The newest monuments in Los Angeles have no substance. Although they are site-specific, situated in parks and recreation centers, their existence is solely digital, strings of ones and zeroes. Commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with support from the Mellon Foundation, they’re designed to be seen on smartphone screens through Snap’s augmented reality app.
Given the controversial status of so many tangible monuments, augmented reality has obvious advantages over the physical world, appealing to monument builders and cultural institutions alike. A monument in augmented reality is less likely to cause offense than one made of stone or bronze. It doesn’t intrude. It can simply be ignored.
The low cost may also be advantageous. Given that there is no need for materials or manufacturing, more monuments can be made, representing more points of view. In AR, all realities can be present simultaneously, each accessed only when deemed appropriate.
Although LACMA’s Monumental Perspectives Initiative is not unique, it represents a worthy attempt to creatively reimagine an important mode of civic engagement in a time of reckoning with deeply flawed precedents. However, the project, now in its second year, also shows the value of monuments that are more obtrusive and durable.
Most of the time, most people today are exposed only to what they want to see, hear, and believe. Through their choice of news and their choice of friends, as well as the algorithms optimizing online content to increase consumption, their perception of society is self-reinforcing. In this environment, monuments are unusual because they command attention from all to facilitate collective experience and persistent memory. Monuments lose this important civic function when they become baubles of the filter bubble.
The civic function need not be conservative. On the contrary, monuments commemorating the past or celebrating retrograde values can provide opportunities for reconsidering antiquated assumptions and building new consensus. In fact, their divisiveness demands attention. Their presence in a public space landmarks reconciliation.
What that looks like can be seen on Wall Street, where Charging Bull was installed as a monument to testosterone-driven capitalism in 1989. In 2017, a second statue depicting a girl standing her ground was set in front of the bovid, creating a spectacular tableau. After considerable controversy regarding permissions and intentions, Fearless Girl was moved, but a plaque was placed where she stood, preserving her footprints and encouraging passersby to stand in her place. The plaque remains to this day, marking the persistence of gender inequality in the American economy.
Although still unconventional, this approach has vast potential. For instance, consider the Centennial Land Run Monument in Oklahoma City. The monument commemorates an historical event that allegedly settled the region, ostensibly civilizing the territory by overriding millennia of occupation by Indigenous peoples. Some have called for removal of the 45 larger-than-life bronze figures. A far more compelling response, originating with Indigenous communities, is to add to it, showing other dimensions of the story, from the Trail of Tears to abuse of the land.
Marking change is an especially meaningful function of monuments, since change is inherently elusive. Augmented reality can provide an effective tool by making transitions animate. For example, as part of LACMA’s Monumental Perspectives Initiative, the artist Sandra de la Loza has created an AR animation commemorating the lost ecosystem of Compton Creek, a tributary to the Los Angeles River. Where the Willow Whispers shows a pool breaking through the concrete, and gradually filling with native flora and fauna. Through augmented reality, the artist provides the public with a view of what has gone missing and, according to the curatorial text, urges “a vision of new ecologies in the future.”
Activism underlies myriad monuments. (Fearless Girl is another case.) Advocacy can positively influence reality. There are also ways in which to give monuments actual power.
One example is the Grand Canyon, which was designated a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. Legally protected under the Antiquities Act, the landscape was effectively made to signify itself, ensuring that what was represented would not become history in need of commemoration.
Dozens of ecosystems throughout the United States, many now protected as national parks, were initially preserved through the presidents’ ability to create monuments by decree. More ethereal than computer code, legal code paradoxically gives monuments their fullest physicality.
The foremost value of the Monumental Perspectives Initiative is that it broadens our perspective on what constitutes a monument. Augmented reality is not an improvement over the physical reality of monuments wrought in bronze, but augments the potential of monumentality, much as monuments gained new ground through legal innovation a century ago.
As monuments from the past become more problematic, there is increasing need for inventiveness. Novel technology is one space for innovation. Equally valuable are new approaches to ancient paradigms, such as the performative act of standing in the footsteps of Fearless Girl, facing down the charge of history.