by Ben Wood
Published on September 16, 2019
In June San Francisco's Board of Education voted unanimously to whitewash 83 year-old murals depicting the, "Life of George Washington" located at George Washington High School in San Francisco's Outer Richmond neighborhood. Thirteen separate murals make up this significant historical artwork painted by renowned muralist Victor Arnautoff in 1936 as part of the Works Progress Administration New Deal Art program.
A response mural was painted in the 1970s by Dewey Crumpler after an earlier controversy. In July after public outcry and a public debate aired across national media, the Board of Education subsequently backtracked and voted instead to cover the murals over.
As of this vote all 13 murals are slated to be covered. However as a historic resource they are subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Through the CEQA comment process, citizens can help projects avoid and minimize impacts by developing project alternatives and mitigation measures.
The following concepts are my effort to open the conversation towards empowered ways to interpret the murals that will keep them in public view while addressing this troubling past by using digital media and interpretive art in an affirmative way without adversely affecting the historical murals.
The following are interpretive media approaches could be utilized together or separately and are by no means the only solution to interpreting the murals while the keeping them in public view.
Semi transparent or darkened dual purpose screen doors could be placed in front of specific murals to cover them over during school hours, and opened for classes and educational tours.
The panels could be specifically designed and imprinted with graphic interpretive visuals images and narratives that foreground native and enslaved heritage in juxtaposition with the Washington Murals.
The Presidio Officers Club Mesa Room permanently foregrounds Ohlone heritage presented as a visual scrim in front of historic adobe walls. Also dual purpose sliding screen doors layer the era's of colonial Spanish, Mexican and American history.
Touch Screen interpretive displays could be situated in front of each mural. Users can interact with specific panels of the murals that would show visual media content foregrounding native and enslaved figures, histories and heritage in relation to the Life of Washington murals.
SFMOMA currently has on public view a projected and interactive augmented video artwork by JR, that allows views to interact via mobile devices with an animated murals giving deeper textual, video and graphic context to the animated murals.
In addition to screening a new ongoing site specific video work with a rear projected or mounted display, the screen could be programmed as a reflection space situated within lobby between the murals. For example, SFO International Terminal offers a video reflection space curated by SFMOMA and reflecting the diversity of work created by Bay Area artists. A space of reflection for the Washington High School murals would offer dynamic and ongoing media exhibits to reflect the complex cultural fabric of the regions Native and African American communities.
Portions of the mural would be brought to life through projected video which would be illuminated within the mural itself.
There could be a number of looped video vignettes corresponding with the major scenes of the murals. Viewers would be oriented around the physical space, via visual and spoken cues in order to have a deeper and more meaningful conversation between historic and contemporary issues.
Much like Lisa Reihana's epic work In Pursuit of Venus currently on display at the De Young Museum, such an artwork, through video and sound could reverse the colonial narrative juxtaposing historic or contemporary native figures in conversation with the Life of Washington Murals.
Digital Augmented Lenses could be situated within the lobby allowing viewers to interact with the murals by directing the digital viewfinder at specific areas of the mural to learn more about the murals. Within the viewfinder screen users could view an augmented version of the murals that update the murals. For example the mural could be animated with contemporary and historic role models and figures that are represented in place of the depicted figures. When the viewer points their viewfinder at the mural, it could reveal both visuals and words and audio that are uplifting and affirming.Augmented Text Working Proof of Concept Phone App Augmented & Animated Working Proof of Concept Phone App
A series of scrims could be mounted from the ceiling to create an affirming counter narrative to the Life of Washington Murals. This would be a relatively inexpensive and permanent powerful visuals that would include empowered histories of Indigenous and Enslaved African Americans. For example scrims could be hung adjacent to the controversial mural showing enslaved African Americans, and would display images of African heroes such as Frederick Douglas, Mary Ellen Pleasant and Sojourner Truth. As the viewer moves through the space, the lenticular material would reveal different African American heroes. An example of this approach can be found at the Presidio Officers Club Mesa Room which permanently foregrounds Ohlone heritage presented as a visual scrim in front of historic adobe walls.
Unobtrusive interpretive signage could be situated in front of the murals. The panels would provide interpretive text in order to give contemporary viewers a framework for re-interpreting elements of the mural through contemporary understanding. Both textual and graphic information would provide context to the murals and could be augmented by an audio guide which visitors could listen to via phone stations. For example, a native american might share how her ancestors traditional lifeways were destroyed by colonialism which is not illustrated within the murals.
A number of examples of this approach can be found at the Presidio Heritage Gallery in San Francisco.
A transparent screen could be situated a couple of feet in front of the murals that would be engraved with interpretive text in order to give contemporary viewers a framework for re-interpreting elements of the mural through a contemporary understanding. For example, addressing the controversial dead Native American, text could be overlayed parallel to the image such as, "The depiction of a dead warrior is a commentary on the settlement of the west by the pioneers without regard for indigenous life. Westward expansion by Europeans meant the loss of native life, traditions and homelands".
A successful example of this approach is at the Museum of Natural History in New York, which preemptively amended a diorama by placing a screen in front which would allow viewers to reconsider a scene representing colonial history.
San Francisco's Board of Education has sadly not considered alternatives to concealing of the George Washington High School murals. My focus is on a civil approach to creating a discourse and acknowledgement of this troubling past by finding a dynamic, inclusive and empowering creative response.
In addition to interpretive screens I see affirming opportunities to animate and give context to the murals and I propose a feasible, dynamic and less costly solution to obscuring the murals; intepretive media art such as video and augmented media, presented - onto or in relation to the murals that will bring diverse perspectives without adversely affecting their historic fabric.
A new video artwork could be created just like, JR's animated video mural, The Chronicle's of San Francisco, currently on view at SFMOMA or the newly unveiled epic video mural at the De Young Museum "In Pursuit of Venus" , orchestrating 80 vignettes re-interpreting historical figures and bringing them to life through audio and movement by New Zealand-Maori artist, Lisa Reihana. Or indeed the work of Kryzsztof Wodiczko, animating historic monuments with the stories of communities who are disempowered by them.
An animated video mural could bring contemporary viewpoints and explore the important questions of Arnatauff's mural. Either a projected or augmented video could be a contemporary digital version existing in the same physical space, in conversation with the historical mural to create a vital dialogue in the present.
Figures within the murals could literally be animated with the faces and voices of present-day individuals and communities who are misrepresented, marginalised as well as overlooked by them. Or it could be animated with historic and contemporary role models, and vignettes in place of the depicted figures. Participants could hold uplifting or opposing messages, symbolic items, and voice their own stories in gesture and words. A student might simulate painting over or crossing out an offensive figure, or present uplifting messages that they wish to share with future students.
While we must continue to recognize the many great principles of enlightenment that our founders, like George Washington enshrined in the U.S. constitution of course we shouldn't ignore the darker side of U.S. history depicted within these murals - that our founders also subjugated and drove out Native Americans, settled and colonized their land on the backs of slave labor.
But today wouldn't it be more representative of San Francisco to swap the panels or white-wash paint for a projector, or other display that better defends our sacred progressive values of education, inclusivity and creativity?
Shouldn't we the mural advocates, philanthropists, innovators, artists, historians, educators, museum administrators, alumni and students stand up together to demonstrate a better way forward? Rather than silence another historic mural, we can use this opportunity, through art and media to create an open, dynamic and inter-generational, conversation between past and future and repurpose the mural itself to create a meaningful new interpretation.
STAND UP in the effort to defend, interpret and repurpose the murals!
Ben Wood is a San Francisco based artist devoted to exploring site-based history, and sharing history in public space through new media, video and projected art.
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