In the courtyard of City Hall, behind the cover of a temporary chain-link barrier, artists have spent the last few weeks constructing a monument within a monument - a scrap-wood counterpoint to the ornate marble of City Hall and the slick granite of Dilworth Park.
The installation, a suggestion of a classroom by way of benches and an empty chalkboard frame, marks the home of Monument Lab - a thought-experiment-as-public-artwork that opens today and that will occupy the courtyard for three weeks, bringing together artists, civic leaders, and the public to share ideas on what would be an appropriate monument for 21st-century Philadelphia.
It appears to be an answer to a question no one is asking: There is no designated site for such a monument, nor is there funding for it (though the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage gave the curators $72,000 for this exercise). Neither was the project driven by a public clamoring for a defining monument in a city that's already home to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture, and even the Rocky statue.
But curators Ken Lum, an artist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania; Paul Farber, a professor at Haverford College; and A. Will Brown, a curatorial assistant at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, believe it is a question worth exploring.
They've assembled a formidable task force for the job, including major players in Philadelphia art, architecture, and higher education - including advisers and partners from the city Mural Arts Program, the Center for Architecture, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and four local colleges and universities, and artists the likes of Zoe Strauss, Kara Crombie, and Alexander Rosenberg.
Lum sees the project as a way to provide clarity for a city in flux.
"We hope it is a prelude to at least animating dialogue about what are possible solutions to the problems confronting the city at this pivotal moment of transformation, in terms of development and increasing population and gentrification," he said.
To that end, the lab, housed in a shipping container in the courtyard at City Hall, will host daily noontime speakers, from scholars and artists to a police captain and even an Eagle, linebacker Connor Barwin. (Find the full schedule at monumentlab.com.) It will double as a research site, staffed from noon to 7 p.m. daily through June 7, in order to collect suggestions from the public and input them into a database and a map.
It's a departure from how monuments typically get built - that is, as a result of some constituency rallying around a cause to be commemorated.
"It's a speculative exercise," Lum said.
They asked each artist to address one of the city's five original squares.
Artist Terry Adkins created the classroom concept for Centre Square as a response to school closings and education funding cuts just before his death last year. (It was realized by Billy Dufala and Lucia Thomé of Recycled Artist in Residency, with input from Adkins' former colleagues and students from Penn Design.) The other four will show their concepts in an exhibition at the lab and will present the ideas at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Video artist Crombie, asked to think about Franklin Square, came up with an oversize sampler and drum machine, a kid-friendly, interactive monument to Philadelphia's music history. She said she was not sure how it could be realized, though.
"I asked the curators, 'How big can I dream about this?' " she said. The answer was there were no limits. "When you take the boundaries off of what a monument can be, they're interested in what comes out of it."
Over in Washington Square, We the Weeds, a collaboration between artist Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy, has concocted an idea that would be easy to execute if only neighbors would consent.
"We thought, what would it look like to monumentalize something that is not commonly thought of as being worthy?" Pomerantz said. "History is written by the victors. I was thinking of creating a monument to something that's more subtle or doesn't have a voice."
They're proposing a botanical monument that references the city's vacant spaces: a rowhouse-size clearing left to the weeds.
"The idea is to bring a vacant lot into the pristine park or to create a landscape within the landscape that's more reflective of the reality of Philadelphia," she said.
These monuments may never be realized, but the curators hope this will clear the way for a more substantial effort, a citywide "monuments festival" that might run every two or three years starting in 2017.
Farber, one of the curators, said the project was timely; we're in the midst of a monument boom.
There have been several proposed monuments in the city in recent years, and some of those have been controversial - for example, a proposal to commemorate 9/11 with a statue of the twin towers strung together by the Liberty Bell. Critics say it may be time to reconsider how we decide what gets memorialized.
But that, noted Susan Davis, a public-art consultant involved in many city projects, is not what's being considered here: "They're asking, 'What kind of monument is appropriate for Philadelphia?' But that's not the [right] question. It's not, 'What's appropriate?' It's, 'What's necessary?' What civic need is being accomplished?"
Still, Farber thinks the conversation itself is what's needed. And bold thinking shouldn't be stifled.
"I've been in so many discussions in the city about coming up with creative approaches to uplift," Farber said. "The conversation has this moment where cold water is poured on it and someone says, 'But that's not affordable. That's not practical.' "
Democratizing the building of public monuments is a larger project.
Jane Golden, who runs the Mural Arts Program, said it's a relevant one. Mural Arts - which has created many murals depicting local heroes who'd likely never be memorialized in bronze or stone - is likewise struggling with these questions. She said the lab offered a new way to approach them.
"You're always asking yourself, how do we engage people around critical issues? And this is one way of doing it. It's looking at our civic spaces as opportunities for complex conversations to happen that ultimately unite people from a range of different walks of life."