Building With Monument Lab: Possibilities in Place

My name is Jess Batychenko, and I am a fourth-year PhD in the English Department on the Rhetoric and Composition track. My academic interests come together at the intersections of literacy studies, education, urban studies, and geography. I am currently completing my comprehensive exams and my project considers an oral history project and how the “messiness” of local narratives offer a richer and more nuanced representation of communities than the public discourse surrounding urban renewal. I’m offering a reading of the oral histories as literacy narratives with an eye to oral histories as “poetry of the everyday” and exploring how the complexity of stories, the digressions, and the things that don’t fit neatly together into a fully comprehensible narrative can actually better help us to talk about place and teach about the problems within a place in a more well-rounded and equitable way.

For my Humanities Engage Summer Immersive Fellowship, I worked with Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based out of Philadelphia, PA (but currently expanding to other cities!). Monument Lab is committed to working with a variety of community partners – from educators and artists to activists and cultural institutions – to help facilitate participatory approaches to public engagement and public memory. Much of their work centers around conversations about public art and sites of public memory, informing the collections of cultural institutions, and supporting community-conscious art instillations.

My work this summer involved doing preliminary site research for two upcoming fall projects, one in collaboration with the city of Toronto and another with the Cleveland Museum of Art. Across both projects, I was able to draw on skills that I brought with me from my experience in graduate school. In Toronto, Monument Lab will be participating in Toronto’s ArtworxTO: Year of Public Art, a city-wide initiative focused on getting the public involved and interested in public art around the city. Monument Lab artists and facilitators will drive to different historic sites and monuments around the city in a “Monument Mobile,” initiating conversations about place, history, and power. The second project, in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art, will design and erect a monument in the city. Monument Lab’s first step for both of these projects was to gather as much information about the history of each city as possible, and my research provided the groundwork for these conversations to take place. My background working with non-mainstream resources and voices enabled me to gather a wider range of data that encompassed histories that are less visible to the public eye. I was able to dig into the history of each of these cities and provide Monument Lab teams with a more wide-reaching starting point from which to approach these initiatives, which will shape the projects as they move forward.

During my experience with Monument Lab, I worked as a member of their team, attending weekly meetings and project meetings. This immersive experience provided valuable insight into the day-to-day workings of a non-profit. Surprisingly, the workflow was not unsimilar to the experience of being in graduate school, with meetings structured around organizing and setting goals and then longer stretches of time spent working independently on projects.  My supervisor provided guidance throughout, but many of the day-to-day decisions were left up to my own judgement. I was also able to attend meetings between Monument Lab project leaders and cultural institutions, which gave me a window into how these collaborative projects are organized. The day-to-day workflow was interspersed with workshops by artists and think-tank meetings where I joined other fellows in brainstorming ways to revive or repurpose previous Monument Lab projects like this one. As someone considering work in non-profits or cultural institutions after graduation, this was valuable work experience that will make me a more competitive candidate for similar positions in the future.

I found the immersive experience incredibly valuable, and I believe this is something that departments should consider essential training for graduate students in the humanities. So much of our teaching and research is grounded in theory that has real-world applications, but this can be difficult to see when you are deep in the trenches of a graduate program. Immersive experiences help to put this theory into practice and bring into view the ways in which a humanities education can enact powerful change in the world.

My advice to other students pursuing an immersive experience: Find something that energizes you and pursue opportunities doing whatever that is. In graduate school, I often see non-academic pursuits framed as a drain on your time and energy, but in my experience, if you are working on something that you care about, the opposite is true.

Jess Batychenko
September 2021

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive Fellows and Curated Immersive Summer Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.