Moving Across Time, Medium, and Space: My Work with Monument Lab

This summer was a period of massive learning and growth for me, as an art historian and as a graduate student. I was in a unique position when the possibility of this summer immersive first came up: I had just completed a year-long post-baccalaureate fellowship at Pitt in the Department of History of Art and Architecture (HAA) and was committed to joining the department’s Ph.D. program in the fall of 2020. Due to COVID, I had returned home to California for the summer with no opportunities, beyond independent work, to continue my own research. With the generous support of Humanities Engage and my advisors in HAA, I was able to undertake a summer immersive with Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia, PA. Initially, I was invited to work on two projects over the summer with the Lab: creating a database of monuments along the U.S.-Mexico border and assisting a Monument Lab-affiliated artist, Michelle Angela Ortiz, with her Hemispheric Latinx Research Project. 

I spent the majority of my time with the Lab working on the datasheet of monuments along the U.S.-Mexico border. There was relatively little structure provided for what this datasheet could and should be, which was simultaneously challenging and advantageous. My research focuses on border art and art in the context of mass incarceration in the United States, including immigrant detention centers. Thus, I was somewhat familiar with the kinds of work that I would be compiling and researching for the datasheet. It was especially helpful to have the opportunity to look at a particular location, the U.S.-Mexico border, and be able to work on a macro scale within geographic constraints. Particularly because I am at the very beginning of my graduate career and in the process of deciding on a focus for my MA paper, it was useful to simply gather as much information as possible—across time, medium, and space—as a means of assessing not only the border art that exists but the scholarship that surrounds that art. Monument Lab has a very generous definition of the term monument: “a statement of power and presence in public.” This definition was one of the only parameters, beyond geography, that was given for determining what would be included in the datasheet. It took me quite a bit of time and a lot of trial and error to figure out what works could fit that definition and how I wanted to categorize and organize the data. Ultimately, I decided to think of the definition in a fairly expansive manner, cataloging not just physical monuments, but performance art and other artistic interventions at the border. 

The second project that I was tasked with, assisting Michelle Angela Ortiz with her Hemispheric Latinx Research Project, has turned into a longer-term collaboration. I am working with her to develop a series of round table discussions with artists whose work revolves around social justice and public space. These discussions will be held as a Monument Lab event and will be facilitated by Ortiz as a means of putting her own work with public space in conversation with the work of her peers. The hands-on and logistical work that this project requires has been a beneficial learning experience for me, one in which I have acquired skills that I will undoubtedly use throughout my career. 

Beyond the experiences I gained working with Monument Lab, I was especially appreciative of the time and attention that Humanities Engage put into the summer programming for interns. Through workshops led by Marques Redd and university library staff, I have gained skills that I otherwise would not have acquired so early on in my graduate career. Of particular interest to me was the digital scholarship methods workshop. While the workshop itself was simply a general overview of digital methods and tools in the humanities and the ways that the library can help facilitate such projects, the workshop initiated a relationship that has proved to be fruitful for my work. Through assistance from Boris Michev and other university library staff, I created several data visualizations (both an interactive timeline and a still-in-progress story map) of the data that I compiled over the summer. Not only was I able to learn how to work with these programs, but it also allowed me to interrogate the accumulation of data as a means of contextualizing it and identifying trends in the data. This way of approaching data allowed me to begin to conceptualize a trajectory/means of developing a seminar paper from this work that I completed over the summer, a task I will carry out in a seminar this fall. 

In conclusion, I would like to express my thanks to both Monument Lab and Humanities Engage (especially Michele and Marques!) for their extreme generosity and willingness to support my growth at Pitt and within the field of art history. 

Janina Lopez
History of Art and Architecture
October 14, 2020

Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.