Editor’s Note: Michael Brown was murdered on August 9, 2014. The interview mistakenly accounted for this date as occurring in July 2014.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas is a leading thinker on monuments and one of the co-founders of For Freedoms, the largest public art campaign in the history of the United States. Thomas worked with Monument Lab in Fall 2017 in Philadelphia on the prototype monument All Power to All People, a monumental-sized afro pick installed across from City Hall. He also produced Raise Up on the grounds of the National Peace and Justice Memorial in Birmingham. A new survey of his work, Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal, is out in October 2018 from Aperture and the Portland Art Museum. In this episode, we are also joined by Evan Walsh, a photographer and For Freedoms Communications Coordinator.
PAUL FARBER, HOST: Hank Willis Thomas. Welcome to the first episode of the Monument Lab podcast. Thank you for joining us.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS: Thank you.
FARBER: As an artist, you've worked in museums and in galleries. How did you first get pulled into working in public space?
THOMAS: How did I first get into doing work in the public? There's an artist named Nina Katchadourian who does these really fun and playful kind of public interactions. And she taught a class on art in public space when I was in graduate school at CCA. And we found an old kind of roundabout, and there was a statue in the middle of it, and had a gargoyle in it. And then we kind of made up a history for the gargoyle and got plaques made and applied them to it and did an unveiling, a re-unveiling, about this kind of really old, unsung statue. And I realized that art in public space can be fun. And the plaques lasted for like four years, that somehow the city thought that maybe they really belonged there. And then, a couple years later, I was invited by Chris Johnson at the Port of Oakland to do a video installation for the airport there. And my friends and I started a collective called Cause Collective, where we did several public art projects. But that was the first one at Oakland Airport. It was a video mosaic where we were asking hundreds of people across the Bay Area to pose for portraits, and then we would combine them to make faces and all these other things. From there, just new projects arose, like the Truth Booth, and other airport projects. And I feel like I'm really just at the beginning of this process, but our piece at Monument Lab was a major breakthrough.
FARBER: In working in public space, there are times where an artist will work closely with the city. There are other times an artist might work purposely outside of permission process. In your practice, do you have a preference? Or how do you engage that kind of question of permission and authority in public space?
THOMAS: I think typically, when I do things in public space, yeah, I like the idea that someone has to get a lawyer to ask us to take it down. To go through the channels that kind of make it sanctioned I think are exciting, because there's different kind of resonance for me as opposed to some of the kind of like the project that we did that I described earlier that is more of a kind of guerilla approach. And that's fun, as well, but it kind of has a different end. Because someone can just remove it.
FARBER: We worked together in Philadelphia on the city-wide Monument Lab exhibition. And your piece, a monumental-sized Afro pick, All Power to All People, was installed on the plaza of the Municipal Services Building right across from City Hall. And it was the talk of the town. That piece is now entering the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts right around the corner from City Hall. What inspired that work?
THOMAS: Well, that work was largely inspired by my childhood, my early childhood, in Philadelphia. My grandmother is a beautician, and I remember when we were kids, Afros were popular. And there were metal-tined Afro picks with the metal handle with a fist on it. And it was kind of a beautiful object, but it definitely hurt. And I couldn't understand, like, I remember like, okay, this is going go into my hair. But I remember wondering, why was there a fist on it? Was it because did it hurt because the fist was the fist to say it's going be strong? And then I saw these Claes Oldenburg sculptures. Whenever I was downtown in Philadelphia, we'd go around City Hall, and you could look up as a kid out of the car and you'd see, like, the Clothespin. And I started thinking about these mundane objects and his work, and the way that he would take them and put them into the public and ask us to reconsider domestic space and our relationship to modernity through these kind of monumental public sculptures. And I realized that there was some kind of objects that were missing. And the Afro pick being this really potent aspect of African American domestic life, and Philadelphia playing a huge role in the Black Power movement, in the Civil Rights movement. I was excited to kind of combine my personal family history with the political history of the city through putting that sculpture there.
FARBER: While the sculpture was installed, one of the most remarkable kind of revelations that we had was that any time you went by it, not only would someone be posing for a photo with it, but when they left, they'd leave fingerprints. where people embraced it. It reminded me of bronze sculptures that have a patina that wear over time, and it shows you where people have touched it, that they changed the artwork. How did seeing that sculpture in public space your relationship with that piece of art?
THOMAS: Well, I mean, I think you rarely, when you make art, think that ... especially when you have a sketch, think that it's going really happen, you know? Most things that we sketch don't really become a reality. And so for me, it just was still ... it was more just like, "Oh, this is real. And this really out here. And this is [laughs]." I think I still haven't fully come to terms with that reality, that it was actually, we were able to make it and put it up. And put it up in such a prominent place. And then, seeing the photos and seeing people react to it, and family members as well as strangers, it just, more than anything, gave me the impression that this is just the beginning. And that yeah, I do remember seeing the fingerprints and the hands on it. And there's an intimacy, as well.
FARBER: Another one of your monumental sculptures, Raise Up, is now installed on the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a poignant national site of commemoration for thousands of victims of racial lynching. And the site was envisioned by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. How did you get involved with the memorial project, and as an artist, how did you prepare to work on that site?
THOMAS: I was invited to participate in the project, it was before even the idea of the National Memorial was an idea. I think Bryan [Stevenson] was really wanting to commemorate the legacy and the history of lynching and had spoken to a number of artists about what that might be and how that might look. But at the time, we were thinking about doing like kind of markers at sites where we know people were lynched across the country. And over time, MASS Design got involved, and then other artists, and then the slavery museum became a part of it and became a pretty massive, really complex, ambitious project. The sculpture, I proposed several sculptures, but the one that we decided to manifest was a life-sized version of a sculpture I'd made called Raise Up which was inspired by a photograph by Ernest Cole of South African miners being medically examined or strip-searched. I made the sculpture in 2014 in February in South Africa, and in July of that same year, Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. And people started to perceive it as the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" piece, because the protesters were saying, "Hands up, don't shoot." And there was a clear relationship between that sculpture and that moment. And I remember thinking that it was fascinating that something that was made with the intention about being something. I believe the past is present in all ways and I was really fascinated with the way that something that was made about something that happened 50 years ago, and halfway across the world, could speak so eloquently to something that was about to happen. That suggests the struggle continues, and the work is really about how many perspectives there can be on a similar kind of idea or image. And when we decided to remake it as a public sculpture for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there were other elements. I titled it Raise Up. Because I was also thinking about baptism and salvation as well as surrender, which I guess they have this connection, and the struggle in generations of people of African descent all over the world to be given and accepted as full human beings.
FARBER: Since the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened earlier this year, have you visited the site? What is your experience now seeing your sculpture in that context of profound reckoning and sorrow, but also an important intervention into the way we think about history?
THOMAS: Well, I think I'm always kind of more dumbfounded and in awe. And I think more than me, I'm always really surprised by the vision of curators and the designers, because placement is extremely important, and all the work that people don't see that goes behind the scene to coordinate getting the work made and input and produced and engineered and installed in public space. There's a lot of things that can go wrong, and a lot of things that can make it not worth doing at some point. And the fact that Bryan Stevenson was able to pull together this collaboration between artists, historians, architects, designers, landscapers, and construction companies, and different kinds of donors, and all of these people, to make this really much larger contribution to American history that was really missing, that was fascinating. And to just see myself in the work as a small part of that is, yeah, it's dumbfounding.
FARBER: You mentioned this a bit, but thinking about placement, you know, as a curator, I have a checklist in my head around placing an artwork, thinking about sight line, thinking about the ways that it may invite people in. As an artist, what are you thinking about when placing work in public space? Do you have checklist or goals in mind?
WILLIS THOMAS: For me, it's almost always like, "Are they really crazy enough to do this? Okay, let's, I mean, let's try that and see what happens." I do tend to go into these situations with disbelief. And as more projects become a reality, I think the challenge for me becomes to be more creative and more radical in my proposal. But, you know, I like to do it step by step so I can kind of learn as I'm going.
FARBER: We're in an intense moment around public and civic life. And on the one hand, we have live streamed political speech. And on the other, we have these clashes around symbols that we've inherited from the past. Monuments and other kinds of history. In your work, how do you approach that relationship between political speech and symbols in public space?
THOMAS: Well, I think we are moving away from the era of traditional Western representation in monuments where it was typically a European man, with a weapon or riding a beast, who was a kind of unassailable hero. And part of moving away from that is this reconsideration of who are we, who do we want to represent, what values do we want to represent, and how do we also make space for intersectionality, for complexity, and openness to interpretation? That maybe a monument doesn't necessarily have to be something that is unilaterally admired or perceived. And so, I like to think of what we are doing as planting seeds. And what art in public space should do is ask questions. I think if everything in public space has a designated function that doesn't challenge us, I think we can really lose sight of what can make a society better. You know, if we become too comfortable with where we are and the generic stories we've been told about the past.
FARBER: We are in this moment of questioning the role of monuments, do you have a sense of who deserves to be on a pedestal, or what symbols we should elevate? Or is it more about the questions for you?
THOMAS: My sense is that everyone deserves to be on a pedestal, and no one. So therein lies the challenge.
FARBER: You spoke about the ways for you that the past is present. In thinking about a body of work that you've created, inspired by Ernest Wither's iconic image of Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968, each carrying the placard proclaiming "I am man" ... I'm sorry, carrying the placard proclaiming "I am a man," you've remixed and adapted those words. And earlier this year, the city of Memphis, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of that protest, and also the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, installed a memorial and monument that replicated that placard. What is your approach to working with images and archives from the past, especially those earlier eras of activism and Civil Rights struggles that clearly speak to us still?
THOMAS: I was rejected for that one, so ... I had my own proposal.
FARBER: What was your proposal?
THOMAS: Well, very similar to the one that was created was my backup version. Except I would've ... I might think it might've been slightly better. But I might think it might've been slightly better. But it was, I think, an overly-complicated proposal.
FARBER: Can you share what it was?
THOMAS: There were the signs, there was a mountaintop, there was a stretched-out hand that the public was invited to come into, to rest in. Pretty much doing too much. Yeah, but it's also, now, I'm thinking like, "Okay, how do I modify that idea to make it better?" But in general, I think it's great to live in the present, and to even live in tomorrow. But I think it's also important to reflect on the past. There's so much to be learned from past political movements and moments. Learn so that we don’t as history repeats itself, perhaps we can just kind of turn the dial just a little bit towards progress, towards greater opportunity for all. And not forgetting that the struggle for equal human rights is a perennial struggle. That it's never going to be over. I like to think of the work that I make as kind of road marks, mile markers, that we kind of remember and see where we've come from, but also keep thinking about where we need to go. I also believe at some point, we don't know what should be preserved and what should be what should be conserved and what should be maybe put out to pasture. But, you know, at some point, certain ideas do kind of live out their necessity. And there's a real question about how do we reconcile with that, you know? But in my work, I'm constantly trying to mine for things that I think that I have overlooked or need to make reminders to myself about what to do and how to think of it. So when I remix those paintings from “I am a man” Memphis sanitation workers march protest, I had things that said, like, "I am human," "I am many," "I am amen." And "Aint' I a woman?" To think about going from "I am a man" to "I am amen", and the revelation of us is a blessing, in a sense, and recognizing that hopefully will inspire us to do more than we think we have capacity to do.
FARBER: In a new survey of your work Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal, published by Aperture and the Portland Art Museum, it's remarkable to see the scope of the collaborations that you have been a part of and have helped direct. Thinking about Question Bridge, Truth Booth, and of course For Freedoms, among many others. What kind of relationships are necessary for collaboration to work with an artist both at its center, and an artist as among a group of people making artwork happen?
THOMAS: The core is love. And a willingness to fail. Because when, in every collaboration, no collaboration ever goes smoothly. And things go wrong or are unexpected because there's not a roadmap for how two, or four, or forty, or a thousand, or tens of thousands come together to make something. And all of us have egos, all of us have need to be validated in different ways. And all of us have something to contribute. And sometimes our egos need to listen and take a step back, and sometimes we need to speak up when no one else wants to listen to us. There's a delicate balance in those situations where I've been places with collaborators where three people were on one side, and one person was one side. And everyone's, like, really aggravated and frustrated. And at one point, that one person put their foot down, and the three of us were like, "Okay." [Laughs.] And you would assume that, you know, three people are always, that the majority, in a democracy, the majority is right. But sometimes those three people can be misguided and be wrong. And if that person hadn't gotten so frustrated, we might not have really understood their point. And they were actually right. That's kind of the process of making. And I think that's a, for me, that's why I say it's about love, because there's this generosity that has to happen. That like, I trust that you would not bring anything to this that is not with the best intention. And same with me.
FARBER: You've explored truth and lies in your work. And Truth Booth has traveled around the country and the world collecting testimonials from people of how they define truth. Likewise, your poster and billboard, All Lies Matter, the l removal of one letter to point out the cruel nature of the statement All Lives Matter. How are you thinking about truth in this current moment, and as an artist, what do you feel like is important for you to put forth around our understanding of the concept?
THOMAS: Well, a fundamental element of Question Bridge: Black Males, which was a video media mega-log between African American men, where we were asking self-identified black men to ask and answer each other's questions. Our idea was to challenge this idea of the generic man on the street, black male perspective, that the news sometimes tries to get, et cetera. And to show that there are, even within a specific demographic, you know, if you ask five people same question, you're gonna get five different answers. Because they have five different truths. And so that applied exponentially in the Truth Booth, in the manifestation of that, where we ask people to go into this video recording booth and start with the phrase "The truth is ..." and then each person comes in with a different truth. Because the truth changes for every person moment to moment. And fundamentally, a lot of what my work is about is how we can all be looking at the very same thing, but see something different. Because you're standing here, and I'm standing there, and there's someone else there. And yeah, the example that I was talking about was with Question Bridge, with my collaborator Kamal [Sinclair], who was, at that time the only woman in our collaboration. And she's also the only person who's, quote, "biracial." Intersectionality, as a collaborator, was much more important to her than three African American men who were like, you know, used to being put into a simple box. And she was like, "All my life, I've been asked to put myself in a box. And I can't fit in any simple box." And that's what the truth is, that really, when we thought about it, "Well, yeah, we don't seem to fit neatly into a simple box." So I think my work is really trying to get myself and others to think about themselves outside of the box. And so All Lies Matter is as much an indictment of myself as it is anything else. It’s up as a billboard in St. Louis, where "All Lives Matter" was shouted as a way to shout down Black Lives Matter. And someone said to me once, you know, "All lives matter, but some more than others." And I do believe all lives matter. But the reality is that most of the time that people said "All lives matter," they didn't really mean it. So the work is trying to call that out, and also, I don't know, it's something weird that, I don't even know if I'm making any sense, but something weird happens in our brain when we're looking at it, where we see the shirt, like, says "All ..." someone just wrote me an email. "Oh, I really want to get one of those All Lives Matter shirts," because that's what it says, right? And so, like, again, we can be looking at the same thing and seeing something different.
FARBER: You've worked in public space, but you've also worked in advertising space before. And thinking of when you flew a plane over Miami with trailing text, Ads Imitate Art, Art imitates Life, Life Imitates Ads. Do you have to approach commercial space differently, especially when you're dealing with these really important notions of politics and identity?
THOMAS: All I really want is to kind of mess things up a little bit so that smarter, better artists come into the space and feel invited and do smarter, better things. So it's just like my biggest question is like, "Is this passable? Will I regret putting this out there?" Because I realize that most the ways that we see art in public space, like quote-unquote art or imagery, is about transaction. You know, it's like, "Buy this product, or bow to the person." And I think that we need to really break that model up a lot. And so yeah, I like to put questions in the public. And with For Freedoms, where we're doing billboards in all 50 states, the question is, like, what is this? Is this an ad for an artist? Is it an ad for a brand? Is it political statement? Is it? The truth is that it might be all those things. And maybe only one of those things, depending on where you are, you know? And so, yeah, the goal is just to mess it up a little bit.
FARBER: You’re a prolific Instagram poster. I'm curious how Instagram has changed your life?
THOMAS: I realized actually 15 years ago that there are more pictures taken in a single second than any of us can make sense of in our entire lives. And we've maybe reached a critical mass of images being created. That it's important that some people start to investigate the images that we're making. And to think about the present moment with a little bit of a distance. So with a lot of my work, where I'm appropriating images from past and from media and popular culture, I'm really trying to get myself and viewers to take a step back from kind of the fleeting moment of scrolling on our phones, and look at our culture, and look at our society. Because these ads are really very much a reflection of our values a specific point of time. What's fascinating about Instagram is we become our own advertising agencies. We become our own branding companies. That, like, "Aren't I okay? Isn't my life good? Isn't what I'm doing important? Will you please validate it with a like?" And really, we've kind of all invested into a culture of mass distraction, where we try to make progress through distraction. We try to improve our lives through distraction. Like, "I'm here in this amazing place. I'm having the best time. And now, I'm gonna stop that to make sure other people know." So for me, it's a really ambivalent relationship, where I'm trying to figure out how to make it a productive space, social media, myself. Because there is a lot of learning that happens on there. But how do I apply that learning and circulate ideas? Because it's also, what's beautiful about is it, we become a hive mind. You know, what's trending is like, "Oh, wow." And like, hashtags are portals into a massive curation. So there's, for me, multiple angles to it that I'm trying to kind of step back and look. But I'm also really in the wormhole. And I'm usually part of what I'm trying to critique.
FARBER: You started an artist-run super PAC with Eric Gottesman in For Freedoms. How does this project differ or relate to other kinds of political action committees or ways that people are engaging politics?
THOMAS: Well, we started off as a super PAC. We're no longer functioning as a super PAC because there is a certain amount of risk that other non-profits kind of take on when they engage in political speech. But we started as a super PAC really for that very reason, that we wanted to challenge the role of art in civic life, and the role of artist in political speech. we actually never did what a super PAC's supposed to do, which we're supposed to either lionize or demonize a specific candidate. We really were trying to kind of open a space for critical discourse and political discourse. And over the past few years, not just Eric and myself, but also Wyatt Gallery and Michelle Woo and now Evan and Blaze Walsh and Emma Nuzzo and a huge, huge, huge team ... Taylor ... I can keep going. But a huge team of 40 of us, I think, are doing ... we're in our own hive mind, as crazy as it is, collaborating with hundreds of artists and hundreds of institutions across the country. Doing exhibitions, town halls, and billboards in all 50 states under this name of The 50 State Initiative. And again, we're just trying to mess it up. We're just trying to say, okay, political speech has become too simple. And really, the way that art functions, our society is too simple. And we need to really blur the lines, because all art is political. And really, politicians are designing our society. And they're creating our world through the laws that they create and the way they govern. And that is a creative act, as well. And they tend to operate in doing their jobs as if it's not a creative act. Therefore, repeating the same issues and coming to the same solutions to problems that aren't getting solved.
FARBER: We're going to take a very quick break, but when we're back, we'll continue with Hank Willis Thomas, and be joined by Evan Walsh of For Freedoms. This is Monument Lab.
FARBER: We are back with Hank Willis Thomas and now joined by Evan Walsh from For Freedoms. Evan, thanks for joining in on the conversation.
EVAN WALSH: Thanks for having me.
FARBER: How did you get involved with the creative and collaborative team at For Freedoms?
WALSH: I was working as a TA at Anderson Ranch outside of Aspen, Colorado, in the photography program. And there's definitely a lot of touchpoints with the For Freedoms team Anderson Ranch. But I met Wyatt Gallery who was working for For Freedoms. He was there for a show that was opening. I'd known about For Freedoms and so when I heard he was coming, I kind of hunted him down. I was like, "Wyatt, I'm really interested in For Freedoms and what you guys are doing." So I just kept emailing and emailing and emailing. And then almost a year ago, I think it was this week actually, I started at For Freedoms. We started this crazy journey that we've been on this year.
FARBER: You're an artist as well. Your photography project, The Spaces Between Us, explores relationships between friends. Just curious, as an artist how much of your day is spent thinking in ways that relate to the way you make art, and how have you had to push your practice and think beyond that?
WALSH: Yeah, that's a really great question. I think it's changed too since I joined For Freedoms, but I remember a year ago I was kind of in this head space where I had just graduated college and every day at college you just spend time with your friends all day. I kind of went into this head space where I was living in the mountains, I didn't know anyone, and I was starting over. I think the way that I thought about it before I graduated was just that I was constantly inundated with friendship and closeness. The Space Between Us examines the boundaries that come up between me and male friends, and thinking about, we're always told we're not allowed to be emotional with our male friends, or we're not allowed to be close, and there's this kind of distance that we have to keep. That's the idea of the Space Between Us. So that was kind of fascinating to me. But then after I graduated, I didn't really have that connection with anyone. It kind of becomes this solitary thing. So moving from Colorado to New York, and then constantly being around the For Freedoms team, this idea of connectivity between men, I think, also transcends in a way. It's really just that all of us as humans are really looking for a way to feel connected to one another, and I think that kind of idea kind of comes into my work at For Freedoms.
FARBER: For Freedoms is partnering with hundreds of collaborators across the country, and really driven by 50-state initiative. How does it operate, and how do you work across these different states?
WALSH: About a year ago in November, we started building out this 50-state initiative toolkit, and it was looking at all of the different forms of activation that For Freedoms has produced independently since it was founded. It was billboards, town halls and exhibitions. We'd kind of done one-off activations of these three different pieces. And then around 2017 we started modeling out this idea that, "What if we did a billboard, town hall, and exhibition at the same place?" For example, we did one in Houston where we had a billboard that said, "Where do we go from here?" And then we had an exhibition called Margin and Center, which explored ideas of being a photographer and what it is like to have perspective both from the margins and in the center related to the idea of borders. Then we did a town hall next door. So we realized that there was kind of this multifaceted way of piloting out conversation in that exhibition spaces are more insular and town halls are more insular, but billboards are very public, and so merging these kind of different forms of dialogue and public art, we led this into this scalable model where we went to all of our partners around the nation. So our co-worker, Emma, who Hank has said is the only one crazy enough to just reach out randomly to 250 partners in all 50 states and say, "Hey, we want you to be a part of this." She's really built this huge network in partners who are all doing billboards, town halls, and exhibitions in all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico from September 1 to November 6, the midterm elections. And so the way we created it by doing this toolkit, we made it really scalable. So we're kind of training these partners how to do the activations but then empowering them that they can be a voice for their local community in that we as For Freedoms team, we don't need to come in and say, "This is how it has to be." They can put it on their own way, but then they come back to us and we help uplift the stories they're telling. It's still this massive beast that we have trouble getting our hands around, but that's kind of the joy of the project is that it's grown beyond what we even imagine. I mean, I think initially we're like, "Let's get 30, 40 partners." We had no idea that it would get up to over 200 in all 50 states.
FARBER: This is a question for both you, Evan, and Hank. Are there days where you feel like you're running a political campaign in addition to a public art project?
THOMAS: I mean, I would say the stress from time to time feels like we're running a political campaign. The difference is that we have no idea what we're doing, and maybe that's what a political campaign also is, is these are people who just drive and drive and drive and drive. I think to create, frankly the creativity is in our openness and our willingness to respond creatively to new challenges. Something like this project has never been done before, and this is the largest creative collaboration in American history. Every day, we reach, we find new obstacles, but we also find new opportunities. If we haven't or hadn't faced some of these obstacles, we wouldn't be able to solve new problems. So, it is actually really fun in that way. There is no winning, though. [Laughs.] I think our success isn't going to be measured in a very simple way because we are anti-partisan and really, our hope is that people just ask critical questions. Asking critical questions can lead, hopefully, to better solutions and better leadership.
WALSH: I like this idea that there's no winning. I think every day when we're doing our work it just is really fulfilling in that way. Since we're not marching towards this end goal of success, there is definitely this constant like it goes on forever because the 50-state initiative is just one thing that we're doing this fall, but it's kind of mapping the cultural infrastructure of the United States.
We took the idea of the 50-state initiative from politicians dreaming of doing a 50-state campaign. And now that we're doing it, we're seeing that we've created a network of artists, and we've created windows for opportunity and interconnectivity. And that's something that I never really imagined would have happened, but in terms of this political environment using political strategy and using political thinking, it definitely feels like a political campaign but then it kind of transcends beyond it in that we're creating this super large community that has risen to be so much larger than we ever imagined.
WALSH: You've provided a blueprint for your partners, and Monument Lab is proud to be one of your partners on For Freedoms.
THOMAS: And inspirations. Doing a city-wide collaboration had never been done before by putting artists in public space challenging of what a monument is really something that inspired us to go national.
FARBER: Scale up.
THOMAS: Yeah. So what are you doing next? Global or intergalactic monument lab?
FARBER: Maybe it starts right here. So, you know, you've shared this blueprint. What have you learned back from your partners in listening to them at town halls or seeing how they take the concept of For Freedoms and make it their own?
THOMAS: Well, Evan's in Chicago now, do you want to talk about that? Or you were in Syracuse or....
WALSH: Yeah, I was in Syracuse last week. Eric [Gottesman] and I from our team curated a show called Be Strong and Do Not Betray Your Soul, which pulled from all of the artists that have ever been in the Light Work artists in residency program. And so we picked 50 images from the collection of images that artists have donated as part of their residency. We went up there last week for the gallery talk reception, and it kind of became this platform for the Syracuse community. That was one thing that I don't think I was expecting. It made sense when it happened but there were local community leaders there, organizers. They were saying the first black judge in Syracuse was there. The head of the ACLU chapter in Syracuse. The team at Light Work had said that those were the type of people that they were trying to get to come to Light Work activations for a really long time, and they were really proud that they showed up. And I think they said that this idea of this For Freedoms element is what drew them out because it was this platform for discussion. Beyond an exhibition, the gallery reception became this space. It was full capacity. There were tons of people there, and then our gallery talk turned into a town hall. People were asking questions. They were giving their feedback and saying their opinions and saying how the work had affected them. What really surprised me about the campaign is that the ways that people have really tailored their activations to actually fit their community, and they think really creatively about how their community will respond and ... they just take it so far. Syracuse, too, they did six billboards around the community, and there's a lot of controversy around a highway around Syracuse that divides two sides of the city. On the one side is more upper class, and the other side is disenfranchised community. The city is actually thinking about trying to redefine the highway. Their question is are they going to turn it into a grid? Are they going to make it a tunnel? They actually put a For Freedoms billboard that says, "Be strong and do not betray your soul." It transcended what Eric and I had curated and became this platform for the Syracuse community to talk about local issues and to come together and also celebrate community. And that's one thing that we say that we're trying to cultivate, but I think when you actually see it happening and you see other people taking the reins of that, it's really beautiful.
THOMAS: Yeah, in the past couple of days I was in Chicago for a town hall. It was in a food desert, but it was an urban garden the artist Emmanuel Pratt and the group called the Sweet Water Foundation created. It's like four blocks of urban garden in, literally, a food desert where I could only find Doritos to eat. It was a collaboration with the Smart museum and with Expo Chicago. That was an art fair and an art museum collaborating with a community garden to do a town hall discussion with artists who had been collaborating for 50 years and March for Our Lives. That was just astounding. And then yesterday I was at the Delaware Art Museum, where they held a town hall. It was about education in the state of Delaware, which I thought was going to be the most boring thing I ever went to. I was like, "Why is the art museum doing something about the board of education?" And it was one of the most impassioned and informative experiences I've actually had. I realized that, yeah, that's why the center of this collaboration is that we don't know the answers but we know the questions. These institutions that are doing these amazing things under the banner of For Freedoms are really changing their communities, also changing our lives.
FARBER: Hank Willis Thomas, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you Evan Walsh for connecting as well.
THOMAS: Thank you.
WALSH: Thank you.
Editor’s Note: Michael Brown was murdered on August 9, 2014. The interview mistakenly accounted for this date as occurring in July 2014.