American Monument prompts consideration of and response to the cultural conditions under which African-Americans lose their lives to police brutality. The inter-media monument is an artwork and a process of research, think-tanking, and presentation. Conceived as nomadic and continually expanding, it moves across the country year-to-year, “unveiled” at universities, museums, storefronts, community centers, and churches. It offers a vehicle by which to analyze the complex relationship between constructed race, material violence, structural power, and monumentality itself.
In recent years, evidence of police violence has reached a new level of exposure, allowing increased public access to formal investigations of police brutality. In 2014, woods began to examine police records and court transcriptions in cases where a police officer killed an unarmed black civilian. She focused on officers’ claims citing “fear for their own lives,” ultimately used to justify the killings as lawful. This work grew into American Monument, an interactive networked sound sculpture, research project, and mode of public engagement and education.
In developing the monument, woods, with the help of collaborator Kimberli Meyer, conducted an extensive Freedom of Information Act request process, and as the legal documents came in, woods identified a staggering number and variety of claims that hinged on fictions of Blackness. Close readings of use-of-force reports, prosecutor reports, witness testimonies, 911 calls, and body and dash cam videos, revealed a consistent and alarming problem: dominant cultural narratives that appear in mass media filter into law enforcement and the justice system, resulting in fatal violence on the ground.
The centerpiece of American Monument is Archive I, an interactive sound sculpture that utilizes sources from open records requests as well as audio files captured by bystanders. Encountering a grid of silently spinning black and white turntables on pedestals, visitors may choose to pick up a needle and place it on the record, setting the apparatus and sound in motion. Each turntable represents one police murder. The sound is heard inside the interior space where the grid is located, and simultaneously displaced outside the physical architecture of the monument, into locations unknown to the viewer. Visitors unwittingly activate this sound intervention in public space, becoming active propagators of these constructions. The grid of record players will grow as the monument iterates from one host site to the next, and as more records are made.
Supporting the main sculpture are reflection spaces to ponder law as culture, to see how it is created, interpreted, enacted, and perpetuated. Archive II is a display of documents associated with each case represented in Archive I, and include woods’s “liner notes” for a close read of each case. With each new mounting, local think tanks and symposia invite scholars, lawyers, community activists, civil rights leaders, students, artists, and the general public to process and discuss the issues addressed by the project. Subjects such as historical precedent, and the weaponization of language in investigations and narrative constructions are broached. The thought production from these think tanks help to build out the additional informational spaces. At the end of this public production process to collaboratively build this component of the work, the monument is “unveiled” to signal the completion of the iteration.
American Monument (25/2018)–the first iteration of the project–was set to be unveiled in November 2018 at the University Art Museum (UAM), California State University Long Beach (CSULB) at the invitation of Kimberli Meyer, the UAM’s then director. It was paused by the artist in protest of Meyer’s dismissal and never resumed.
Fortunately, the 2019 iteration of the project is launching at Beall Center for Art and Technology at the UCI, on October 5, 2019, marking the first time that American Monument is fully activated. Beall Center director David Familian has welcomed woods and Meyer as Beall Center researchers in residence, and connected them with scholars from the School of Law, and the departments of African-American Studies, Social Ecology, Art, and Art History.