The Independence Public Media Foundation funds and supports creative, community-centered media making across Greater Philadelphia, through their Community Voices Grant program. IDEA and Rutgers are one of the recent recipients of a grant where we chose to address the representation of history in Johnson Park.
This video introduces the new collaborative project between IDEA and Rutgers University Camden to address the mural on the "frieze" portion of the Walt Whitman Center in Johnson Park.
Recent protests surrounding statues and other public art connected to racist and violent histories open up important discussions about specific figures but also about how these monuments have suppressed other voices and other visions of the past and present. We propose a partnership between The Institute for The Development Of Education In the Arts (IDEA) in Camden and Rutgers University-Camden that addresses a specific work, the frieze “America Receiving the Gifts of the Nation” at the Johnson Library in Camden, while also providing a way to rethink monuments and memorials in general as participatory cultural spaces that are open to a community’s past, present, and future.
The Cooper Library building in Johnson Park currently houses the Rutgers-Camden Digital Commons. The Digital Commons includes the Digital Studies Center (DiSC), a research center that supports digital media research projects, the Writing and Design Lab (WDL), a multimedia writing center for Rutgers-Camden students, and Proof, a small press makerspace that investigates histories of print culture through hands-on engagement with obsolete print technology. As a former municipal space now owned and operated by Rutgers, the library and park have been connected to a series of conflicts between the University and the city, with several complaints from Camden residents charging that Rutgers has not fulfilled commitments made to the city when purchasing the property, namely that it has not made the space available to the community or retained its public-facing character.
In June 2020, Camden residents in the Cooper-Grant neighborhood (the neighborhood in which the library and park sit) contacted Rutgers University-Camden about the frieze on Johnson Library, a mosaic entitled “America Receiving the Gifts of the Nations” that depicts a number of historical figures. Community members asked that the university deal with the fact that the frieze, in the words of one person, has “white supremicist themes.” Soon after, Rutgers covered the mural, but it has not yet revealed specifics about what it plans to do.
The mural depicts Christopher Columbus among its notable figures bearing “gifts” for America, and features two Native American figures underneath and to either side of a female figure representing “America.” These two Indigenous figures kneel at the feet of figures representing “Equality” and “Opportunity,” and along with “America” herself all of these powerful figures are depicted as white/Anglo. We believe that this appropriation and debasement of Native American identity is not only offensive to Indigenous identity writ large but also participates in an ongoing project of erasure in which Indigenous people are denied presence. In addition to the historical displacement of Indigenous people as figures of the past, this particular representation erases the multiplicity of Native American identity and experience by creating an emblematic “Indianness” divorced from the particular history of the Lenapehoking, the historical lands of the Lenape (Delaware) people.
Our project aims to address the imagery on the frieze, as well as to create a conversation about the relationship between public art and power. Instead of proposing a single solution to the frieze, we would like to build connections among community stakeholders by developing multiple, layered, and ongoing media projects in this public space. How can we move a memorial from “read-only” to a more democratic and participatory “read/write” space? We propose an ongoing “unmemorial” project, starting in fall 2020 and continuing indefinitely. By using technologies such as projection, audio, video, and print ephemera, we would collaborate on a series of media projects that would create new and more ethical modes of commemoration and critique. This project is inspired by the projection and painting layered on top of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, as well as Black Lives Matter street murals in Washington D.C. and other cities. It is also inspired by efforts closer to home, such as the “The Philadelphia Flyover Flyer,” a project hosted by The Print Center that resisted gentrification in the city. Each of these projects demonstrates how layered, ongoing, collaborative media projects can act to rewrite and reimagine public spaces and memorials.
While the frieze will serve as a focal point for this project, the rest of the building as well as the park, which includes statues and a fountain that once served as a public pool, can be fertile ground for a range of media projects that allow IDEA youth media makers to build ongoing partnerships with Rutgers and the wider Camden community. While we propose a working partnership between IDEA and Rutgers-Camden, young people, artists, as well as Rutgers faculty and students, this project will also intentionally build engagement with broader communities in Camden and find ways of keeping this space open to diverse and divergent ideas and bodies. In the near future, we envision community gatherings in the park which would observe social distancing measures, and in the long term we would hope to hold such gatherings inside of Johnson Library.
Brown teaches courses on digital studies, and literature and video games. He is the author of Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software, (University of Michigan Press, 2015). He’s currently working on a book about how software design contributes to the problem of online harassment.
Lauren J. Silver is Associate Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. Dr. Silver joined the Rutgers-Camden Department of Childhood Studies in 2009 and is also an Affiliate Scholar of the Center for Urban Research and Education. She is a critical ethnographer whose work lies at the intersection of the sociology and anthropology of youth, feminist methodologies, and analyses of urban systems. Her scholarship centers on the lives of young people who experience structural violence through poverty and social constructions of race, gender, and sexuality; it is deeply connected to the urban places where she lives and works.
Dr. Sayre’s research focuses on narrative theory, affect, and community in early national American literatures. She has published on the necropolitics of early nationalism, translation in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie, the humic nationalism of The Book of Mormon, spatializing practices in the American West, and digital humanities practices and pedagogies. Her first book Mourning the Nation to Come: Creole Nativism in Nineteenth-Century American Literatures (LSU Press, 2020) is a comparative study of early national romances in North and South America. She teaches courses on Native American literature, women’s writing, horror, experimental literature, and literary theory.
Travis teaches classes focused on digital media and professional writing at Rutgers-Camden and serves as faculty adviser to the campus’s digital literary magazine The Scarlet Review. His current research interests include the ideologies of interface and experience design and the rhetoric of typography. He also maintains creative interests in hypertext narratives and procedural generation. An alumnus of the Rutgers University Graduate School–Camden, Travis earned his master’s degree in English in 2014. That same year, he received the James Sanderson Graduate Award, which is awarded to the student who wrote the best graduate paper in the previous academic year.
Dr. Kate Cairns joined the Department of Childhood Studies in 2014 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in sociology at the University of Toronto. Her work brings a feminist perspective to the politics of childhood and explores how young people are positioned as the promise or threat of collective futures. She has investigated these dynamics across diverse sites, including neoliberal education reform, maternal foodwork, and youth urban agriculture. Dr. Cairns is a member of the Common Worlds Research Collective, and serves on the editorial boards for Gender & Society and the Critical Perspectives on Youth series with NYU Press.