Carlos Motta, Koray Duman, Theodore (ted) Kerr

A conversation between Carlos Motta, Koray Duman, and Theodore (ted) Kerr

A rendering of The Void, a proposal for The High Line Plinth commission submitted by Carlos Motta, Koray Duman, and Theodore (ted) Kerr, 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

Carlos Motta:
In 2019 I was nominated to submit a proposal for The High Line’s Plinth commission. I was nominated by a curator who knows my interest in rethinking the representations of LGBTQI+ cultures and in the politics of HIV/AIDS. For the past fifteen years, my work has dealt with creating alternative narratives regarding marginalized communities in the context of social histories with an emphasis on politics of gender and sexuality. My work has developed along two clear lines: one that investigates political and social injustices in Latin America, with an emphasis and critique of democracy as a form of government from queer and feminist perspectives; and another where I re-articulate historical narratives around sexuality and gender from Colonial times until the present in order to trace genealogies of discrimination.

We Who Feel Differently, Carlos Motta, 2012. Installation view at New Museum, New York. Photo by Naho Kubota.

One of my earliest thoughts around The High Line commission was that the space should be used as a memorial, specifically one to the ongoing AIDS crisis. To help me envision what the commission could be I approached two colleagues, AIDS historian and curator Theodore (ted) Kerr and architect Koray Duman, thinking that a collective and interdisciplinary approach to a public artwork seemed like the right approach. By assembling a small team, I was already putting into practice some of my ethics around public art, namely that it should be collaborative, conversational, and should be as much about the process as the final object.

Koray Duman: For the past nine years, I have been running a research-driven architectural practice with a primary focus on creating spaces for cultural production. Architecture’s potential to become a social infrastructure is important in my thinking. Social infrastructures are open and shared spaces that seek to reclaim the importance of an open society. When Carlos invited me to collaborate, I was very excited. As a gay Muslim man and a first generation immigrant, I am interested in spaces that support and form communities, as well as promote social exchange and the production of knowledge.

Helsinki Hamam, Koray Duman, 2019. A temporary floating pavilion commissioned by Finnish Cultural Institute NY at Pier 36, NYC. Courtesy of the artist.

Theodore (ted) Kerr:
Most of my 20 years working at the intersection of AIDS and culture has been fighting to see the epidemic in the present, with an ever intensifying side-eye on the role that art can and has played within the history and ongoing epidemic. People have often assumed that because I am a white, cis, gay man who started having sex in the 90s that I might be overly consumed by AIDS history. And I am, but I have seen how an overly historic look at AIDS makes the present harder to see.

CM: Yet, we must also acknowledge that for most people, AIDS is not even on their radar. So not to talk about the past is a form of erasure.

TK: Yes, agreed. Especially when it comes to the general public. And this is part of why I was so excited and grateful for your invitation. It caught me at an important pivot point where I was seeing the role that memorials could play in exploring the role of the present epidemic. That year I started teaching a class at The New School about how to memorialize HIV while it was still ongoing. That first year class helped me understand that action, activism, creation, discussion, and engagement across all times of AIDS was the best memorial. In an article I wrote for C Magazine, a Canadian art publication, I state: students and I came to the conclusion that AIDS memorials work best when they:

1.  Maintain and build upon the activist goals of the movement.
2.  Create culture about the past, present, and future of AIDS.
3.  Say not only the names of people who died with HIV, but share the ways they lived, and the tactics they used to love, fight, die, etc.
4.  And, most importantly, communicate the uniqueness of HIV: a deadly virus linked with intimacy, pleasure, stigma and transmission; treatable—but not cured—by medicine and community, yet exasperated and prolonged by systemic bias and inequitable social and political forces.

Ideally, we argue, memorials should be done in ways that reflect aspects of the crisis itself, which is to say: be collaborative; involve risk and shared vulnerability; be replicable, while also being disruptive, educational and able to change, accumulating meaning, stories and history over time.

WHERE IT STARTS + Memorial, Theodore (ted) Kerr, 2019. Created for Counterpublic, 2019, hosted by The Luminary, St. Louis, MO. Courtesy of the artist.

CM: You shared this with us at the time and it was helpful. As you may both remember, the first few meetings over email and then in person were productive. Rather quickly we all came to a shared vision: The Void.

KD: There is a tendency for memorials to create an overarching narrative and both of your works always question that. It was important for us to put forward a proposal that provided/defined an emptiness for words, actions, and histories that are yet to be formed in public. The site for the proposal is a plinth raised above 10th Avenue in Chelsea, which requires a certain scale, an iconic gesture and form. In order to respond to the site’s conditions, during our early conversations, Carlos mentioned his interest for the work to have a dialogue with modernist sculptures that have traditionally occupied public (art) space, but to find a way to subvert the power that they project. We started discussing how the work should respond to these two conditions: Being an icon that is unapologetically present, while also being a void that embrasses/hugs people who occupy it.

TK: As we spoke, we did research and shared influences. Among the most influential in our process was the Silence = Death project poster and the Milton Glaser AIDS poster that he designed for the World Health Organization.

CM: We also brought in our convictions. I was interested in responding to sculptural modernism’s seeming dissociation from the politics of public space—although it has often occupied a central role in public art— by basing our project in the figure of the triangle. A triangle that could be read purely in formal terms, but at the same time using a form that is very politically charged, both as the emblem of early gay rights movement and later of the fight against HIV/AIDS. I felt this would be a conceptually strong gesture that would locate our work in conversation both with the history of presenting sculptures in public and with our specific thematic concerns.

Milton Glaser, AIDS: A Worldwide Effort Will Stop It., 1987 

An early rendering of The Void, a proposal for The High Line Plinth commission submitted by Carlos Motta, Koray Duman, and Theodore (ted) Kerr, 2020. Drawing by Luca Cruz Salvati. Courtesy of the artists.

At some point in our process I shared the notion of a counter-monument, a term from James Young’s work. Key to counter-monuments is refusal. Sites are designed to promote public memory work as an active process of retrieval and negotiation. Among the most famous counter monuments is Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s The Hamburg Monument Against War and Fascism and for Peace, a pillar that between 1986 to 1990 was designed to recede into the earth. As the pillar was disappearing, (and now that it is gone), it fell upon the people who remember the monument, and why it was constructed in the first place, to witness, remember, and share.

CM: The three of us understand that AIDS needs a counter-monument for many reasons. I have visited several AIDS memorials and have mostly been disappointed: memorials tend to focus on architecture as design and not necessarily architecture as a form of engagement with issues of representation and history, contrary to what you describeThe Hamburg Monument... to be.

Memorials tend to tell monolithic stories rather than propose nuanced approaches to history or imaginations of the future. And memorials tend to highlight patrons or artists instead of those people who are truly affected by the pandemic. This commission represented an opportunity for us to rethink these conventions and propose something we haven’t encountered before.

KD: The three of us discussed the idea of social sculpture and what that means today. In a way, we wanted to move away from the traditional sense of sculpture as an object to look at, which is what the commissioning authority was ultimately looking for, and more towards sculpture as a space to occupy communally. Rather than providing a limited representation of the AIDS pandemic, we opted for creating a space where we could provide a platform for multiple voices to be heard and multiple histories to be acknowledged and recorded.


TK: Most of my work is small scale: zines, classes, essays, postcards, collectives. Working with you two was a crash course in thinking about scale in a new way. I found myself daydreaming about how amazing it would be if our selection were to be picked. I started to get attached to all the good programming we could do, in a space that I thought would be conversation provoking and generative.

CM: Yes, I think our project had tons of potential to become a meeting place for diverse communities that may not often visit The High Line—intersectional communities connected through AIDS. In the process however it became apparent that The High Line was looking for a different kind of approach to the commission, a more conventional form, a sculpture of a plinth. Ultimately, as the shortlist was announced, our realization was confirmed, they selected a strong group of sculptural proposals. Realizing this was frustrating but sobering at the same time. We asked ourselves: What is the future of art in the public sphere? What is expected from it? Who does it address? What strategies are prioritized over others?

KD: And right after we submitted our proposal, the world around us changed radically, both with the new COVID-19 Pandemic, as well as the racial social justice movements. For me, what we experienced in 2020 made our proposal much more relevant. What is the purpose of art in the public sphere now if not to engage with the issues that our society deals with? How can public art and architecture advance conversations around representation, accessibility, and inclusivity if we continue to prioritize form and symbol as the pillars of public art?

CM: These two questions are very important: in the last few years the world has made it clear, through protest and action, that we want public spaces and acts of public commemoration to reflect the social changes that are being demanded and are taking place in our societies. The politics of memorialization, monumentalization and public interventions have been forever changed. People are not comfortable with objects that reflect the patriarchal world we inhabit.

KD: Yes, as an architect, I always struggle with the detachment of architectural form or space from the political and cultural contexts of society. We always associate architecture and space with permanence, thus timeless and neutral. The spaces we live in, especially public spaces, are neither permanent, nor neutral. It was through this collaboration with Carlos (an artist) and Ted (a historian and curator) that I realized how we have the ability and need to advance public engagement in civic spaces. This can’t be done just with an architectural proposal. It does truly need a multidisciplinary approach. What I really enjoyed about the process is that the proposal is neither an architectural folly nor a sculpture in a traditional sense. It is somewhere in-between.

Renderings of The Void, a proposal for The High Line Plinth commission submitted by Carlos Motta, Koray Duman, and Theodore (ted) Kerr, 2020. Courtesy of the artists.


KD: Writing this text together has been helpful. It not only memorializes our process. Ha!, it has given me insight and perspective around how memorials are made, what it means to collaborate with others, and the sheer miracle of amazing public art, memorials, or otherwise.

TK: Agreed. Amid this process, I had the pleasure of working with the New York City AIDS Memorial. Now, I think it is safe to say that none of us love the actual physical object of the memorial, and could even talk about locations where we would prefer an AIDS memorial exist. With that said, I have been impressed by the Memorial’s board, and Dave Harper, its Executive Director. They understand that a memorial is not just a place. It is a space the public needs to activate. Even before COVID-19, Harper was thinking about how people can gather, outside, and listen to the voices of experience from the ongoing AIDS crisis in NYC. From there, he created HEAR ME, an audio installation at the memorial that played nightly for the month of December 2020. Over the summer I was the project’s creative consultant and together, with community, Harper and I curated a 30-minute sound piece that weaved together 40 years of AIDS activist response in NYC. It begins with a land acknowledgment from Sheldon Raymore of the American Indian Community House, and ends with a new poem by Kia LaBeija and an archival recording of Michael Callen singing The Healing Power of Love. Listening to HEAR ME, with friends and strangers, on dark and cold December nights was among the most cozy memories I have of that horrible time in the COVID-19 pandemic. The memorial became a sight of refuge amid loss and confusion.

Hear Me, December 1, 2020 at the New York City AIDS Memorial. Lighting design: Arup; Photography: Ryan Lahiff.

CM: Which is exactly the point we were making in our proposal: Public monuments should not be static symbolic objects that praise a historical figure and are disconnected from the present. Presently, racist and colonial monuments are been topled all around the world, a series of actions that have reminded us of the importance and urgency of re-appropriating public space sites of collective constructions of memory; and to demand that cities and arts organizations recognize the reparative social and cultural potential of reconsidering symbolic and commemorative representation.

TK: I think demand is a really powerful word. I have also been thinking about how we are so far from the monument culture we want and need, and that the road to getting there will be through reclamation first. I say this, inspired by many examples of toppled and reclaimed monuments. Specifically I am thinking about how community has taken over the Robert E. Lee monument on Monument Ave in Richmond VA.

KD: Is Monument Avenue is that fourteen block strip in Richmond that has historically featured statues honoring figures from the Confederate side of the Civil War?

TK: Yes, and I should say, in 1996, they added a statue of Arthur Ashe, a Richmond born Tennis legend who died in 1993 due to complications related to AIDS. As you can imagine, Monument Ave has long been a contested site, and in the age of Black Lives Matter, the activity around it has intensified, including some of the statues being removed, and others slated for removal in the coming years.

CM: Is it the erasure that is inspiring?

TK: That is interesting for us to consider when it comes to this idea of The Void. Is the void absence?

KD: Or is it a possibility?

Marcus David Peters Circle, Richmond, VA, August 2020. Taken by flickr user, i threw a guitar at him, creative commons use.

TK: Exactly! I am inclined to think it is the latter. Last year I went on a pilgrimage to Monument Ave, with some friends, and I was inspired by what I saw. At the base of the Lee statue has emerged Marcus David Peters Circle. Peters was a young Black man, killed by local police. The circle includes a budding community garden, handmade memorials to other Black people killed by violence, and graffiti on the statues base that speaks truth to power. The day I was there, the sun was shining, little kids were running around the garden, families were sitting around tables making art, a teenager was trying to ollie on a skateboard, an acapella concert was getting started, and intimate groups of friends, like me and my two buddies, came to pay tribute to the sight.

KD: We also need to talk about generosity and empowerment. It is not easy to stand up and fill a void in public. In order to do so one usually has to be courageous. We as architects, artists and curators need to think of our work as spaces of generosity where even the lack of courage has a voice and a space to occupy. I think what you experience in Richmond is exactly that generosity that allows people to occupy the public space as their own. In a way, the thought you put in, in our proposal for programming and the ways to activate the site was a crucial element for us to provide that generosity.

CM: What you two describe above seems to me like the very idea of possibility: the opportunity to inscribe new meanings into old patterns, to imagine new ways of learning and teaching history, and to resignify the present from the ruins of the past. From that perspective, The Void is perhaps a counter-moment to what/if would be possible.

Carlos Motta is a Colombian-born, New York based artist whose multi-disciplinary art practice documents and makes visible the social conditions and political struggles of sexual, gender, and ethnic minority communities to challenge dominant discourses.

Koray Duman (AIA, LEED AP) is originally from Turkey. He runs a research-based architectural studio in New York City and is chair of the AIANY New Practices Committee.

Theodore (ted) Kerr is a Canadian-born Brooklyn-based writer, organizer, and artist whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS, community, and culture.


New York, August 26, 2021

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