The colonial regime owes its legitimacy to force and at no time does it endeavor to cover up this nature of things. Every statue of these conquistadors ensconced on colonial soil is a constant reminder: “We are here by the force of the bayonet.”
- Frantz Fanon
Now the statue is bleeding. We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation.
This is not an act of vandalism. It is a work of public art and an act of applied art criticism.
- Monument Removal Brigade
What are the aesthetics of carcerality that organize and regulate our psychic lives? Monuments are carceral art objects that overcode and overdetermine public memory. They are symbols of state power and affirmations of the status quo whose function in urban psychogeography is to preserve and advance particular nationalist memories. They interpellate us, the public, as docile subjects and we pass them by, we become accustomed to them, we take them for granted, and our capacity for conceiving otherwise is blunted 1. We walk by monuments; we walk by police stations; we walk by prisons.
Monuments, like other aesthetics of the carceral, play a role in delimiting the kinds of psychic and material engagements we imagine possible. Through their triangulated relationship to the public and the state, monuments contribute to a national symbolic order that restricts the public’s political imagination. Monuments are protected as properties of whiteness: they invoke police power to discipline all those who reveal their violences and fragilities. Even more dangerous to the state is any creative call from the public to transform urban space and awaken psychic life.
On July 18th, 2020, three protesters with Black Lives Matter Toronto were arrested for splashing pink paint on the white supremacist and colonial statues of John A. MacDonald, Egerton Ryerson, and King Edward in Toronto’s Queen’s Park 2. The three artists were kettled by more than twenty police officers, detained without legal and medical access, detained even as the police told the public they were released, and then only released after a night-long protest outside the 52nd division. The continuum, here, between monuments and carcerality is clear: to threaten the monument is to threaten the carceral state, which is to invoke an always already violent police response. The state betrays itself and reveals just how vulnerable it is made by politico-aesthetic confrontation, intervention, and re-interpretation.
"The monuments, now pink, now fallible, now iterative, now differently animate, have become more like historical palimpsests, granting us with all sorts of new attunements, arrangements, affects, and intensities."
“The uncanny compromise achieved by the monumental is that it is both a sign of life and a sign of death,” writes psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas in Architecture and the Unconscious. But the Macdonald-Ryerson-Edward trio goes beyond the uncanny compromise between life and death that Bollas might suggest; here, the monument is hardly ambivalent and is instead co-constitutive of the state’s ongoing proto-genocidal activity 3. The monument celebrates, co-signs, and therefore aids in the continual creation of those sites of incarceration that daily determine who lives and who dies.
These days, the pink-splattered monuments in Queen’s Park are boarded up. (Let us not forget the many overlapping and mutually-reinforcing layers of colonization: the King’s statue in Queen’s Park on the stolen lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Anishinabe, Huron-Wendat, and Haudenosaunee peoples). Even exposing them to public view is too risky for the carceral state. Nonetheless, these radically altered figures persist in images circulated online, and more importantly, in the emboldened imaginations of all of us who have already encountered them.
Red paint that represents blood is sometimes splattered on monuments by artist-activists (as was recently done in Belgium, Boston, and Mississippi). These are interventions that refuse to accept the tyranny of the statues, the everydayness of their tyranny, and instead do symbolic damage 4. The colour pink does different and related work: Pink paint is joyful, pink paint is performative, pink paint is queer, pink paint is trans, pink paint at once exposes the monuments as violent and gestures to something new. Pink paint, here, extends the horizon of that which is possible to be perceived 5. The pink monuments are pedagogical and communal: even in digital spaces, we can gather around them, we can study them, and we can grapple with them anew.
The pink monuments enter another sociopolitical temporality, exchanging surveillance and domination for negotiation, contingency, and sensory possibility. Where monuments become dynamic objects that can change in relation to the communities that surround them, where they occupy the cusp between destruction and transformation, where they challenge normative political architectures and inspire us to think expansively about what shapes and structures are possible for our cities, is where they can become public objects and public art.
This creative act was more than a disruption, more than an interruption or a disturbance; it was a rupture, an opening, a strategic destabilizing toward other futures, a rigorous abolitionist artistic analytic that refuses the given and plans for something and somewhere beyond the monument’s dying gasps 6. And the statues are thus given back to the public, no longer possible to passively pass by, calling now for our critical engagement, for an upheaval of reticent psychic arrangements, for our active participation in tearing and building, aligned with and led by the radical liberation struggle for Black and Indigenous lives. The monuments, now pink, now fallible, now iterative, now differently animate, have become more like historical palimpsests, granting us with all sorts of new attunements, arrangements, affects, and intensities.
This creative act was, and is, a generous one.
The above essay was written by writer and psychiatrist-in-training, Bahar Orang. She's the author of the prose-poetry book Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty.
Editorial Support for the essay by Minh Nguyen.
Image retrieved from: https://artistsforblacklives.wordpress.com/
1 See the section titled “Docile Bodies” in Discipline and Punish by Foucault.
2 The “Artists in Support of Black Lives” letter gives the following descriptions of the figures for whom the monuments were erected: “Egerton Ryerson was a principal architect in the development of the Residential School System in Canada, a genocidal system that terrorized generations of Indigenous children and their families. He also supported segregated schooling that separated Black children from white children. Sir John A. MacDonald created and promoted genocidal policies, and oversaw the intentional starvation of Indigenous communities that killed over 10,000 people between 1800-55. Macdonald had close ties to the Maafa, commonly referred to as the slave trade, in the Americas and was a vocal supporter of the pro-slavery Confederacy during the American Civil War. The statue of King Edward VII was a colonial monument originally installed in a public square in Delhi, India. Removed by the Indian people after Independence, it was brought to Canada by a private interest, and was installed, even against the wishes of the then City Council in one of Toronto’s most well-loved public spaces.”
3 Dylan Rodriguez has named the logics of “social liquidation, cultural extermination, physiological evisceration, and racist terror” as proto-genocidal and genocidal.
4 The Monument Removal brigade speaks to the “symbolic damage” that can be done by counter-monumental gestures.
5 I refer to Mariame Kaba’s conceptualization of abolition as a horizon to help understand how pink operates here.
6 I’m thinking here about Moten and Harney’s “last words”, where they write: “No promises from the university, no demands on the university, just the presence of our practice in love and battle, in and through its ruins, on the other side of its dying gasps and last words.”