On Thursday, the Zip Code Memory Project hosted its second installment of Reparative Memory, its virtual artists’ roundtable discussing public art installations as a praxis of grief, collective healing, and remembrance.

Five months after its initial launch, the Zip Code Memory Project returned Thursday evening to host a second installment of “Reparative Memory,” their second artists’ roundtable discussing the role of public art memorial pieces in community healing. This installment’s roundtable featured artists María José Contreras Lorenzini, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and Kamau Ware, three artists whose work grapples with how to publicly memorialize the victims of systemic injustice. 

The Zip Code Memory Project was formed in response to the unique effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Harlem, Washington Heights, and South Bronx, seeking to find ways to both memorialize the profound loss caused by COVID-19 and honor community healing through working with local artists and community organizations. Thursday’s discussion was moderated by the project’s co-directors, Marianne Hirsch and Diana Taylor, with an introduction by Dean Carol Becker (Columbia School of the Arts).

The evening began with a presentation by Maria José Contreras Lorenzini, a performance artist and Visiting Scholar at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at NYU. Contreras reflected on her 2013 performance art piece memorializing the roughly 1,200 Chileans disappeared by their government under the Pinochet administration. To mark the 40th anniversary of Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, Contreras staged a mass performance art piece in which 1,200 participants formed a 2-kilometer-long line, lying in the street for 11 minutes, commemorating the date of the coup, September 11, 1973. The purpose, as Contreras explained, was to criticize the Chilean government’s empty attempts at “reconciliation” for its human rights abuses and its apparent amnesia regarding the disappeared. By blocking off 2 km of public space, Contreras’s performance made the disappearances impossible to ignore. 

The next presenter of the evening was Kamau Ware, an artist and historian discussing his work designing the Black Gotham Experience, a series of immersive “meditative walking experiences” throughout the city that educate viewers about the histories of slavery and Black land ownership in New York. Ware explained that he chose the format of a walking tour because it is “an almost effortless act of balance, rhythm, and strength that connects us to our oldest ancestors,” providing an avenue to connect Black New Yorkers to their histories. A feature of Ware’s immersive experiences is his flags, depicting various figures and stories from the tours and installed in public spaces as a means of subverting flag placement as a colonial symbol. Throughout the walks, Ware and his team of fellow artists reframe traditional narratives of New York colonial history, emphasizing how every element of settling New York relates to the growth of the slave trade and the African Diaspora. Through his emphasis on Black land ownership, Ware brings to the forefront a narrative that is continually erased from historical education. As Ware explains, by creating these walking experiences, he imbues in New York a collective consciousness of the African Diaspora and its rich history in the city.  

The final presenter of the night was Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, designer of the installation A Crack in the Hourglass, which is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. While Lozano-Hemmer’s work frequently grapples with themes of death, mourning, and injustice, A Crack in the Hourglass specifically seeks to memorialize the massive and continuing loss of life in the COVID-19 pandemic. This ongoing installment, which Lozano-Hemmer describes as an “anti-monument,” is an interactive project in which participants can submit photos of loved ones lost to COVID-19, and a modified robot plotter will gradually recreate their image using grains of hourglass sand. Emphasizing the ongoing loss from the pandemic, once the portrait is finished, the sand is immediately recycled into the next portrait.

In addition to A Crack in the Hourglass, Lozano-Hemmer also reflected on some of his other works dealing with memorial and injustice, sharing, “most of the artists I admire do their best work when dealing with egregious moments of historical injustice.” Like Contreras, many of Lozano-Hemmer’s projects memorialize victims of government injustice, such as the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, in which the Mexican Armed Forces shot and killed a group of nearly 400 students in Mexico City protesting the upcoming Summer Olympics, and the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping, in which 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were abducted by local police in Iguala, Mexico, while returning from a memorial for the 1968 massacre, and were eventually disappeared after being handed over to the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos. For the former, Lozano-Hemmer designed Voz Alta, an interactive public art piece in Mexico City, in which participants could speak into a megaphone that would in turn project their voices as light onto the Foreign Embassy building, while also broadcasting their words on FM radio. For the latter, Lozano Hemmer created Level of Confidence, another interactive piece in which participants stand in front of a facial recognition camera, which is continually searching for the faces of the disappeared students and matches each participant to the student who most resembles them, both keeping their memory alive and serving as a continual reminder that the injustice that occurred in Iguala can happen to anyone.

After their presentation, the artists participated in a Q&A session, during which they discussed the common themes of memory, loss, and injustice in their work, as well as how digital media figures into their creative processes. Summing up the impetus behind creating public art that memorializes injustices like these, Ware explained that transforming these tragedies into works of beauty helps to honor their memory while fostering community healing; as he said, “sometimes things are messy and painful and beautiful, and that’s what healing is.” 

This event was co-presented by Columbia’s Center for the Study of Social Difference, the Columbia University School of the Arts, the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, and The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities. It was the second in a series of reparative memory discussions facilitated by Columbia’s School of the Arts under their theme of “Repair” and the Zip Code Memory Project: Practices of Justice and Repair, which is based at the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

Image via Columbia University