Not One Monument but 12: Re-memorializing the Stonewall Riots
by Genevieve Flavelle
How can a riot be memorialized? Specifically, in the case of the Stonewall riots—the legendary five days of rioting in 1969 that launched the gay liberation movement in New York—how did the act of fighting back against cops enforcing the criminalization of being queer and trans so quickly become a corporate-sponsored parade in which the police participate? Why does the Gay Liberation monument (1980), a George Segal commission for the 10th anniversary of the riots, depict four figures quietly socializing in Christopher Park instead of scores of drag queens throwing high heels and ripping parking meters out of the ground? In the leadup to this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, artist Chris E. Vargas chose, in his residency and exhibition at the New Museum, to focus on the park as a fraught site of representation and shifting historical memory.
Consciousness Razing—The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project was produced under the banner of Vargas’ ongoing project The Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art (MOTHA). The semi-fictional institution, of which Vargas positions himself the executive director, seeks to “bring a cohesive visual history of transgender culture into existence,” while also questioning if such a history is productive or even possible. Functioning as a parasite that redirects the resources and authority of larger institutions, MOTHA employs a variety of legitimizing platforms, such as lectures, exhibitions, artist awards and public programs, to promote trans artists, historians and scholars. Consciousness Razing is the latest iteration of MOTHA’s ongoing exhibition series Trans History in 99 Objects, which parodies exhibitions such as the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects and the Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects to interrogate the role of display in narrating dominant histories. The twist of MOTHA’s exhibitions is the addition of objects created by contemporary artists and the renouncement of boundaries between the known and the unknowable. Each exhibition builds toward the 99 promised objects and focuses on local trans histories and legends to engage with “the real and imagined pre-histories of the identity and community formation we call transgender.”1 In keeping with this format, Consciousness Razing takes up the Stonewall riots and Segal’s monument in Christopher Park as a contested site of transgender representation and historical narration.
Much like artworks or objects on display in a museum or housed in an archive, monuments are presented to the public with a limited amount of contextual information and a heavy dose of unnamed authority that selectively narrates history. Questions of authority and power are raised when considering who pays for monuments, who the intended audience is and how monuments work to contextualize or decontextualize historical events. Segal’s monument is a prime case study of contested historical representation. The sculpture, which lives in Christopher Park directly across from the Stonewall Inn, depicts two couples convening in the park. The figures are life-sized, made from bronze and painted white to resemble the original plaster used to cast the models. It is only in the context of the historic site that the figures’ proximity and forms of touch—such as a hand on the shoulder—encourage a reading of the same-gender pairings as romantic couplings or queer friendships. Furthermore, the monument, though commissioned in 1979 for the 10th anniversary of the riots, was not installed until 1992 due to the city’s aversion to courting controversy, which retroactively feels extreme given the timid representation of queer couplings that the monument depicts. In defending the monument against censors, Segal acknowledged that he used these figures in other monuments and that they are not specifically queer portraits.
In the last several years, the monument has been called out as emblematic of the whitewashing of the gay liberation movement. In 2016, the figures were painted brown and clothed in colourful drag by anonymous activists to call attention to the erasure of racialized trans and gender-non-conforming activists like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and many others who held the frontlines of riots.2 This act of redressing the figures is illustrative of how monuments are primarily contested or pulled into dialogue through acts of vandalism or calls for removal. The Gay Liberation monument also actively quells Stonewall as a site of complex queer community and revolutionary energy through a heteronormative framework of intimacy and coupling. Segal’s monument is illustrative of how, as Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant write, “a complex cluster of sexual practices gets confused, in heterosexual culture, with the love plot of intimacy and familialism that signifies belonging to society in a deep and normal way.”3 The affective encounters of the two couples staged in the park neutralize difference and obscure the cruelty of dominant culture that the Stonewall riots contested.
So, how might space be held for a multiplicity of subjective and contradictory histories in a place where forms of racial, economic, gender and sexual oppression intersected and ignited a riot for liberation? How can a monument to Stonewall pay tribute to the drag queens, trans people, lesbian women and gay men who joined together to protect a space of queer gathering against the daily violence of the police? Can the space acknowledge that not everyone who fought that night achieved freedom, that Stonewall continues? In Consciousness Razing, Vargas addresses these questions by employing strategies of queer curatorship, which scholar Jennifer Tyburczy has defined as “a curatorial activity that can highlight and rearrange normative narratives about what it means to be a historically and geographically specific sexual subject. It can also materialize a spatial and discursive approach to display that utopically imagines new forms of sexual sociality and collectivity between bodies, things, and nations.”4
The exhibition brings the public space of the park into the gallery in the form of a meticulous, laser-cut 1:7 scale model, powder coated white. Twelve colourful maquettes of new monuments, created by the invited artists, are displayed on high shelves with written proposals and sketches for full-scale implementation both mounted underneath and available as a broadsheet takeaway. The 12 monuments, while each taking a week-long turn in the model park, importantly continue to sit in conversation with each other in the gallery. The maquettes are not uniform in size or construction—some are sharply fabricated while others look like the product of arts and crafts sessions. This material irregularity, along with frequent use of bright colours, contrasts with the slick model park to create a decidedly queer intervention.
The 12 artists work in various ways to pay tribute to Stonewall without foreclosing it as an ongoing catalyst of revolution. Sharon Hayes’ Stonewall is not yet here draws on José Esteban Muñoz’s queer utopian methodology to create a monument that resists stasis, both physically and temporally. The monument takes the form of a 1969 Pontiac Bonneville station wagon mounted with a public address system that would travel and stage a series of readings and speeches. Each event would begin with a reading of Rivera’s 2001 speech to the Latino Gay Men of New York (LGMNY) and then proceed with pre- and post-Stonewall texts to connect the past to the present and influence future liberation movements. Nicki Green’s proposal, Forces of Faggotry, similarly seeks to link the historic riots to future revolts through the material form of bricks. The loose pile of 200 Stonewall-branded ceramic bricks references both people (in trans vernacular, a “brick” is a trans woman who does not pass as a cis woman) and weapons. The loose configuration of bricks represents the 200 people said to be in the Stonewall Inn when the police raided it. The bricks can be reconfigured to reflect “the fluidity of community dynamics” or taken to be used as tools in future riots. Not all of the proposed monuments are as materially feasible as Green’s and Hayes’. The format of the exhibition as “proposals” leaves open the option to create a purely conceptual or desire-based work, like Catherine Lord’s Reliquary, a tall tube that piles activist T-shirts worn by lesbians into an obelisk-like tower. The materials list includes “lesbian sweat, lesbian blood, lesbian thought, lesbian humor, miscellaneous lesbian secretions.” The intended sensory impact of a tower of visibly used T-shirts, which seeks to give presence to lesbian activists often unrepresented in the male-dominated movement for queer liberation, is, however, lost in the scaled translation.
One of the most effective and affective aspects of the exhibition was the adjacent Resources for Resistance room created by Vargas and the New Museum’s education staff in collaboration with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Visitors could read relevant texts, listen to speeches and write postcards to currently incarcerated trans people. The room connects the exhibition to what was at stake in 1969 and continues to be at stake today for trans and gender-non-conforming people (poverty, homelessness and other circumstances deemed criminal) and creates an opportunity for engagement that many of the monuments propose but cannot execute in their nascence.
While limited in impact by the constraints of museum and gallery spaces, curatorial and artist projects like Consciousness Razing are increasingly becoming important sites where histories are questioned and reconstituted at the complex intersections of evidence, absence and desire. By giving artists the opportunity to mobilize a critique of history through proposals for monuments, Vargas practices what Muñoz calls an act of “educated hope.” For Muñoz, practising educated hope and “participating in a mode of revolutionary consciousness is not simply conforming to one group’s doxa at the expense of another’s… It is thinking beyond the narrative of what stands for the world today by seeing it as not enough.”5 Consciousness Razing shows that no single monument to Stonewall will be enough because the revolution that Stonewall birthed continues to be, in the words of Stonewall veteran and artist Thomas Lanigan- Schmidt, “coming into being and being into becoming.”6