In the anything-goes world of contemporary art, it’s rare to see outrage or political backlash overtake a museum, no matter how controversial the subject matter. That’s why the hubbub over American Monument, a mixed-media installation by the Dallas-based artist lauren woods (who styles her name in lowercase), is now causing such a stir.
Attendees of the September 16 opening at the University Art Museum at Cal State University-Long Beach (CSULB), witnessed a dramatic scene. The artist introduced her work by playing the audio from a video of school nutrition services supervisor Philando Castile as he was shot to death by a Minnesota police officer in July 2016. woods then announced, in a lengthy speech, that the exhibition would not be moving forward as planned. “The University Art Museum, College of the Arts, and Cal State Long Beach have kneecapped a project that is focusing on black lives and police brutality,” she said. “They have killed a leadership initiative whose focus was to not only to address white supremacy but to disrupt it.”
The artist then proceeded to shut down her exhibition. With the help of assistants, she turned off an array of record players—the sculptural and acoustic centerpieces of the project. woods then exited the building, leaving her exhibition in limbo and her audience, in the words of one observer, “stunned.”
woods’s complaints stem from the dismissal of her curator on the project, erstwhile University Art Museum director Kimberli Meyer, five days before the show opened. Meyer and woods have known each other for a decade; Meyer says that when she was hired at the museum, with a perceived mandate to push the envelope on art that involves institutional and social critique, woods was the first artist she contacted about planning a show.
“She’d been wanting to make a monument that addresses police brutality, and so we thought, this is actually perfect,” Meyer says. “It’s also an experiment from an institutional perspective. How do you not just do a show, but fully make some kind of a transformation and think about the institution in a completely different way?”
woods’s process for building the “monument’ involved gathering, through FOIA requests and other avenues, audio records and officers’ reports of verbal exchanges with victims of police violence. She then pressed recreations of those scenes of violence onto acetate records, featuring voice-actors or simply presenting the archival audio. These records were situated on a grid of turntables, surrounded by framed documents related to the deaths—from Mike Brown and Eric Garland to Sandra Bland—and audience members could decide when to play each record. Or at least that was the idea, before the exhibition was paused.
woods is known for her research-heavy approach to art, which often involves placing archival materials in settings that are meant to provoke emotional response in the audience. She’s perhaps best-remembered in Dallas for 2013’s Drinking Fountain #1, a new-media installation at the Dallas County Records Building that combined archival video related to twentieth-century Jim Crow history with a playfully malfunctioning water fountain. The installation is part of the larger A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project.
woods, who has a reputation for reticence, did not respond to our requests for comment. She has, however, released an official statement based on her speech at the opening, which makes her position on Meyer’s firing sufficiently clear.
For the most part, woods’s take on the situation lines up with Meyer’s: the two came to the project as partners, with a connection over both woods’s vision for the exhibition and Meyer’s vision for the museum. “i was charged to hear her vision for the new institution that she was to steward, which was to pointedly disrupt white supremacy, and i wanted to support this effort,” woods writes.
Meyer describes an atmosphere of “anxiety” and “distress” among campus administrators as American Monument took shape over the summer. “It was coming from above pretty intensively,” Meyer says, “There were a lot of people in various parts of the university who were really uncomfortable with it.”
Meyer believes that administration was concerned that the project would provoke alt-right demonstrations on campus. She says that there were appeals to focus on more positive racial themes like diversity and inclusion, and that there was a clashing “blue lives matter” perspective on police violence against black Americans. woods told the popular art blog Hyperallergic that representatives from the Long Beach Police Department previewed the exhibition and expressed concerns that local officers involved in a police shooting might be identified in the archival material. CSULB administrators requested transcripts of all audio files in the show; soon after woods furnished these transcripts, Meyer was fired.
“I think there was a certain kind of white solidarity that I disrupted, and people don’t like that,” says Meyer, who is white. She has begun the process of appealing her firing with CSULB.
We reached out to dean of CSULB School of the Arts, Cyrus Parker-Jeanette, for a response to Meyer’s and woods’s complaints. The call was returned by Bethany Price, a communications official, who said she had no direct knowledge of any anxiety, distress, or attempts by the administration to change the course of the exhibition. “The issue of Kimberli Meyer and her position at the university is separate from the issue of the exhibition,” Price says. “Our focus is 100 percent on supporting lauren woods and helping her move forward with this monument.”
Price adds that she personally sees potential for American Monument, in partnership with a Meyer-free CSULB, to eventually grow in both reputation and size like the AIDS quilt—a folk-art response to the AIDS crisis which has been shown in numerous high-profile and educational settings over more than three decades. “I feel like this monument has that same capacity,” Price says. “We’re extremely proud to be part of that as a launching point.”
Price also suggested that placing Meyer’s firing at the center of attention during the opening of an exhibition focused on black lives was problematic. “It’s disappointing and a little confusing for us to see the elevation of a single person’s employment status as an equivalent to a work that’s really focusing on a brutalization of people,” she says.
That’s not an argument that woods appears to be buying. In her statement, woods implies that Meyer deserves credit as a co-author of the work: “To remove a key partner for this project from the directorship of the museum at this critical point and actually expect this project to continue indicates a profound lack of understanding about what this ‘work’ actually is. It shows utter disregard for what the labor that manifests it actually is. There is a mythology around art production, that authorship of a work is by a singular, lone artist and that that artist is at the center of art production. i am sure this idea was partially part of this ill-informed decision.”
In other words, an artist who studiously avoids capitalizing the letter “i” when referring to herself is not about to throw her closest collaborator under the bus and proceed with their shared project solo. Instead, woods stresses that American Monument is something much bigger than the objects currently residing in limbo in the CSULB University Art Museum.
“This is not an exhibition of objects,” she writes. “This is not a show of conceptual play. American Monument is a transformative process that wants to tackle the culture of police brutality through cultural production. It can only exist through collective authorship.”