When you think of monuments and public art projects that provoke, that are critical and participatory, you think of Paul Ramírez Jonas. Born in California, raised in Honduras, and now a professor at New York’s Hunter College, he has produced renowned projects including Keys to the City, Public Trust, and the Commons, which have been huge inspirations to me and Monument Lab. Ask him to name traditional styles of monuments going back to antiquity, he can give you studied and detailed response – but he can also point you to projects of his that reinvent the form and expectations for participatory monuments.
“I just had this moment where I realized, if you turn a monument inside-out, a sculptural monument, it becomes a theater,” he says.
We speak to Paul Ramírez Jonas about the idea of Public Noise, a new proposal where he inverts the idea of an equestrian monument and presents a stage for debating what it means to occupy and tangle with public space. Ramirez Jonas made Public Noise as a part of the High Line Joint Art Network’s New Monuments for New Cities.
In 2019, Monument Lab was research residents of New Monuments for New Cities and interviewed artists from each of its 5 partner cities – New York, Chicago, Austin, Houston, and Toronto – about monuments, memory, and public space.
Paul Farber: Paul Ramírez Jonas. Welcome to the Monument Lab podcast.
Paul Ramírez Jonas: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Farber: We're so glad to have you. It's been a long time coming, and it's a real treat to talk with you today. I want to start with your Public Noise monument poster, monument proposal. In this, there's a few things going on. One of which is a long list of the ways that the word "public" appears in our language, in our cities, in our culture. When you were generating this list, where were you, and how did you gather this list?
Ramírez Jonas: Ah, interesting. I was supposed to be getting a PhD, and I was writing a thesis. It became really long. It's a long story. I never finished that PhD. Right about that time when I was writing the thesis, I was asked to be one of the speakers for Open Engagement in Portland. So, I gave this talk that was going to be about monuments, and when I started to talk about what monuments were, which was part of what I was writing my thesis I was always struck by the fact that if you think of the typology of monuments in the West, there's barely a baker's dozen. There's the arch, the obelisk, the statue with the horse, the statue full body, the bust, the column. I had made this list, and I was like, "Wow, all I see is that these forms are sometimes thousands of years old, and they're still the forms we're using today." I don't remember at what point in that thinking I started I use a dictionary a lot, and English is not my first language so I often use the thesaurus also to sort of find better words. When I was reading the definition of public I started to see all the compound words, you know? I realized that, while the typology of monuments is so limited, it could easily be expanded if you just thought that every compound word with the word public suggested a form for a kind of public art. Then, I'm in a fury. I just made the list by just looking at different dictionaries, and compiling as many as I could. What's exciting is that, in that list you can find things that already exist that other artists have done, and the ones that have never been done just are there as potential invitations to make another monument.
Farber: When I saw this list, I really was immediately drawn in. I think, in part because in my urban studies and fine arts classes that I teach, I often try to generate a similar list with students, asking them to brainstorm all the ways that the word "public" is used, and deployed. I've asked them to try to draw the comparison with the word "private"...
Farber: ... and it's so much more tricky. I'm just curious for you, and you mentioned keeping this longer list, were there words that you didn't end up being able to fit, or were there ways that you were thinking about other terms that clearly were related but didn't quite make it into this version?
Ramírez Jonas: Yeah. The list is longer than in this poster broadside, so I had to edit it down for formal reasons. The way I use the list in this that it uses the negative space by the other graphic element. The list is actually much longer, and I've sort of pared it down. The original list, the one that I used in the lecture that I gave, and the one that I have in my studio, I just have it printed on the wall, is actually much longer. Not that much longer, but I would say it's 50% longer.
Farber: The other part of this broadsheet is, of course, the symbol of the equestrian statue. Here, you've used the example of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius from antiquity. Can you describe, for those who don't have it in front of them, what is happening on this broadsheet? Also, what you're intending to convey in balancing the symbol of the monument, and the words that wrap around it, on the variation of public-ness?
Ramírez Jonas: Yeah, oddly enough the genesis of the image, it also comes from this lecture, it also comes from the research I was going for my PhD. The origin is that I went to Central Park, and there's the monument for the Spanish-American war. There's a monument to the USS Maine, which is a ship that I've used in my work before. I decided to look at the monument all day, and see how the public interacted with it. As I was looking at it, I realized that, by design, it was made so that people would avert their eyes away from the monument. Away from the message that was inscribed in the public space, which was to remember this tragedy, and remember the sailors that died. Because, like most monuments, they have these steps leading up to it, people use the steps and they've repurposed them as their lunch place, as a place to stretch after they run, as a meeting point. It puts their backs towards the monument, and essentially turns it into a theater. I'm also very interested in the shape that the public takes in different public situations, so I also, in this research that I had done years ago, I'd thought about how the shape that the public takes when they sit in a theater has not evolved up to now. You can still buy furniture for your entertainment center at home that is essentially a Greek theater. I just had this moment where I realized, if you turn a monument inside-out, a sculptural monument, it becomes a theater. The theater arranges the public so their eyes are in alignment with the thing being presented, while public monuments perversely do the reverse, right? They throw the gaze away from the message. Then, I just had fun. I'd get where I was like, "One day I would like to take a monument and split it in half , turn it around and turn it into a theater." This is a way of working that I have where it's sort of an impossible proposal, but more ways sort of toying with it, or mentioning it and hoping that someone will bite and be like, "Oh, no. We'll build it."
Farber: The equestrian figure, of course, is well known and practiced to this day as a monumental form, and is one that you've used in your work. I'm thinking about a really remarkable piece; The Commons in which you created a three-dimensional sculpture of an equestrian statue, but it was rendered in cork.
Ramírez Jonas: Right.
Farber: For you, what draws you to the equestrian figure, and also, in some instances like in Public Noise, you have the figure, the person on top of the horse? You've also played with removing the elevated human, and just leaving the horse behind. How do you play around with this well-established and traditional form, but also spark new ways to utilize it, and repurpose it?
Ramírez Jonas: Right. The Marcus Aurelius statue is interesting, because I always would say this with great confidence. Recently, I actually checked with an art historian, because I always say this. It's very half-researched, and they confirmed that it's true that it's the only equestrian bronze to survive from antiquity. In the Middle Ages, the church basically took all the Greek and Roman stuff and just melted it down. Remarkably, there is one bronze equestrian statue that survived into the Renaissance. It became sort of the uber text when Europeans start to be interested again, and in this kind of art there was one example. I always think of it as the origin story of the equestrian statue as we know it today. The reason why I wanted to do it from bronze to cork... It's like, I'm always thinking this way. I'm like, "Well, why is it bronze?" It's bronze we always think, "Oh, it has to be this way to withstand the elements." But I like to think, "No, things are made out of bronze and stone because we want them to be forever." We want them to be forever because the state is speaking, and the state wants to inscribe the public space with this voice that will last forever. I'm like, "Well, I'm made of flesh, and you, Paul, are also made of flesh and we are ephemeral. Our voices are ephemeral, so what is a material that would speak to that? Then, I just walk around the city and just observe. I'll notice a bulletin board on a campus, for example, and I'll say, "Right. That's the ephemeral voice." You can pin that "German singing club will meet on Thursday at 5:00," and will last until it rains again, or until someone covers it with an ad for a futon they're selling. Then, I just do this transposition where I was like, "Well, what if I made monuments out of cork?" People already know that a cork thing with thumbtacks is a bulletin board, so the message, the voice being inscribed in the public space will be the public. The reason I sometimes remove the rider is to make it even more open. The Commons has a horse that is wearing the same kind of harness that the Marcus Aurelius horse has, but Marcus Aurelius is missing. I've also made monuments where, out of cork, which is on a stone, but instead of a bronze plaque, it just has a blank cork plaque. I've also made busts so there's a famous white man with a beard, but their face is sliced off. Both to make it open so you don't really know what the monument is to, but also to create the surface to be able to pin things to. I'm always toying with, how do you make space for the public's voice, and how do you keep the reference to the tradition at the same time? It's like this little game of erasing a little bit, and opening up something a little bit.
Farber: When you place corkboard monuments in public spaces, you mentioned that there's that invitation when you see corkboard, and thumbtacks. What have you learned from people's messages that they post? Do you leave paper, and pens or other materials to entice them to participate, or do they find their way to this just because of the big invitation of the ability to post something?
Ramírez Jonas: Yeah I'm actually very strict about not providing materials. I really think that the participation has to be a transaction, so that I need to give something but also must receive something. If there isn't that friction of exchange, then something breaks down. Then, it seems obligatory, or charity. Then, there's a power dynamic that is established where you're either speaking down, or you're diminishing your public. Maybe this sounds really grand, but I always feel like I always insist that the public give, as well as receive. I've always tried to find how to create that tension, so no, I don't provide pen, or paper. People have to look into their pockets, borrow. It also creates a much richer response. I showed in a museum in Brazil, and people realized that there was a suggestion box near the horse. People were going and getting the pre-cut paper that the museum had for the suggestions. Those seemed to conform a little bit, so it seemed like the kind of participation that was conforming. It seemed to work a little bit not as well as when people are left to their own resources. What I've learned, it's always the same thing, which is that there is a fear of the public. The public can be trusted, and I feel like there's inherent tension in democracy. Even in the Constitution of the United States, right, we talk about checks and balances. Like, we want to be a democracy, and we want to be ruled by the people. And yet, we need a few checks just in case the public goes wrong. I find the same thing with institutions when I show this kind of work. They're like, "What if the public puts something obscene, or inappropriate?" I always argue. I always lie and say, "That has never happened." (Laughs) The truth is, it has never happened, so I do believe that, what I learned over, and over and over again, is that I can trust the public.
Farber: Your work has been so instructive, and so influential to Monument Lab because of the ways that you bring together the idea of the monument and participation as necessary, and as enriching. I want to acknowledge that, but I also am really curious to go back and just ask you about when you were growing up, if there were activities that you were encouraged, or invited to participate in, or there were others that you may have been rebuffed, or discouraged from. Just to be curious about why participation is something that you are able to really both study and practice as part of your art work.
Ramírez Jonas: Oh, that is such a good question. No one has asked me about that. Well, I actually grew up in Latin America. I grew up in Honduras. I'm trying to remember when democracy returned to Honduras. I was still living there when we had our first election. I lived through several coups, and several military juntas, and dictatorships. So democracy was never a given. Democracy was something that we had in the past, and was interrupted, and then came back and then was interrupted again. Honduras is notorious for having more governments than years of independence. Even the relationship you have to history... I grew up with a lot of the history of Honduras being oral history. We would study Colonial times. We would study independence. We would study our civil... We had a very similar civil war to the United States, but we skipped a rest period. We went from the independence war straight into civil war. I grew up with thinking that participation wasn't a thing you took for granted. Like civic participation. It also has very weak civic institutions, but there's a lot of unions, and there's a lot of demonstrations, and there's guerrilla movements. The politics are enacted in a more ineffective, but vigorous way, let's say. There is very little art. There was no art museum in Honduras until decades after I left. That was sort of the atmosphere in which I grew up. The interesting thing about the equestrian statue is that, my interest in the equestrian statue goes all the way back to that, in the central square of the city where I grew up, in Tegucigalpa, there is a monument in the center of the capital to our national hero, our George Washington, Francisco Morazán, who also led the civil war. He as our Lincoln as well. Except, the civil war was lost by our Union, so he was executed during the civil war. In any event, after he died they made a death mask. After a few years, when tempers had cooled, the government of Honduras sent two ambassadors to France with the death mask to commission an equestrian statue. What was sent back – Here's where the story gets interesting – I would say about half the population of Honduras believes that what was sent back was the statue of General Ney, who was a out-of-favor general from Napoleon's army, and that the ambassadors pocketed the money. The other half believe that this is a monument to our hero. What I've always thought about is that, it's one of the best monuments in the world because you can't look at it without getting into a debate whether this is a representation of our hero, or not, and talking about government corruption. As an artist, if I could make this on purpose (laughs)... I would be so happy. So your question is actually very accurate. It's like, all these issues of history, and participation and how things are depicted in public spaces really does have its origin in my childhood.
Farber: It seems like part of your critical thinking, and also your art making is channeled from your walking around and exploring public spaces in cities. Is that correct you say?
Ramírez Jonas: Yeah. I would say that my favorite method of research when I'm asked to do a site visit, you know, as an artist you're always tasked with these impossible tasks like, "Come to this place where you've never been for four days. Leave, propose a project and then come back for a week, and do the project." (Laughs)
Farber: And, deeply read us, and...
Ramírez Jonas: Exactly.
Farber: ... and work well with us together.
Ramírez Jonas: One of the things I often do is, I just walk extensively. I'm a runner, and I'm a biker, so I feel like I keep exploring New York City to this day by either taking long runs, or long bike rides. It's also a method that I use when I go to other cities, and just sort of see... It doesn't always work, but you trust that something is going to happen by just walking around public space, and experiencing it. This doesn't work when I have to go to car-based cities, and that's still a big challenge for me.
Farber: I wanted to ask you a question about your methods, because I get a sense about walking, or moving through the city in very particular ways. Do you find yourself wanting to move fast, and see a lot or do you like to linger, and pause and revisit? I'm saying this, really in thinking about monuments, where they're supposed to, in many ways, be a clear statement; fast, and from afar. Yet, of course, when you draw close to them you understand that life moves around them, and circulates in really fascinating ways. I'm just curious of the kind of rhythm that you move through a city to think about it, and think about your work.
Ramírez Jonas: It's interesting, because I'm a very impatient person in some ways so I want things to go fast. A car is too fast. You won't be able to get anything. Sometimes, I think biking is the perfect speed, but I still think biking is a little bit too fast. Running is maybe the best, because I get not to deal with my patience because I feel like I'm moving a little bit faster, and I still can get a lot of details. Ultimately, there's not replacement for walking because in that excruciating boredom of walking, you know, when you're like, "Oh, I'm going to go over there on foot," and it's going to take you two hours. The first half-hour feels great (laughs), and then you're like, "Oh, why am I doing this?" That's, in that boredom that sometimes you really... At least I can really finally see something. The biggest enemy now is the phone; the smartphone, right? I notice that now I pay less attention. There's always the opportunity to be elsewhere on my phone while I'm walking, and that's not conducive to observation.
Farber: One thing that I've picked up in doing public projects is, you're in many ways setting up in the middle of someone's commute line, or the areas that they move through, that they own the space. In your projects, do you anticipate viewers moving through a city the way that you do, where you are into running, going from place to place? How do you account for people coming to, but also moving around and moving past your work if it's in public?
Ramírez Jonas: Yeah, that's tricky, right? Because, the best thing is to go somewhere where a public is already congregating on their own accord; that's something of the city already. It cannot be a place where they're congregating, but they're not willing to stop. When I'm trying to site a place I'm like, "Okay, is the entrance to the train station a good place, or are people just going to be on a rush to catch the train?" This is more of a metaphor, "Or is it better to be inside the station by the boards where people are waiting for the trains?" Because it's too much. I mean, this happens sometimes. As an artist you're asked to, "Can you fix this problem for us? No one goes here. Can you do something that would make people go there?" That's a lot to ask of an individual artist. It's much better to piggyback something in the urban landscape that's already making people come together. It's much easier to make it in a park than to make it in a busy intersection. If it is in a busy intersection, then I have to think, "Well, this has to be an attraction that will last 10 seconds," right? (Laughs)
Ramírez Jonas: When I design work in my studio, I often time it, you know? I'll be like, "Oh, this is 10 minutes. Can this site sustain a 10-minute interaction? Oh, this one's 30 seconds. Okay, that's good for this other type of interaction." I don't know if that answers your question, but I'm always trying to think. Sometimes, you make mistakes that are unpredictable. I will protect this institution, but I worked for over a year on a project with an institution, and at the last minute someone asked that we change the position. Everyone thought it was a good idea, including myself. The new position where we put it had not been a place where we have had meetings, and talked about it endlessly. It was slightly last-minute, and we moved it and the piece bombed. It bombed because that spot was super windy. Even I didn't want to stand there for more than a minute, you know? (Laughs) Who knew, right? Who would have known that this thing that you would not pay attention to would not make you want to spend more than a few seconds at the site? On the other hand, we should have known because they wanted to put it there, because no one was going there. Again, trust the public. If people are not going there, there must be a good reason.
Farber: Yeah, that reminds me of all kinds of questions of, did you go at night, did you go there in rush hour, have you stood out there? I guess, in thinking about the encounters with your work, what happens when a public work is moved into the space of a museum, or an art gallery? Do you find a difference, and especially in your work that, you know, I'm thinking about Public Trust? A work that requires a sense of relationship-building as well as a kind of pondering of public space, and public thought. Are there different tensions, are there different opportunities that have come out when the work shifts site and venue?
Ramírez Jonas: Yeah, ideally. I have to say, I would like to pretend I have this kind of orthodoxy that I follow, but I break the rules too many times to be honest if I say I'm doing it. The thing about art space is that the social contract is very different. People are, on their own accord, congregating in an art space to go look at art. Therefore, they have the expectations of art viewership, and you should meet them. I always say, "Don't make people in the museum participate in a protest, because it'll feel forced. Don't make people in a park look at a painting, because..." Another example I give is that, when I go to the movies I conform to movie time, because I'm a good viewer and I know that how the movies work. When I go to the museum to look at a video, I expect it to be on a loop, right? The social contract is that it's very different, and the mode of operation is very different. If you follow me, then I try to think about this very strict logic that the aesthetics, and the form of the work on the street has to be completely different, because it's incidental viewership, right, than the aesthetics and the form of a work in a museum. Then, of course, because I'm a sinner (laughs), and all artists have this original sin of trying to make it work everywhere, I often falter and try to make things work as they work in both situations. I really try to avoid it. Public Trust is one of these things that seems to successfully work indoors and outdoors. I don't think it could work in a private gallery, but I think it can work in a public museum, and outside on the street. Somehow, it manages to address both needs from two different kinds of viewers. Other works I really try to be very strict and say, "Hey, this works like this, in this type of space and it cannot be shown in an art setting," and that's the end. Then, I have works that are only for museums that are about the idea of public-ness. They might even be participatory, but they can only exist in exhibition spaces. The Commons is like that, which is interesting. A lot of people want to show the Commons outside, but I'm like, "No, this is a piece for a museum, and it works best in a museum, or gallery."
Farber: You draw this really productive distinction between the ways that the expectations of an audience, and the ways that an audience may participate, or consume. One of the questions we've been asking with our residency with the High Line is, "Who decides the fate of public space?" We think if that as connected to much of what we've talked about. I'm curious to hear from you, your response to that question.
Ramírez Jonas: You mean who should, or who does? (Laughs)
Farber: It's up to you. Up for you to answer. Curious however you take it.
Ramírez Jonas: It's interesting. Claire Bishop and I started teaching a class called Public School. We're going to teach it for the third time this semester. The class meets in public space every week. It never meets in the classroom. We try to have almost a taxonomy of kinds of public spaces where we meet. We'll meet anywhere from canoeing in a river, or being in a cemetery. We try to reflect on, what is this kind of space, and what is the "art" of this space? The is no simple answer. For example, a city like New York, last year we really focused on POPs (Privately Owned Public Spaces); Public-Private Partnerships. We realize that they have tons of rules, right? It's actually amazing what you can't do as a citizen. It was a real misfire, because we realized the students had a really hard time doing project. We realized, there are projects that you cannot do in a PPPs, and you can just go out and do it in the middle of the street and it's completely legal. Who gets to articulate what in public space is a complicated question, but what is public space in our society is very complicated. We have such an encroachment of private sector forces unto our public space, and public space itself is so tightly regulated. I don't know if that answers your question, but it's something that fascinates me. I also realize it's super complicated. One of the things I like to do is to think, how do you navigate these different rules of these different types of spaces. How do you find the crack as a citizen, or as an artist to be able to express yourself in that space, and express yourself in a meaningful way? That's also the other big question.
Farber: It's fascinating. I love your language of "finding the crack." That kind of break in what is stated, or expected. I think that in your response, but I also really see it in Public Noise, that you so productively put out these tensions. Sometimes, the tension is between the way that we think of public-ness, or a public-private venture, or even the notion of public ownership.
Ramírez Jonas: Right.
Farber: Sometimes, it's just in that question of the encroachment upon what it means to be public as part of democracy.
Ramírez Jonas: Yeah. I'm still a studio-based artist to some degree, but what I love about not working in the exhibition world is how there is no way to avoid context. The white cube, the white studio, the museum structure, the gallery structure is all made to reinforce romanticism, like the artist working alone. We value individual voice, and autonomy of the object from modernism. Like, this object means the same everywhere. For those two thing to work, then there's a very aggressive and active attempt at making neutral spaces. Maintaining that illusion for the artist, and the viewer. What I love is, as soon as you leave that structure and you try to make art in the public sphere at large, you start to encounter the state, fire regulations, ADA compliance, noise, rain, the unwillingness of the public to act the way you want them to act. You can escape context, right? I always think what's interesting about going back to the exhibition space is that, once you see context in the public sphere at large, then when you go back to the white cube it's almost like the veil is lifted. You're like, "Oh, right. There is context here." There's an attempt at making it invisible, but there's as much context here, because this is public space as well, as there is out there in the world at large.
Farber: I want to close by asking you a question about this contemporary moment with monuments. You have been thinking about them, and producing artwork about them for some time. Of course, over the last two years in the United States, it's been a reckoning about monuments. A selected number of monuments have been removed because they're connections to white supremacy, or to legacies of the Confederacy. Many other still remain in place, though they've been troubled, or challenged. Because of the value of participation, and challenging the dynamics of public-ness that you do in your work, how have you viewed the movement to, on one hand, engage the monuments that we have, and on the other hand try to make a next generation of monuments? How have you viewed participation as living, not just in an art context, but also in this civic, and public nature as try to figure out the next generation of monuments?
Ramírez Jonas: It is an interesting moment, and remember when I said, "Oh, if I could make that statue like the one in Honduras happen on purpose, I would be so happy?" In a way, it's what's happening to some of our monuments. You know, from being these sleepy things that no one pays attention to, there are people willing to come with their weapons to defend the Confederate monument that, frankly, they didn't care about three years ago. What happens to these monuments is maybe less interesting than the fact that we're having a conversation. What's productive is that we're having a conversation about them. What would be even more productive would be a constructive conversation about them, and the history they represent. I don't think we should get rid of them. Completely erasing them is also not necessarily a good idea. Then, that creates amnesia. Some of the best examples of what to do with this kind of thing is, in the Baltic states, things in Lithuania, they took all the Stalin and Lenin monuments, and they just moved them to one place in the middle of the woods (Laughs). You can go and see them all together in the forest, you know? They were re-contextualized. They were exiled, but not erased. They were just exiled. The monument to Crazy Horse is another beautiful response, which is that...
Farber: It's remarkable.
Ramírez Jonas: It's remarkable, and it's within stone-throw distance of Mount Rushmore. A response, like responding to one monument with another in proximity, I think, is also a really interesting way to address it. Or, transformation. We always hear stories of, "We melted this, and we made it into this," you know? That still retains a little bit of the history of where it came from. I don't know what we need for the future. I think, what's interesting is that the permanence of monuments speaks to an anxiety that we have. The minute we want a monument, it means that we are almost certain that no one's going to remember the issue that is upsetting us so much right now, so we better make some kind of time capsule. I feel like the moment society decides that they need a monument, it already means that this idea's in trouble. If the idea was really that important, and vital to our culture, it would just live in conversation, right? On the other hand, I understand this need we have as human beings to communicate with the future. We want to let the future know what mattered to us. I don't know what the future monument is. I would like to think I'm participating in the crafting of this idea of the future monument. I think it's in Everything Is Illuminated. It's a wonderful novel. It's like a fiction, but in that fiction there's a story of a statue too. I think it's a man who saved some people from drowning, and everyone considers the statue to be good luck. They come and touch it for good luck, but it's made of a very soft stone. It's always eroding, so the village is always re-carving it. At some point, no one remembers what the guy looks like (Laughs). No one knows what the statue looks like, the original, anymore. It just keeps changing, and changing and changing. I feel like that might be the monument we need for the future. Like, this monument that's malleable, and yet we remember its origin point. Even though that origin point has long past. I don't know how we do that, but I'll work on that in my spare time.
Farber: Paul Ramírez Jonas, thank you so much.
Ramírez Jonas: Thank you, and I hope to come to Philadelphia soon and visit you.
Farber: I would love that.
Ramírez Jonas: Great.
Farber: We look forward to seeing you in New York as well.
Ramírez Jonas: Okay, take care. Thank you.