an installation addressing gun death in Baltimore
An issue that has recently left the national center of focus—but one that, at its core, stems from the same societal failures of the currently more-frontline social justice issues we are facing as a nation—is that of gun violence and, specifically, gun deaths.
Baltimore's notoriously high homicide rate has been on a major surge over the past few years, and many of those homicides are gun related.
Regardless of anyone's stance on the 2nd amendment and gun ownership, it is an almost irrefutable and mostly bi-partisan consensus that too many people in Baltimore die from gun violence. What is not of consensus (and part of what makes the problem so intractable) are the causes-of and solutions-to those gun deaths.
One of the major problems, as I see it, is that gun death is often treated with a blind eye to its true source. Politicians law enforcement, news agencies, etc. tend towards the easy scapegoats: individuals who physically pull the triggers. However, the clear source of this violence is the same as the source that results in black individuals nationwide constantly dying at the hands of police officers: pervasive structural racism on every societal level.
My proposed installation would draw attention to that fact—the fact that the people who are dying/killing via guns are overwhelmingly of a certain demographic: Black men from poverty-stricken neighborhoods; people who are are almost deterministically funneled into a life of violence as a result of the societal mechanisms that are constantly preventing them from living any other life.
The source of our insane levels of gun homicide is systemic oppression. The individuals who pull the triggers are merely the most superficial manifestations of that source.
The proposed installation (which would be on display for a full year) comprises two large cages, inside of which dummies/mannequins will be placed in accordance with the city's rate of gun homicide. Using statistics provided by the Baltimore Sun, I would place a white or a black dummy in one of two cages—where black dummies stand in for 'otherness' in representing those who do not enjoy the attendant privileges of whiteness. The larger problems at hand obviously aren't so black and white—an intended pun that serves to highlight the fact that the real problem we are dealing with is a much deeper and more complex one than we collectively like to pretend it is.
Were I to use the stats from 2019, there would be 7 white dummies in a cage and 302 black dummies in the other cage. Far more than statistics on a page, seeing a pile of 300 black dummies (versus a mere handful of white dummies), really drives home the notion that Black citizens—and, overwhelmingly, Black men—are dying by gunfire at an excessively disproportional rate. However, the dummies would be gender-neutral, so as to acknowledge the often-overlooked suffering of Black females and transgender individuals in the scope of larger conversations.
The metaphor of the cage is intentional as a means by which to elicit the notion that racism acts as a veritable structure endlessly working against black citizens from achieving an otherwise better fate. Aside from the race of individual victims, gun deaths are clearly happening in certain neighborhoods bearing zipcodes that correspond to high levels of poverty and report a high percentage of Black residents. In this way, the zipcodes themselves are cages that ensnare Black residents as a result of their race—a point that is most certainly not lost to public officials responsible for gerrymandered and suffocated zoning. Clearly, the cage metaphor is simultaneously at play on several other levels—as are the many ways in which demographics, economics, education, health, incarceration rates, etc. are all entangled in the massive web of systemic oppression.
Ideally, this installation would be situated in an open-air public space. Making the installation public (and, decidedly, not housed indoors and behind walls) is specifically intended to tease out the fact that ''Black men killing each other as an inevitable manifestation of a life of oppression'' is actively designated a non-public problem by people who do not want to face it or help fix it. As an unavoidably public-facing project, the installation (and its attendant issues) would be impossible to pretend not to see—requiring an active avoidance of all that it represents—and would preempt the convenient excuse "I didn't know that was a problem."
For those who are privileged not to be confined to a life of structural inequality, it is certainly more convenient to think of this as someone else's problem—namely, a problem of 'those criminals over there in those horrible neighborhoods' who are committing the physical acts of violence. That fact, however, is that this is a very public problem—in the truest sense of civic problems—and it most certainly does not start with the men who pull the triggers. Rather, with the men who turn a blind eye to those who pull the triggers.
Moreover, the UMBC campus would be the ideal such public space for the installation. Not only would this serve to promote public discussion about underlying social issues that UMBC is adamant about confronting, but it would serve as a way to engage the UMBC community in a discussion of the powerful ways in which art can be used to grapple with issues of social inequality and help to promote change. In situations where hard facts are unable to move people to action, aesthetic interventions can often inspire what statistics cannot.
At the moment, I do not know where I would be able to display the proposed installation and I am well aware of the fact that obtaining permission for the public display of such a work would be a significant logistical and political challenge—be it at UMBC or elsewhere. However, the installation could still maintain relevance and impact as an entirely digital project. To that extent, I plan to develop an interactive web-based augmented reality application that would allow viewers to 'see' the installation nonetheless.
Having to move the installation online (and to a completely virtual public space) would have a similar effect to moving a physical version within the walls of an indoor gallery—it would, in a certain sense, make it less public; it would subsequently engage only the people who were already inclined to walk into the gallery and allow themselves to be engaged; it would only speak to the people who choose to pull out their smartphones and interact with the work. However, the ability to display a life-sized virtual pile of 300 black dummies in front of UMBC's actual Performing Art and Humanities Building (or anywhere else on campus) still has a uniquely powerful ability to bring the conversation home.
In addition to presenting a physical installation in a public space (or creating an interactive AR web app), I will also create a dedicated webpage where a digitally-rendered installation will be collecting virtual dummies inside of its virtual cages. This website will serve to allow people to experience the work regardless of their ability to physically come to campus and see the real/AR version.
More important than merely creating a digital version of the installation, however, would be the inclusion of a set of curated resources/contributions/media pertaining to the larger conversation: relevant scholarly articles, essays, documentaries, interviews, other artworks, etc. The collecting of such related materials would be ongoing and the hope is that these positive and productive materials would grow at a rate higher than that at which the dummies will inevitably pile up.
There is no sense in which I should be seen as the arbiter of truth, regarding what might constitute a relevant or significant contribution worthy of inclusion. In that regard, I intend to appoint a selection committee of Black students, professors, activists, community organizers and thought leaders to take on the responsibility of determining what additional media ultimately becomes a part of the larger project. The committee would be responsible for selecting among existing work, but would also identify individuals from whom to request the creation of new work. In this way, the project would serve as a repository of important relevant work as well as a mechanism by which to promote its creation.
Essentially, the installation (and its digital doppelganger) is intended solely to serve as a catalyst for discourse on the larger topics at hand—issues which, among many other tribulations, are resulting in excessive and racially skewed gun deaths. The installation itself should not be the ultimate point of focus.
Carrying out this project has been on my mind for many years—since not long after I moved to Baltimore in 2008—but I have never seen a more opportune time for it to become a reality, both in the context of my activities as a Diversity Fellow and in light of the urgency of current national debates surrounding social justice.
Moreover, this project would be carried out in the spirit of the incredible life's work of the late Maurice Berger, who so poignantly dedicated himself to promoting scholarly-artistic discourse about the many issues surrounding race and social justice.
One aspect of the larger project that I am still hoping to develop, is a way by which to directly involve the public that suffers this undeniable health crisis of gun deaths: young Black men from marginalized neighborhoods. I would like to make the project a way for them (and their families) to engage directly in the promotion of awareness/discussion/change.
To that extent, however, I am very sensitive to the fact that this whole endeavor can ultimately come across as just some abstract conceptual art project by some white guy. But beyond simply trying to preempt the false perception of me using the plight of black urban men as a way to garner attention (and, ultimately, of me being guilty of transgressions I am trying to highlight), I am interested in the project actually resulting in some tangible benefit for those the project identifies as needing the help.
I am currently unsure as to how best involve the community without it all seeming contrived. However, I think this kind of involvement is a critically important component that needs to be there, and it is a facet of the project that I would look forward to further developing with guidance from my faculty mentors, throughout the duration of my tenure as a UMBC Fellow.
Addendum: Upon completing the description above, I sought opinions and suggestions from a select group of trusted individuals. Among those was a former UMBC student of mine—an African American male in his 20s—with whom (by his prompting) I have had many conversations about issues surrounding race. While I anticipated a sincere and honest response from him, I was not prepared for how strongly he would connect with the project. It seemed to him to be speaking directly to a younger version of himself that was once on the cusp of two very different futures.
He proceeded to open up to me in extremely intimate ways about his struggles as a child and teen, and the ways in which he was fortunate to have found a path through it all by engaging in music as his most personal form of comfort and safety. In his words, music was his blanket. He also told me about a younger relative currently in his early teens who may still be receptive to positive change, but who finds himself in a similar fork in the road. My student wondered out loud about the emotional and psychological weight of choosing and working towards a better future, and questioned how he could help relieve some of his relative’s burden in developing the confidence to pivot towards a different future.
After hearing such a personal account, it became clear to me that although this project is still nothing more than an idea—ink on a page—its intended effects are already taking shape. The project is underway. My student has agreed to officially take part in the project by potentially submitting a personal essay, sitting on the curatorial selection committee and overseeing the production of interviews. We are also in the process of developing ways for him to start some of these activities this semester, so that he can use them as part of a capstone senior project.
My student also sent the project description to a friend—a Black female activist in her 20s—who provided excellent feedback about an aspect of the project that I totally overlooked.
The idea of creating an unavoidably-public installation was meant to impose the underlying issues on people who might otherwise ignore or disregard them or, worse, people who knowingly and willingly exacerbate the problems—analogous to the ways in which African Americans have been born into a system that imposes injustice on them. However, the feedback I received pointed out that the installation might trigger trauma for certain individuals who have been victims of the issues that are being so forcefully represented. I realized that—in attempting to hold certain people accountable through sheer force of presentation—I would run the risk of shoving trauma down the throats of individuals whose trauma the project sought to acknowledge and protect.
I now see that a public installation of dummy-filled cages is almost certainly the wrong approach. My thinking now is that the installation will comprise two empty cages, with the AR component filling in the image of virtual dummies—for those who choose to engage.
I write all this as an addendum (as opposed to having restructured and updated the description itself) in order to demonstrate that I am highly aware of the fact that—despite my best intentions and no matter how much thinking, research and preparation I do in advance—there is no way for this project to be successful in the ways it aspires to be unless I move forward with a completely open ear to the people who are closest to the issues it speaks to. This project must remain a constantly evolving one that changes in accordance with their understanding of what is important and appropriate.
Ultimately, this project needs to be structured so as to increasingly cede control to the individuals it seeks to represent.
Jonathan Zwi Johns Hopkins University JHU Intersession
Expanding Time, Space & Meaning in Visual Art and Music