#MAKEUSVISIBLE IMPOSES GENDER EQUITY INTO THE PUBLIC REALM
Cities around the world are littered with public monuments. Largely a 19th- and early 20th century typology, the statues have weathered, and often, the stories and names have faded from our memory. Yet the lasting enshrinement of these figures remain in the enduring architectural materials of bronze, stone, marble and steel.
These monuments to immortality have been the target of scrutiny and overwhelming activism in recent years. From U.S-based “pull downs” of Confederate monuments to attacks on monuments of scale — say, the Capitol Building — we as a society are re-engaging with our urban monuments. Hunks of stone and metal that a few years back may have passed us by on commutes and walks through the park, nearly unnoticed, have a new tinge of violence and violation within the frame of pop-cultural public discourse and action.
Yet simply taking down a statue doesn’t mean that male-centric or colonial history is erased. We as a culture are tasked with a radical unlearning in this moment of reckoning, and are encouraged to look up from our phones and consider the personages and the stories behind these significant works of public art that most specifically fall into a Western and European tradition of public art and immortality.
The Extended Reality Ensemble (XRE) is a collaborative network of artists, programmers, and curators working to change the way we encounter and engage with these monuments with a revisionary lens. March marked the launch of their #MakeUsVisible art campaign, which uses Augmented Reality (AR) to digitally impose new statues honoring women and non-binary people into the overwhelmingly masculine space of public statues and memorial squares in New York City. By connecting 31 emerging and established digital artists with specific memorial sites in New York City, XRE has reimagined the environment around us and the ingrained truths we are often told about men, history, and culture.
Pollinate writer Nolan Kelly sat down to discuss the #MakeUsVisible project with XRE’s leadership and development team over Zoom – Clara Francesca (New York), Anne Wichmann (Munich), and Katie Peyton Hofstadter (Los Angeles). The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
NK: It’s clear from the nature of your collaboration that melding physical and digital art is central to your praxis. What were you hoping to do at this intersection with #MakeUsVisible?
Anne Wichmann: What really led me to this project was a statistic that I heard from a friend of mine, about how 91 percent of the physical statues in New York are men. In my hometown of Munich, it’s even higher – 95 percent – so this is not a unique problem.
It made me think about how AR is such an amazing medium to, in a very quick way, make the other more-than-half of the population visible. It was this radical visibility of AR that inspired me most—the fact that everybody who has a smartphone and reception can then see these things. I said to myself: How incredible would it be to juxtapose digital and physical sculptures, so that through this, we can begin to create balances and build bridges? It’s more than just saying ‘We don’t like the men; we need women or non-binary people up there instead,’ but actually thinking about how to create change together. At that point, we were really lucky to get Katie involved.
Katie Peyton Hofstadter: Right, Clara and Anne contacted me in late December with this great idea for a project. As they were telling me about it, I began researching and came across that infamous statistic that also got Anne started. Specifically, there are 150 public statues in New York City and 145 of them are men. And I was like, ‘Well, how many horses are there?!’
#MakeUsVisible was such a brilliantly simple idea that seemed to be uplifting values in the right way. My background involves thinking a lot about public art and about the relationship between digital and physical. It’s clear to me that these projects are important, because monuments tell us what we value as a culture, and in terms of this project, they tell us who we value as a culture. As a teacher, I experienced that while working with my students. When we talked about monuments they’d say: ‘Gosh, of course I’m in favor of everyone being represented and seeing the values we believe in, but we can’t change history right?’ I realized that what they saw being monumented was what they believed as real—and I think we all do on some level. It can operate on a very subconscious plane, but public messaging is real. It announces and shapes what we value.
NK: There have been intense conversations lately, around the world, about which historical figures we choose to put on pedestals. How does AR become a way for us to imagine history in a more holistic way?
CF: In trying to operate with a both/and spirit, we want our monuments to appear in relation to a physical sculpture specifically to create conversation around the artist’s themes. So you have N3T4’s Pachamama alongside the Father Duffy Square monument, to have a conversation about religion and colonization’s lingering impacts. It’s important that we have these conversations in a both/and space, where that representation of gender equity in the streets is not a matter of tearing down versus not tearing down. It’s not just about having these #MakeUsVisible pieces in the streets, but about having new conversations about the ones that are already there. Like Katie brought up about her talks with her students, it’s horrifying to think that people think these statues represent their active history, without having any conversations or context around it.
KH: I was really excited that this was going to be in AR. On behalf of the artists, I want to be clear that AR is not being used here as a prototype for a more physical intervention. I think it can be easy to think about it that way—like, wow, wouldn’t it be great to have this physically there? But these monuments are standalone artworks that exist in AR as complete works.
I was really excited to be working in AR here because, I had just come off a very physical project – working with Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel to modify their public Metronome artwork, at Union Square, into what is now The Climate Clock – it took us over a year to get that up, and the amount of permission we had to get, the paperwork we went through, the amount of hours we spent putting documents together just to alter one monument, was unreal. With this project, in just three months we pulled together 31 amazing artists, they created 31 complete monuments, and we have them up right now. The scale we were able to work on here was breathtaking. And to see people sharing this work is proof of its power.
AW: This is something that really excites me as well. Through making these beautiful AR works accessible to so many people all over the world, we actually bring more awareness to these public spaces again. I feel like we walk past these statues and sculptures all the time without even looking up, or when you do look up you so often say: ‘Who is this dude? I have no clue.’ But now, in this very beautiful and playful manner, such questions and contentions are opened up in a new way.
CF: I recently walked around New York witnessing some of these new monuments created by the artists as they were juxtaposed against the real statues, and I felt profoundly overwhelmed. I was in tears, not only because of the newfound visibility it’s creating, but the provocative questions that the pieces themselves bring out. I’m hoping it has that evocative response for everyone.
NK: You have all made a point to speak about this project as gender-diverse. I’d love to hear more about how some of these works not only expand, but try and overcome, a gender binary.
CF: This is a conversation that is very delicate and detailed. I should start by saying that the original idea of #MakeUsVisible was to put it in the space of Women’s History Month. One of the challenges we came up against was that we are not interested in being anti-male, and we’re not really interested in being pro-women if it’s only for women. This brought up a lot of complicated conversations amongst the three of us, all of which were very useful, and which we hope to broadcast here on a wider spectrum.
Gender equity is something that I personally think is important, and also it’s quite upsetting to me how oppressive this conversation becomes in spaces that believe a gender binary is normal. I’ll simply say that, considering the incredible diversity of human beings as they are born, I would like to find a space to speak to cis-binary communities to talk about how the conversation of gender isn’t quite that simple. This is not the focus of #MakeUsVisible, but it is a component of it, which drives me to really want to uplift these artists’ works and values.
AW: It was also a natural part of the process, after having curated and organized the Ars Electronica Festival Garden, because in that program we were lucky to have several non-binary artists showcasing there. These are people we love working with, and we wanted to extend those relationships into this project.
NK: What kind of precedent projects led you to #MakeUsVisible?
CF: Two projects really propelled us into this new project: New Cosmic Symphony, a quarantine-era experiment with V/AR audience engagement, and our curation of the Ars Electronica Festival Garden in Queens.
During a residency at Theaterlab, we developed the New Cosmic Symphony. This was during a time when audiences weren’t really allowed to come into spaces, so we were looking at how to create interesting narratives using Virtual and Augmented Reality, and these virtual soundscapes propelled us into working with Ars Electronica. They featured New Cosmic Symphony on their online platform and from there we launched a titular experience, the Ars Electronica Festival Garden in September, 2021.
That was a site-specific experience at Ars Electronica’s space in Queens, where we led visitors into a dome that contained various curated programs of what we call “enhanced poetry,” which involved bringing traditional or non-digital artists together with digital artists. The question we were asking with this series was: How do we really coexist when we’re different? And different in the fullest sense of the word, where we have different mediums, different aesthetics, different practices. These paired artists were asked not to collaborate ahead of the event, but rather to talk about the value systems that mattered to them as creators.
NK: Tell me about the recruiting process. How did you come to know this great group of artists and what was the process of collaboration?
KH: I’ve long had an interest in digital and transmedia artists. I was looking for people who shared our mission e—for example. whose work honors notable female figures in history, in literature, in mythology I think Carla Gannis was the first person I contacted. She’s done several projects like this, about Ada Lovelace and Lucille Ball. And after that first outreach, the whole process just gathered speed via word of mouth: Everyone I talked to wanted to tell me about someone else’s project that was also honoring a female or non-binary figure. I’ve never worked on a project where all the artists I talk to won’t let me hang up the phone until they finish telling me about someone else’s work. I knew when this started happening just how powerful this project was going to be.
NK: Women’s History Month is in many ways a temporal monument. Do you feel like #MakeUsVisible is commenting on this Month in the same way that it comments on the physical works it’s instigated around?
KH: I’m not into identity months. I think we should read Black authors all year round, I think we should look at art by women all year round. I think equity is more than a month.
AW: I completely agree. I think, where I was coming from was: Might this be an advantage for the artists, to be even more seen by the press, if we kick it off in this month? So a very pragmatic reason, actually. But this is merely the kickoff, and it’s not going down on March 31. We will promote it throughout the whole year, for at least one year. We will try to bring #MakeUsVisible out to different cities. Right now it looks like it’s going to be in Germany in summer, in Italy in fall, and we also hope to bring it out to Katie in L.A. So it’s not about Women’s History Month, but I felt that it could be an advantage to everyone, to bring more visibility.
NK: That’s great to hear that it could be with us for a long time.
AW: Yeah, that’s a really exciting component for me. Especially because these artists put in an immense amount of work and created these amazing sculptures. I think it’s beautiful that we can tell people about this, years from now, and hopefully people can still interact with them, and visualize these narratives in new ways.
KH: We’re really fortunate to be working with some of the leading digital artists in the world. They have given us the ability to present their work juxtaposed against these tangible spaces, and to put that out in the world for everyone with a smartphone to access. We would love to be able to present that for as long as the artists will let us.
Link to view audio and visual art series: https://www.xrensemble.com/
Nolan Kelly is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and critic who is currently at work on his first novel. His essays and interviews can be found in Bookforum, Hyperallergic, Senses of Cinema, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.