An Online Archive Tells an Alternate History of US Monuments and Architecture

Boz Garden, “Riotous Arrangement 2” (2020), digital photography (image courtesy the artist)

LOS ANGELES — ARCHIVE MACHINES, an online exhibition hosted by the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG), offers one way forward during this time of social distancing. Curated by Olivian Cha, Kerstin Erdmann, and Rita Gonzalez, the juried exhibition of recent works by Los Angeles–based artists takes the form of a “living archive” of stories, objects, and photographs that expand our understanding of what perspectives have been left out of official records, and how they might reconfigure our relationship to the present.

The show is divided into four thematic sections. The first, “REVISIONING,” reframes and reconsiders our relationship to the past, while the second, “RESISTING,” addresses modes of political resistance. While these frames can feel a bit didactic, they offer helpful ways of considering how archives reflect personal and collective values in ways that are deeply political.

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Allison Stewart’s photographs of former Confederate monuments, for example, depict empty plinths covered by graffiti or torn plastic. While one image captures the recent state of a monument once erected by the University of Texas to commemorate Confederate war hero Albert Sidney Johnston, it also has much in common with local histories of Los Angeles.

Johnston himself was once a local resident who enlisted in the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a secessionist militia, before becoming a celebrated Confederate general. After he bled out in the Battle of Shiloh, Griffin Avenue, Johnston Street, and Hancock Street in Northeast Los Angeles were named in honor of him and his family members. Just as local monuments to Christopher Columbus have been taken down in recent years, might we also see a reckoning and transformation of place names and streets in the city?

Allison Stewart, “Removed Albert Sidney Johnston monument, University of Texas, Austin Texas. Commissioned and donated by University of Texas regent George W. Littlefield. Installed at University of Texas Littlefield Fountain 1919, Moved to the South Mall 1933, Removed 2017” (2019), digital print (image courtesy the artist)

Rachel Zaretsky’s video work takes on a (now) less controversial, if no less fraught, monument: a Holocaust memorial by architect Kenneth Trelster that was once opposed by Miami Beach locals as “too somber” for their town. The bronze sculpture depicts an arm reaching toward the sky, surrounded by immiserated figures representing Jewish victims and survivors of Nazi genocide. Zaretsky, whose own family members are among the names etched into the memorial’s walls, describes the images and captions she finds through hashtags and geotags on Instagram — a gallery of namaste poses, vibrant filters, and sight gags that suggest even remembering the Holocaust isn’t enough to dampen the sunny beach vibes of South Florida.

Still from Rachel Zaretsky, “Visiting the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach by proxy” (2019), video (image courtesy the artist)

Boz Garden’s Riotous Folds: Possibilities for the Document series juxtaposes images and quotations about modern architecture, urban riots, and histories of Black dissidents. While architecture might be fascinated by glass as a symbol of progress and modernity, these works are more interested in their destruction — shattered glass as an anticapitalist metonym for the broken storefront and looted commodity. The project documents ways in which architecture reinforces the permanence of commerce and capital: An excerpt from an article about glazier company Giroux Glass recounts the supposedly heroic efforts of glass repairmen boarding up windows to protect businesses against looting.

In each case, the urban fabric presents ways of interpreting the world that are challenged or undermined (either intentionally or not) by people encountering these spaces. Tearing down statues and renaming streets might have great symbolic power, but deeper transformative shifts in how people experience the world or remember the past remain a work in progress. These artist-made archives might give us a sense of what possibilities await in the future.

ARCHIVE MACHINES runs online at the LAMAG website through November 1. The third thematic section, “REWIRING,” launched in September and the fourth, “RELATING,” launches October 1. The exhibition was curated by Olivian Cha, Kerstin Erdmann, and Rita Gonzalez.


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