me, it's not all that different because the systems map to the symbols and we are actively trying to get deeper into the systems that are represented by those symbols.
Mobley: I actually just had a realization. I worked on a project last year. It was an exhibit called Sites of Resistance that mapped protests in New Orleans from 1863 through to the present. And the latter part, so from 1985 on, was a pegboard that people could contribute to themselves and help build that map. At the time, I was really interested in seeing that so much of the protest was centering around certain places that had power, which is what we expect to see because protest is about a contestation of power. It was at that point that I was making the argument that these sites and statues still had power because people were still choosing to protest there. I also was acknowledging that I was skewing that data because I'm so often steering people to what paths we should choose for protest, which ones are safest, which ones are most physical. But it occurred to me when you asked that question that we actually have not been marching to Lee Circle at anything like the rate that we were. That just changed the landscape, the removal changed the landscape of protest in New Orleans. We're meeting in Duncan Plaza. We're meeting in Congo Square. We're moving through the French Quarter, but we're not that route that was the rote route that shows up for 15 years of people's remembrances and that shows up on my historic mapping really heavily through most of the 20th century is diminished.
Lee: Yep, that's true.
Mobley: Thank you, Paul, for a new data point.
Lee: Ultimately it's shifted quite frequently to Jackson, at least in the last year, year and a half which does push people obviously through the Quarter, but ultimately gives a grand stand that has produced thousands and thousands of people pretty much for the last two or three times that we've had things there.
Farber: Let's go somewhere for a moment. Former New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu delivered a speech in May 2017 that went viral and it was published by the New York Times. In it he stated "No more waiting, this is not just about statues. This is about our attitudes and behavior as well." You have worked with the city of New Orleans, but have shared reservations about that speech. What did Landrieu get right and what did he get wrong about this moment?
Lee: [Laughs.] The core thing is the acknowledgment of who had the political power, not even the political power, the public power, to pursue this act in the first place. He missed making sure that the right people were acknowledged and that you could build a coalition around doing this work throughout the city very early on. Now for me, the thing that he got right is that it didn't take him long to get to this conclusion. When I first started working for the city in 2015 and this mission started, at least was re-engaged, in the summer of 2015, he pretty much came to City Hall and was the first white politician I had ever heard use the words "white supremacy" on the record to counsel, for me, ever. I think there's a difference between standing up and saying that and then the processes to which it takes to get these things down, so it took some time. But it wasn't as though that same speech hadn't been forwarded a year and a half before as well.
Mobley: I think that Mitch is a consummate politician, he comes of a political family and a political lineage and I think that he, like a lot of people, recognized the opening, politically, after the Dylann Roof shooting, recognized the opening politically as mounting protests made it more viable to be on the right side of history. I think it's also hard to imagine if you are mayor of a liberal Southern town who can't viably run for state wide office and so would have to make the jump to the national level in order to continue your career, what that looks like as your preferred Presidential candidate doesn't get their seat and you have to reconfigure what your career looks like. I think that that's taking politicians making political decisions out of the calculus isn't possible. Politicians are politicians. They make decisions that are about their political careers. They make decisions that are about the constituencies that they think are going to provide them with more power in the future. I think Mitch gave a great speech. I think that there was some great edits made to the speech that was originally written. I'm very proud of the people who made those edits. I'm very proud of the people who made those edits. I think it was unfortunate that that speech was given to an audience that wasn't the people who were present on the scene. I think it is deeply problematic that both the speech and the book that he has written don't give credit to the people who did the organizing work, to sustain the possibility of taking things down. Because as much as there's a legislative approach, as much as there's a political series of actions and lawsuits and counter suits, none of that happens, none of what we think of as being political actions happen without external pressure, without organizing, without building a base to demand that they happen. And sustaining that base through to the action being taken. Politicians should honor that in the same way that activists should honor that politicians are going to take action and then claim credit, because it's what they do. It should all work in a world of political reality.
Farber: With Paper Monuments and your other work, you have been in coordination with the city and you've also pushed the city around important social justice issues. What is Paper Monuments relationship with the city of New Orleans now?
Mobley: It's evolving. We have a new administration, LaToya Cantrell, who was council member for District B and who was a community organizer in Broadmoor after Katrina, is now mayor. She's the first woman mayor of New Orleans, she's the first black woman mayor of New Orleans. Both of our choices at the end of that were black women, which is an amazing political moment to be in, in its own way. And we have a new city council, and it's a tremendous city council.
Mobley: It's a lot of really smart, really progressive people who I'm watching make decisions that I've wanted to see made and have been pushing for for a decade. And so in some ways, we're figuring out what that looks like. I think in some way, maybe the larger progressive New Orleans, the larger reactionary New Orleans as well, is figuring out where the lay of the land is now. What does it mean to set up, when we're not as afraid, short of another storm, knocking wood. We're not as afraid that we won't exist in the immediate future. Now we need to be thinking about what happens 30 years from now as sea levels rise. Now we need to be working in concert with other coastal parishes to try to preserve south Louisiana. That's a different type of leadership, that's a different type of dynamic. Figuring out where we fit in to that mix, In terms of Paper Monuments, in terms of Colloqate, because we are focused on public spaces, communal spaces, civic spaces. And creative and collective spaces. That starts to look really different. I can't imagine that there's ever going to be a time where it's clear cut and we're like, "We're always buddy buddy with the city," we're maybe not those people. We're definitely not those people. I also can't imagine a point at which it's full scale contentious. I had some moments in the Landrieu administration where it was just like, "No, I'm just here to be a thorn in your side." I don't see that dynamic redeveloping.
Lee: I ultimately think that there is a willingness to consider what connected civic engagement and outreach looks like in this process. And that's much, much different than the previous administration, which will, for us, be the direction that we will always be pushing our politicians. Making sure that the voice of the people are heard in every way possible. And so, if this administration believes that that is the direction that they would want to continue to go I believe we will be there to support that when it's right, and challenge things when they veer off course.
Farber: As certain problematic monuments are taken down or replaced the conversation in numerous cities has been, who to replace one of these figures who's been toppled, who to replaced them with. And in Paper Monuments you've really, in an exciting way, talked about how to reframe history and to avoid a one-to one-replacement. I'm just curious, how do you think about the elevating of new figures, but also new stories that pushes against that idea of a one-to-one replacement?
Lee: Ultimately the movements, the events, the people, the places, all of these things that exist in the creation of cities and towns don't happen form singular lionized individuals and to continue that motif in our public spaces is woefully wrong. And so we have to figure out a way [laughs] like, it's horribly wrong, and so part of the idea that we are able to clear the space, have the conversation, and bring about the complexity of stories that are beyond the superficial iconography of individuals, allows for these things to manifest not just in the stories we're telling, but for people to see that same condition in their own story. Or in the stories of their grandparents, or their friends. It is not singularly about them. It also gives people an in to jump into these movements, these places, these events. Because it is not the singular voice yelling from a mountain top, it is actually the collective voice making sure that we push towards the right agenda.
Mobley: And I think that's one of the things that, if I look at Theda Skocpol's work about the diminishment of our civic life, if I look at how we teach social studies, or history, we talk about singular individuals, we talk through singular individuals even when we're trying to talk about movements, and I think one of the things that's been really striking about this process is that when you pump the brakes and say, "Why does it have to be a singular individual?" Or, "that's not how change is made." It's not a person up on a podium making a speech, or leading the army, it's about the collective, it's about the unions, it's about the mass movements, it's about the building of something larger than oneself. That not just creates a possibility for people to be involved, and to see themselves as someone who can be involved, but for people to see themselves as people who can shape history. As I think is really often true, all it requires is the disruption of the assumption to change the understanding and the paradigm.
Mobley: You don't have to say, it can't be an individual, but the moment you ask, "Why does it have to be?" You've forced someone to think, rather than to move forward with the paradigm they've been given, with the set of assumptions. I think disruption is a really powerful tool in organizing, and in teaching, and in just being a human. Ask the question that makes someone uncomfortable. Ask the question that makes you uncomfortable. And then sit with the set of assumptions that would have been your answer, and interrogate them.
Lee: And it's not malicious in a lot of ways. People are not just trying to disregard the extent of the movement. Oftentimes people just veer towards the path of least resistance, and we've made the path of least resistance the consolidation of movements into individuals into the easiest way to move past these really tough conversations in this country. That allows people a scapegoat, allows people to move forward without having to be rigorous about the kind of collective condition that we exist within. Since this is the directive of our project, is to move people past that condition, potentially, hopefully, in the next phases we'll see what the seeds of that look like.
Mobley: And I think that's been something that we talk about it in terms of New Orleans history, simplified and romanticize, and use to sell things. New Orleans history is steered towards this growing section of economy which is tourism, which at this point is 30-35% of the overall economy of the city. And that's very true in a very specific way in New Orleans, but it's also true at large about American history, and American conceptions of history. Americans like the happy ending to the movie, we like the stories that are tied up with a bow. One of the things that we've enjoyed doing, that's been challenging to do in this project, is to disrupt simplicity and romanticization, and to allow people to be present even when we're talking about a singular individual as someone who is raised within a given context, who has a given set of experiences, who is acting within the constraints of their time frame, and making the decisions that seem best to them in the moment. And that's never going to be something that gets a bow on it at the end.
Farber: What kind of histories haven't been told? Either in the monuments that have been taken down recently, or the other stories that are often demonstrated and exhibited and told about the city?
Mobley: So it's interesting 'cause the stories that are told, you can track, sort of transitions, over the course of the 20th century. Both as the tourist industry grows, as a segment of New Orleans economy, and as ideas about who's histories are told shift. So if you look at the marketing from the beginning of the 20th century there's a lot of attempts to sell New Orleans as a business town. Which are fairly hysterical. There's a lot of 1920s, 1930s like, "City of the future, come here and start your business in New Orleans." Which I think nobody would say at any later point.
Lee: Yeah. Well they tried a little bit in the 60s, that's why we had a boom...
Mobley: Right, they tried again in the 60s and 70s. But it was different.
Lee: Yeah. Yeah. Different.
Mobley: In between those periods you get a lot of antebellum, like come to the plantations, and most of the marketing materials are Satchmo-esque, or mammy-esque servants who are black folks serving families that are very blonde. Like hyper-Aryan white. and then in the 60s and 70s you start to get another attempt to sell the business angle. And then in the 80s you get this really interesting dynamic around the World's Fair. The '84 World's Fair is a pivotal moment. And I think in someways it's a pivotal moment because it's this post-oil bust, the containerization has happened at the port, it's clear that New Orleans needs to really step up tourism or else it's not gonna make it. There were some very bad economic choices made in the 60s and 70s that led us here. And not just here, but cities generally. But a lot of the 1980s starts to pull in the idea of multicultural tourism, of having women as tourists. And this coincides with the growth of a black middle class after integration, it coincides with women coming into the workforce in greater numbers and being allowed to have things like our own credit cards under our own names, slowly. And the idea of expanding that market also expands the story. But it's still a simplified story, it's still about targeting and marketing, and not necessarily about telling something that's richer, or more truthful, or more complex. So when we're telling stories we're often unearthing past complexities, talking about working class histories, black histories, immigrant histories, women's histories, that are just never part of mainstream histories. Whether it's part of the marketing campaign or whether it's part of the text book, there just not there.
Farber: When you began Paper Monuments you reached out to historians, story tellers, and artists the narratives that were important to them about the city. What did you learn? What did they share with you?
Lee: Yeah. Reaching out to artists and writers was a really interesting pathway, mostly because we reached out to writers who had thought about these particular issues in a really distinct way, in a unique way, and that had ultimately taken the time to dig much deeper past the commercialization of New Orleans. And so we started to hear stories about the Irish Canal, we started to hear stories about Tchoupitoulas, and stories about Bras Coupé, and these maroons that existed in various parts of the city that are stories that have been told from singular lenses in the past. And we're much more robust coming form the writers that we got a chance to talk to. And so these pivotal, small moments, that led into bigger actions, we're frequent in the stories that were presented to us. So I think from a storyteller side of things, all of the stories that were told are stories that haven't really seen the light of day in the way that they deserve.
Mobley: I mean there were so many stories I hadn't heard, didn't know. And some of those are fundamental understandings of the city that now look at really differently. I get teased because I use some of St. Louis la Nuit a lot. But it's such a fundamental, like it's a story that is the art of colonial New Orleans. He was born free in Africa, he was captured and brought to the new world, he survived the middle passage, he was sold to a planter on the West Bank, he helped to develop indigo as the first cash crop of the colony. He was redistributing livestock from his owner to sell to fund the music and dancing at Congo Square, and the food. And he was freed for having helped develop this cash crop that also insured that other folks would be enslaved to help develop this cash crop. He fought in the revolution, under Galvez in the Mississippi River campaigns. And helped to create a free country in which he would never truly be free. He took his reward, he got a medal of valor and a pension for his service in the American Revolution, and he took his pension and bought land along Bayou Road, and broke it up and sold it to free women of color and established Treme, which is the oldest black neighborhood in the country. The oldest free black neighborhood in the country. Which is now also gentrifying and turning into a collection of short term rentals. It's no longer a black neighborhood. It's in the process of becoming no longer a neighborhood. And all of those fundamental things that I think of as being so much of New Orleans, the Indigo, the Congo Square, the Bayou Road, and Treme. That's deeply embedded in St. Louis's story, but that story is also clearly not over. Because that land is still contested, because that legacy of cash crops making possible mass import of Africans is still something that we're carrying. Because we talk about culture, we talk about the value of the things that he helped to create, but we don't actually value them. We don't actually pay the people who help to sustain them.
Farber: After you reached out to historians, and story tellers, and artists, you began a much bigger process in gathering public proposals. What was it like to get that part of your project off the ground?
Mobley: I think that process was very easy to begin with, in part because of you guys, so we got to learn from everything that Monument Lab had done which was super helpful. And then we ended up doing a lot of iterations of minor adaptions to the questions that we were asking. And then larger adaptions to the frames in which we were asking them. The idea that we would be in public spaces, holding space for people to come to us, isn't something that New Orleans' density supports. There are only a handful of spaces where people are in large numbers as locals.So we can be at schools and talk to children, and we've done that, both in the class room formally, and at assemblies, and through after school and extracurricular programming. We can be at bus stops. We can be at bus stops and ask people who are on their way to and from work and get a pretty broad sampling of working class New Orleans. We can be at art markets and get more of a middle class whiter older New Orleans. But it's been really interesting, the extent to which the process of getting public proposals has helped to make clear how divided the ways in which New Orleanians use space are. That we don't have that many civic spaces that are inclusive of everybody, that we don't have that many spaces that we're using simultaneously. In a way that represents the richness and diversity of this place. And we've tried to take advantage of the moments where we have had more of that, where there have been protests or there have been city council meetings, where there have been days at the City Planning Commission where the docket is really varied and so, there's a mixed bag of people who are in and out of the building. But, it's, I think, a genuinely sad thing for a city to say that, like the most representative sample is going to City Hall. Where people are like, upset about something and coming to complain. We've also had the really good fortune of being, of doing this in a moment where not only for the broader project have we been in a tricentennial year where there are a lot of parallel projects, a lot of incredible parallel projects talking about New Orleans history and interrogating how we understand it but also, a year in which Duncan Plaza which is the park across from City Hall has been under the guidance of the Downtown Development District, Project for Public Spaces, and the New Orleans Arts Council, doing a series of experiments about how to use that space and a series of interventions in that space. So, working towards creating a public space that has a similar mix of people as City Hall does but instead of people coming there to complain, coming there to actually be affirmative of their civic space.
Lee: You know, the proposal process and building out the proposal, acknowledging where our partner project, sibling project differs was significant for us. When we are at cultural institutions doing this work, those who fill out proposals think about those things specifically and they think about the arena, the space to which they're in. And apply their proposal accordingly. And so I think there's some gives and takes that we've had to deal with while doing the proposals but ultimately, it's allowed us to actually reach a wide swath of people. And I will say as well, a lot of the youth based programing that we've done, we've actually had a much more rigorous explanation of what the process is. So, in some of the classrooms we've been in, we've been able to take 15 to 30 minutes to describe not only the process that we are going through but the context to which we sit as nation when we're talking about these conversations, actually even globally when we talk about these conversations and moralization. And so, the outcomes and the outputs are different depending on how much time we give, how much space we give, whether we're in public or private space and it's a really interesting array of conversations. But thematically, we're still talking a lot about the same thing. So whether or not it's more rigorous or superficial, the content starts to feel very familiar.
Mobley: I will say, with an exception, so I think, I absolutely agree with you that context primes response. And this, Paul, was something we talked about very early on, that like, in the context of these statues being removed, asking what's an appropriate monument today is directly tied to those four statues. It ties it to that context.
Lee: Yes, yes.
Mobley: And so the responses that we are getting are very specifically keeping in mind those four removals, the Confederate frame, the Jim Crow, white supremacist frame of those monuments and they're in response to that. And it's taken time and we have taken time to sort of move from that. But we also had a pivot moment for our team when the former Mayor announced that we would be part of the planning process for Lee Circle with ten hours warning in the press, without having the conversation with us. And of the many, many things that I found infuriating about that moment, one of the things that just from a scholarly perspective, one of the things as Sue, that I found really frustrating, was that it then prompted responses that were specifically about that site. So, the proposals and the posters, the conversations that we were having with scholars, with artists, the conversations that we were having in public were suddenly about that one location...
Mobley:...For weeks, in a way that was very, very hard to come back from.
Lee: Yeah, there were like these moments they sensed this like, positionality of urgency that was framed through that set of press releases that came out first. And that's happened a couple times during the line where either some other city, so Durham, when's Durham's stuff came down, we got a lot of pieces where people were talking about and showing people pulling down Individual monuments. And so I think yeah, the context locally, nationally in response to those acute moments in time across our timeline is pretty significant.
Farber: You know, one of the visual trademarks of Paper Monuments' work are these posters that are spun out of the proposal process and your engagement process. Seeing images of them, it almost looks like a living history textbook, wheat pasted around the city. What are you seeing when people see the posters? How do they react to getting these new stories put into a variety of public spaces?
Mobley: It's been really fascinating to see the reaction. I mean, one of the things, we gave a walking tour last week and one of the things that one of our team pointed out that I'd never thought about before is that other than one incident where somebody very maliciously graffitied, after an argument with one of our team, we often get graffiti around the edges of our posters. We sometimes get it on the blank spaces on them, no one's ever painted over. It's not like a common thing to have them tagged up. They're respected as an installation in a way that's really unusual. Who they tend not to be respected by, if they're going not to be respected, is building developers who will often whitewash them.
Mobley: Which is, you know, as we talk about developers as the new elite, then the whitewashing of history is a particularly like, wow, you're really on the nose on that one, huh? It's hyper literal, thanks. But we've also had this other tremendous response to them that's been so rewarding, from Dorothy Mae Taylor's kids showing up at City Council, with t-shirts that they had printed the poster about her on to.
Lee: It's fantastic. Can I just add to that one. You know, it's fantastic, we were at City Hall maybe two, three months ago now and handing out proposals and newspapers and this couple finds me outside and you see on their shirt, Dorothy Mae Taylor but it's not just, it's not like a fresh copy, they took a picture of the poster in life and then put that picture on a t-shirt, which was entirely fascinating to have talked to the family about their machinations about the poster in itself. So, they talked with the entire family about whether or not this was a good thing or a bad thing and the result was that they made t-shirts out of it, they made family reunion t-shirts out of it, which is tremendous in every way.
Mobley: We also have had, we have self appointed docents, we have folks who are working in proximity to where we've installed who were at some of the events and who are now telling those stories to people who are reading them and directing them to other posters and other installations and other stories. One of the things that was incredible about this walking tour that we were on is as I was telling the story about someone who has been telling the story of the desire conflict between the Black Panthers and the police which ended with tanks being involved, and how incredible the serendipity around this project has been, that someone who was there is in that space and is telling that story. It turned out that one of the women on the walking tour, an older Jewish woman from New Orleans had been a participant in several of the sit ins and marches that were in that set of posters. And so, at the next stop, I had her tell her story to the rest of the folks who were there. She was at the conference as someone who works in transit. Not there to talk about New Orleans history but she had been part of it.
Lee: Yeah. You know, and that is not infrequent. That is, the walking tour I gave the week before, a woman in a wheelchair who was listening to the tour stopped us and said, you know, "I was at the McCrory's sit-in. I was there." And so, this happens more often than not and it's fantastic to see it engaging with people who have lived a tremendous history in this city.
Mobley: I do feel like at some point, we should be collecting names and phone numbers. And we should have a McCrory's sit-in family reunion.
Lee: Yeah. Family reunion, yeah.
Farber: If you were tasked with re-scripting the narrative of the history of New Orleans for tourist purposes, for the larger story about the city out of these proposals, like what would the new story about New Orleans be, based on your work with the proposals and with people in the city?
Lee: It's a hard question because as you know, we're a year into this but we're still going and if it were to happen today, it would be one of cultural resoluteness, familial bonds, a deep attachment to place. But there's an attachment to the ephemeral place, places in this city. And so I think there has been a lot of connection to second line culture or places that are directly attached to music, dance, food and the like. And so, I think the narrative at this moment is a lot about mothers and fathers and friends. Yeah, we don't have a ton that is steeped in pain, right?
Mobley:...But there's like, pain threaded through that.
Lee: Of course, yeah.
Mobley: There's like, the narratives about historic figures, the narratives about family, friends, community, the narratives about music and food are all about like, coming together in resistance, coming together in shelter, wrapping community around, with the necessity of community [for] survival. And because of the context of survival, which is so surfaced, across these, that is, I think, fundamentally about pain. But it's fundamentally about healing.
Lee: That, so, that's what I think propelled the way up for me. Yeah, a city that uses and steeps itself in the culture that we have, so that we can continue to heal.
Farber: You are entering the next phase of Paper Monuments, what can we expect to see as Paper Monuments evolves and what kind of work will that entail for you?
Mobley: In the next couple of days, you'll see the announcement of the artists and artworks for phase two. We'll have ten installations across the city where artists have drawn from the public proposals to create three dimensional – still paper, making everybody do everything in paper forever – pieces that will be in place for six weeks next spring. And we're pretty excited about that. We're pretty excited, I think one of the things that differs about New Orleans from Philly, but I think New Orleans from other cities in general is that we're a very do it yourself place. So one of the things that's most exciting to me about being able to put things, put artwork into public spaces knowing that New Orleans will pick that up as a gauntlet and like, we're gonna see do it yourself responses to that. We've already seen interventions in the sites of the former monuments but we've also seen, you know, we're a city that everybody takes making Mardi Gras costumes like, deeply seriously. We build floats, we do random tactical urbanism all over the place, people paint murals on their walls and build dinosaur skeleton bicycles. So, I'm crazy excited to see what happens when we see these go into public space and what comes out of that. 'Cause there's already so much energy around how we use making and art to claim space here. And I think anything that supports that as being a valid mode of engaging in space, a valid mode of shaping the city in our collective image is going to be tremendous.
Lee: You know, I think phase two with just the continuum of this work, I think we started with posters and proposals and the ability to move into moments and markers where we're able to codify some of the language within the proposals, the imagery within the proposals and allow that to claim a little more space in public, is significant. So, to go from posters and proposals to moments and markers and then from moments and markers to explicitly talking about what monuments, memorials and museums look like, is the pathway that we are talking through and making sure that there are opportunities for community voice to be explicit in every part of that process. And so I'm excited to see not only what happens out of this next phase, but what are the permutations of creating a city wide system of memory that retains and holds culture but also allows for that culture to be dynamic, to see its connections up and down the timeline and allow us to create spaces and occupy more space in the interest of a more culturally resistant, sustainable, equitable, just city.
Farber: Sue Mobley and Bryan C. Lee Jr., thank you so much for joining us.
Lee: Thank you for having us.
Mobley: Thank you for having us.
Farber: Really looking forward to the next phase of Paper Monuments.
Lee: Absolutely. We'll be tracking y'all as well, so we'll talk soon.