For this episode, we take a trip to the Brooklyn Museum with Future Memory co-host Paul Farber where he moderated a program for the popular discussion series Brooklyn Talks. How can we memorialize and visualize the extraordinary loss of life caused by COVID-19? Farber explores this question in a dynamic exchange between Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Sekou Cooke – two powerful practitioners working in separate but intersecting fields. Lozano-Hemmer is a media artist working at the crossroads of architecture and performance art. Cooke is an architect, researcher, and founding member of the Black Reconstruction Collective. Monument Lab: Future Memory was a part of documentation of Lozano-Hemmer’s A Crack in the Hourglass, An Ongoing COVID-19 Memorial – an participatory exhibition and “anti-monument” installation previously on view at the Brooklyn Museum and the inspiration for this public conversation. Lozano-Hemmer's project demonstrates the power and possibility of re-imagining the existence of monuments in physical and digital space. On this night at the Museum in May 2022, marking a somber milestone of one million COVID deaths in the US, Farber, Cooke and Lozano-Hemmer discuss the role public art plays in remembrance, collective mourning and healing communities.
Paul Farber (Co-Host): Let me first say thank you to Sekou, to Rafael, for sharing such powerful work, poignant work, and even through the intensity and the loss, finding places and opportunities to gather, to assemble and to reimagine. And thank you to everyone being here, the staff at the museum, security, and of course, our interpreters here. It's no small feat that we can actually be here together. And when I say "we", I say, “we,” also acknowledging those not with us. We are now two-plus years into the pandemic. And before we talk about your projects and monuments and memorials, I wanted to just ask you both how you think you've changed over the last two years.
Sekou Cooke: I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask that because I don't really have that perspective on myself maybe. I think that my career has changed quite drastically over the last two years. I think some of that might be that I've just been working hard enough to get to a level and things start to fall in line, but I think a lot of it has to do with the Black Lives Matter uprising. People started to look at the work of Black architects and practitioners more carefully. And those of us who had been doing a culturally-based work for a while, got a lot of attention around that. But it's also not something that's just a coincidence or a right place a right time. It's doing the work first and then having it recognized. And I've also changed cities, so I'm in a new location. I'm no longer in the Northeast, I'm in the South. So, that brings about a lot of changes, and my life, in many ways, looks very different. It's hard to pinpoint parts of that are directly attributable to the lockdowns and the situations and our new lifestyles. But I think it's like having something happen and you think, well, I'm not sure exactly if that is really causing anything in your life, but then six months later, everything changes. I'm not sure if it's that one thing, but everything is different. So, you don't know what are the things that cause changes in your life. But yeah, everything is completely different. And for me, that's good, not just because all these changes are positive, but change itself is the only constant in the universe, so I'm just really happy for any kind of change.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: So, I got COVID very early in March of 2020 here in New York. And it was quite humbling because I have asthma and I was sick for a long time. Then, I did it all. I started doing yoga and meditation, I stopped taking caffeine, I got divorced, I found love again. So, I'm trying to come back with a bit less of an edge, working only 80% of the time. I'm failing, but I'm trying to be a bit more thoughtful about the fragility of life. And intellectually, I think what COVID does bring to all of us is the idea that the atmosphere cannot be taken for granted, that it wants to kill us, and I think that's a really important lesson that relates, for example, to the environmental cataclysm that we're undergoing. So, when I'm optimistic, I think that things like flattening the curve is something that we've now all learned and that we will now think and apply that to environmental catastrophe, but that's, again, when I'm optimistic, and it's rare.
Farber: How do you measure the passing of time in your work?
Cooke: Yeah, time's a really important piece and aspect, especially when we look across both of our work. So, this idea and this concept about monuments and how we approach them is really important when we start to think about time, because time changes many things, especially our attitudes towards different people. Like some of the most loved people, in the mid '80s you couldn't tell me that Bill Cosby wasn't the best person on the planet, but our perception of that really changes quite drastically just with the revelation of new information, but also our shift in perspective or shift in values, the way that we grow and evolve as people, individually and collectively. Then, architecturally speaking, I was talking about this the other day that we have a sense of wanting to project architecture as something that's completely permanent, and that's a really Western idea, and it comes from the "enlightenment". We want to show our dominance and our permanence and our presence, and we're going to erect these monuments and these buildings that they're banks or they're state buildings, but they're built like temples of the Romans and the Greeks. And it's because this is the closest thing we knew to something that was permanent, a structure that was permanent. But the reality is that buildings are not permanent. There's no part of them that are permanent. If they're built well, they last for a really long time, but they are completely transitory. And I like to think of them as living, breathing organisms. They literally are birthed, and they grow and they breathe. They have respiratory systems, they have blood and nerves that run through their systems, and they open and close, and then they die, they crumble.So, I'm constantly thinking about impermanence in all of my work all the time, especially when I reflect on hiphop and how hiphop constantly changes and reinvents itself and evolves. Those are the aspects that I'm trying to capture in my work on a regular basis.
Lozano-Hemmer: I completely identify with what you said. I think it's true. And I think further, this desire for permanence is also a certain empiric necrophilia that is something that we need to work against very much. The insistence on the ephemeral, the insistence on the performative, the insistence of thinking of, for example, a memorial as a radio station, I think that's interesting, because it helps you think of it as something that can come to an end, that should come to an end when people are no longer engaging with it. So, I think that, understanding time, different people can do it different ways. The only thing, I think, we seem to be against this idea of universal permanence or exhaustive representation or any of these very ideas that are supposed to be solid and unquestionable. The monument needs to be an ongoing question.
Farber: In the work that you've shared, Rafael, you spoke about the monument in many ways as needing to change over time, disappear, add layers to a story. And Sekou, when prompted about building or imagining a COVID memorial, you said you wanted two memorials. I want to ask you a few questions about this, but I want to go back and ask, what is your first or an early memory of an interaction with a monument or memorial, broadly defined, or as you wish to define it?
Cooke: I remember being a child visiting New York. So, I grew up in Jamaica, but my mother has family in New York and New Jersey, so we would come up every single summer since I was nine months old, and so New York has always been a second home for me. And I remember going to the top of the World Trade Center and looking through those little telescope things that they have, the viewfinders so you could see the rest of the city, and just thinking about the scale and the size of that building. And by that time, I probably already knew that I wanted to be an architect. But feeling that a building could bring me to that place on top of the world, on top of the known universe, for me at the time, was incredibly powerful. Then, maybe 16, 17, 18 years later, living in Brooklyn, and then waking up on a beautiful September morning and looking through my window across the way and seeing those same towers on fire and then eventually coming down, just solidified for me a lot of the impermanence that I'm talking about right now, that something that was important for me to see and experience really early on in my life and shaped a path for my career, already did its job for me. Then, I remember being deeply affected, living in the city at the time, as we all were, and just as traumatized as any other New Yorker was in the days that followed, but also recognizing that there was a mourning of the building that I was experiencing, that I wasn't talking about to anybody, because people were thinking about loss of life and a war and all that. But I was really still mourning that building inside. So, it's understandable when someone feels a certain connection to a monument, to Columbus or to General Lee, or whoever, regardless of what we think, it's understandable to me that they would feel a kind of trauma when those things are torn down, regardless of how people think about their place in society, right?
Lozano-Hemmer: That gave me time to think about my answer. So, I would say the first memory was of the Angel of Independence in Mexico City. It's supposed to be about the independence from Colonial power, and yet it's Germanic or French-looking, almost like Victoria de Samotracia, it's an angelic figure. But maybe a more interesting story is the one where I went to see, close to Budapest, the place where they had taken all of the Marxist and Communist monuments and had put them into a park. And I remember that as something that I thought was important. Because I look at what's happening the debate here in the United States over, say, Southern generals and so on, I really think, and I have no, how do you say in English, I don't have a seat at the table, so it's just my opinion that they need to be kept into a location where they can be reinterpreted like that. It's really fascinating to see the archetypes and the topologies and the themes that arise when you put them all together like that. Some kind of zoo for those would be an interesting thing to do with those monuments, like they did in Hungary.
Cooke: In Mid Review I saw a work that a student was doing on her thesis at Harvard earlier this semester, and she was looking at the spolia of all those monuments, the pieces and using it, and thinking about them being embedded as a foundation of some other thing that was being built on top of it so that you would be able to go down into the grotto and see these pieces that may have had significance at one point but lost their significance over time. But it's similar. It's like the end of The Planet of the Apes where you just see the torch. Then, you have some connection with what it is, but it's not in its full glory, and then the whole meaning changes, right?
Farber: Rafael, you shared a bit of this in your presentation about what led you to A Crack in the Hourglass. What has been the experience, since coming out of quarantine and having it here at the Brooklyn Museum when you've may not have interacted with everyone who participates but you've had some engagement, what has it been like to be present in that space and with people?
Lozano-Hemmer: Yeah. When we did the project, I was mentioning how important it was to try and do some kind of ritual, even if it was telematically. Another aspect of the project was to just render visible. The numbers are so abstract. We're not equipped to deal with, "Wow, a million people died." We don't understand that. If I tell you 80,000 children die each day of curable diseases, we hear that and go, "Yeah, well, that sounds really not good," and then you move on. I think that one of the good things of art that tries to materialize those numbers is that scale, is being able to put a face behind those numbers. We tried to do that. And an interesting development is, when we first did this project, it was mostly in Mexico. It could not be exhibited at MUAC Museum because MUAC was completely closed. For a year and a half MUAC was not open. Then, when we finally got invited to present it here at the Brooklyn Museum, a couple of things were amazing. One of them is that the museum put together a team of people who would reach out to different communities. For example, it was fascinating for me to learn that, disproportionately, this pandemic hit communities of Color, for example. In Mexico, my talk was about [how] this is affecting everybody, and we have this sense of solidarity. Then, fast forward to United States, the statistics don't prove that. So, for me, it was a learning experience to learn that. Ultimately, one of the interesting questions about this kind of ephemeral project is, what happens to it after? And it's not something that I have really thought out yet. On June 25th, it will no longer be at the Brooklyn Museum, but clearly we'll keep the website running. We'll find a location where we can have the machine so that people... Sometimes mourning takes decades. It's not like we're done. Also, I was also interested in how, even though it's a lot, it's almost a 1,000 portraits that we have, a lot of us are in denial over what happened. We all want to just move on. Everybody is sick and tired of it. You don't want to think about it. But if you don't think about it, if you don't mourn it, if you don't have closure, then you're going to carry it as an interior trauma the rest of your time. And that's the difference between grief and mourning. Grief you carry with you all the time, but mourning helps you share it, it helps you externalize it and hopefully unblock it. So, that's where we're at now, we're thinking about what happens to this project after.
Cooke: I wonder if we could take all of the events of the last couple of years, all of the traumas, all of the deaths, all of the setbacks, all of the business losses, all of the repression and the angers and the conflicts, and just print all of that on one bed and then tip it over and just be done with all of it.
Lozano-Hemmer: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Make it evaporate.
Cooke: Yeah, that'd be perfect.
Farber: There's this process of catharsis that we see in the work, or even for both of you, the way to deal with monumental structure, monumental loss, is in some ways to go back to an intimate scale. We're in the midst of a profound and long standing crisis of grief and of harm in this country and outside of this country. And it's living day-to-day, it's in our infrastructure, it's definitely in our symbols and our systems. And we're talking about acknowledgement and what happens when you acknowledge loss and what happens when you don't. For both of you, in the work that you do, have you seen what happens when loss, trauma, grief is acknowledged, and what happens, ultimately, when loss, trauma, grief goes unacknowledged?
Cooke: I'm searching the files, but I don't know if I actually deal very much with loss or grief in my work. Ironically, conversely, I think it deals a lot more with opportunity and joy, actual playfulness and happiness, that catharsis through joy. And I think, especially hiphop as a phenomenon that started in this country, in this city, is something that came out of one of the worst scenarios of our recent history, thinking about the South Bronx in the late '60s, early '70s, and Robert Moses and the city being on fire and landlords burning their buildings and what Times Square was and the prostitution and the killings and the bankruptcy of the city in the mid '70s, all of that was the backdrop for this really beautiful, playful art-form, expressive art form to come out of. And it was started by kids. They were high school kids trying to find a place to party and trying to find a place, a way to express themselves, and realizing that their parents didn't understand them, just like every other generation's parents didn't understand them. So, most of my work is grounded there. So, I'm not sure if I can answer a question about grief or loss. But the point about acknowledgement is really important to me in just my own personal life about becoming aware and acknowledging any kind of disruption or trauma of any kind, and then it can be let go. I think we are much more apt to hold on to things. We can be aware of them and we want to hold onto them and we want everybody else to know about it instead of just being aware of it and processing it ourselves, and then we can let it go right.
Lozano-Hemmer: In preparation for this talk I read a book by a Belgian guy called Guy Cools, it's called Performing Mourning, and I want to read you just a couple of things that he mentions. He says, "The lament..." lamentation, it's seeing people mourn, "... allows us to better access our own mourning." So, I really like the idea of the artist is trying to create an opportunity for people to be expressing that. Another quote that I really like in it is about acceptance, from Judith Butler. It says that, "By the loss one undergoes, one will be changed, possibly forever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation, the result of which one cannot know in advance." So, there is this idea of we're losing not just the person, we're losing the person we used to be. We have to acknowledge and accept that things will change. Then, there is one last one, which comes from Sherry Turkle, and she was describing a rabbi during a service talking about being in dialogue with the dead, which I really think is a very Mexican thing too, the dialogue with the dead. The rabbi was suggesting there's four things you need to say to the dead. "I am sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. And I love you." And it's so important to have that closure. When my own dad died, I'm an atheist and his family isn't, and they invited the priest. And I thought, you know what, there're beautiful things that priests can say, and I'm sure this time around it's going to be fine. But the guy looked at the room and says, "Well, I see people who don't normally come to the church, and if we only show up here during funerals... And I'm gonna need..." Basically he's asking for money. I could smack this guy. But there are some traditions, even in Christianity, that are beautiful to come to terms with that. As an atheist, I keep looking for them. There’s one, which is [Michel de] Montaigne, Montaigne said, “to philosophize is to learn how to die”. And I think that art making is something similar. We’re all in the process of just coming to terms with this a finite show. So for atheists, that’s a good one.
Cooke: The transformation aspect is incredibly important, that the letting go is not dismissal of the thing and erasure. It's actually a way of using that thing to become transformed and reinforcing that element of change that we talked about before. And the other thing that's that struck me about the exhibition here, you talked about these other traditions that use sand and the impermanence of sand and the Dia De Los Muertos examples, but also thinking about the Mandalas and the Buddhist tradition, how intricate and beautiful they are and how painstakingly precise they are and how long they take and they're invested in how important this thing is, and then it all just gets swept away.
Lozano-Hemmer: They let it go.
Cooke: Yeah. They let it go. And it's just this really beautiful allegory about the impermanence of life, the impermanence of every single physical thing that we experience, and then we get a chance to treasure that experience more. And the value of that is so much more powerful. So, I'm really happy that you use the sand as part of the process.
Farber: Thank you. That's really powerful. And just in that spirit of transformation, in a way, I wanted to ask you a question that was, meant as almost like an underhand pitch, that I know you have been asked in the Atlantic, Sekou, and you've taken on yourself, which is what is the status of, will there be a COVID memorial, which if our public spaces give us any indication, we're having this talk here in the "United States of Amnesia", so we will attempt to push away. So, instead of asking you that question of will there be a future memorial in a large scale way, just in that spirit of drawing catharsis from acknowledging impermanence, transformation, communion between the living and the dead, in this moment of heavy grief, what is something, as an artist, as an architect, that you would like to see us employ or engage with as a mode of acknowledgement or healing to deal with the weight of loss and the ongoing challenges of grief?
Cooke: Coming back to the idea of a memorial to memorials, I was really trying to say that the idea of memorials would disappear, that we would stop needing to have memorials because we've proven their ineffectiveness through what we've seen, the decolonial efforts of tearing down these old monuments. I've also been espousing this idea, especially in architecture, that things that we once thought as a singular thing that can be enveloped within a singular object of building might actually be more powerful if they get dispersed. And we're seeing it with offices, let's say. Large corporations recognize now that they can employ people all across the globe in their own little micro offices. We can see it with schools that are dispersed instead of centralized in a certain location, and we can see it in libraries, libraries that can actually go into communities and do different things. So, I think for memorials, we can start to think of them as very personal things, just like in many Eastern traditions and even in South American Catholicism, people have personal shrines, personal alters, and they're both alters to people who have passed away, but alters to their teachers, to their gurus. And for designers, the opportunity there is, to connect it to ideas from some of my other work, it's, instead of designing every single thing as a bespoke intervention, you create a framework for people to then replicate and adapt and personalize themselves. So, I'm really more interested in ideas of how do we performatively dismantle these existing monuments and then make monumentation or memorialization something that's much more individual and personal, and then we can read them and understand them as a collective that's not done by a singular designer.
Lozano-Hemmer: Yeah, I really like the idea of dispersion as a way to go around it. When you think about a lot of the rituals that we have, like the, do you say in English, "procession"? Procession. That's incredible, because you're activating community through a walk. You're going somewhere. There is an objective, there is a sense of movement, and there is a sense of walking it out. I think that what might be interesting, instead of a COVID memorial, which is a massive, oversized syringe or mask, how about a memorial that is an educational campaign about science and about how, in a globalized situation, which we're not going to go back to, not being globalized, this is going to happen all the time, and to understand what vaccination is and to understand how to actually stop this. It would be a great memorial. That would be the best service that we can do for all of the dead. A traveling educational campaign, some processional, like a ritual. The loss is major. I don't know what the statistics are in comparison to, say, wars, but that's a million people that you just lost here. That's amazing. And we're trying to pretend like nothing happened. So, education would be a good memorial.
Farber: Thank you both. We're coming up toward the close up our time. Just really grateful for your questions. We do have time for a couple of questions from the audience, if you have them. And I think there is a microphone for amplification as well.
Audience Question 1: Hi. Thank you for these amazing presentations. So inspiring. So, I was really interested, Rafael, how you introduced your work on this particular project with these really wonderful memorial artists, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Esther Shalev-Gerz, Efrain Jara [Idrovo], and even this particular work of Doris Salcedo, which are all about absence and loss and showing the wound. And it seems to be that the work that both of you presented here in relation to COVID was very different from that, actually, and that it had to do with healing, with repair, with imagining something else, with bringing people together and creating community. Those works also obviously open a space for people to come and respond to the work in different ways than traditional memorials, but there's something else going on here in your work. And I was wondering if you might be able to speak about the difference, especially I'm interested in the Crack in the Hourglass, which we had the occasion to present the satellite version of at this cathedral of St. John The Divine as part of a project. Then, I'm leading the Zip Code Memory Project, which also has to do with creating community and opening a space for people to come together. And what really struck me watching the machine work and watching the sand, has to do with how the sand itself creates community because every one of these photographs is drawn using the same sand, and somehow I begin to wonder, what does the sand remember of these different faces and how the machine itself has made a space for creating a more global and communal way to remember, not just as an individual project or even a familial one, but really a global one?
Lozano-Hemmer: Thank you so much for your comment and question. And I should mention, I believe that the piece is still on view at St. John The Divine, right? And I really appreciate your exhibition. I did not, unfortunately, get to see it, but I know that you have made a really concerted effort to try and bring other communities into it. So, thank you for that. I should mention that the examples that I showed are the people who inspired me when I was growing up. And I remember when I first met Wodiczko, I told him, "Your work is site-specific. My work is relationship-specific," and then we fought, and now we are great friends and we're collaborating. But I do think that the work of the masters, I would say, the ones that I showed, are all about deconstructing master narratives and giving you new, other histories that may have been erased. In my case, and I think yours too, you talk about a framework, I call it a platform. And it's the similar idea is you set up the conditions for people to then self-represent. And I think that that's what's different from our work than, say, the earlier generation, because in a way, our work is incomplete. It's really just waiting for people to do something with it. And this capability for it to be out of control, to be surprising, is a fundamental part of the potential democratic side of this kind of thing, although that sounds pretentious, but it's an open-ended thing.
Cooke: I think there are a couple of things that are common to that type of memorial-making, which are, one, that it's seen as a single authorship, that I have an idea I'm going to execute it and I have control over what the result is, and then also, rather than setting up this framework or this platform where people actually get to do and interpret it in however they please. And the authors here have very little control over what that is, except for the framework and the ideas and the conversations around it. And the second thing is thinking about answering a prompt. And again, this is why I didn't really answer the question about what does a COVID memorial look like, because it's just like a finite thing, there's this prompt, this is the problem, and I'm going to create a solution. This is my solution to this problem that I've been presented with, versus my perception right now where I don't really think in terms of problem and solution anymore. I'm really looking for opportunities. What is the opportunity here? This thing is tragic, it's traumatic, people are affected by it, but what's the opportunity? How can we use this as an opportunity to create new dialogues, new conversations, new healings, new transformations, to learn from it, grow from it, and maybe even make something beautiful along the way?
Farber: On that note, Rafael, Sekou, thank you so much for your powerful work and words tonight.
Lozano-Hemmer: Thank you.
Cooke: Thank you.
More About Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: A Crack in the Hourglass, An Ongoing COVID-19 Memorial
Visit the exhibition’s website and project archive at https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/rafael_lozano_hemmer.
Co-Hosts: Paul Farber and Li Sumpter
Monument Lab Production Team: Paul Farber, Justin Geller, Nico Rodriguez, Aubree Penney, and Li Sumpter
Monument Lab Design and Communications: Jen Cleary, William Hodgson, Mira Hart, Dina Paola Rodriguez, and Raina Wellman
Production Partner: Radio Kismet
Special Thanks: Brooklyn Museum staff including Drew Sawyer, Margo Cohen Ristorucci, Bob Nardi, and Teddy Ryles
Event Documentation Images: Kolin Mendez Photography
This season of the Monument Lab podcast is made with support from the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design.