These Artist-Made Digital Monuments Center Black History and Culture
Leveraging the same augmented reality technology that powers Pokémon Go, the Kinfolk Foundation is championing artist-made monuments to Black history and culture by Derrick Adams, Hank Willis Thomas, Pamela Council, and Tourmaline.
Long before Facebook became Meta and the much-touted metaverse largely failed to live up to the hype sown around it, Pokémon Go took the nascent world of augmented reality (AR) by storm. From New Zealand to New York, youths and young adults were incentivized to get out and explore their surroundings and be more attuned to spatial nuances. Now, the nonprofit Kinfolk Foundation is leveraging Niantic Lightship—the same location tech powering Pokémon Go—to create the Signature Series, a group of digital monuments to Black culture and identity throughout New York by artists Derrick Adams, Hank Willis Thomas, Pamela Council, and Tourmaline.
Kinfolk has already begun making a mark on New York’s virtual landscape. As part of MoMA’s exploratory “Architecture Now: New York, New Publics” exhibition on the future of the city’s public architecture, its co-founders Glenn Cantave, Idris Brewster, and Micah Milner proposed replacing Columbus Circle’s monument of Christopher Columbus with a statue of abolitionist Haitian revolutionary General Toussaint Louverture. The proposal, which lives on as a rendering in the MoMA collection, was born out of a proposal to replace standing monuments to slaveholders and to contest other Eurocentric historical narratives in public architecture. Hundreds of such monuments are accessible from the Kinfolk app, but the new Signature Series marks the organization’s first set of artist commissions.
Starting today, users can download the Kinfolk app to discover each commission. Adams pays tribute to Green Book creators Alma and Victor Hugo Green, who created the segregation-era guidebook for Black travelers in New York City. Thomas has created a 50-foot-tall afro pick, a digitized version of his large-scale sculpture All Power to the People. Council, similarly, has digitized Fountains for Black Joy, A Fountain for Survivors, a pandemic-era sculpture made of 40,000 acrylic nails and installed in Times Square. Tourmaline’s Alien Superstar resurfaces the story of Mary Jones, one of the earliest recorded American trans women at the site of the SoHo brothel where she lived and worked in the early 19th century.
Surface spoke with Council and Tourmaline about their commissions and their contributions to New York’s historical canon.
Tourmaline, 39, New York City
How did you arrive at the decision to choose Mary Jones for your commission? Were you thinking about the juxtaposition between her story as a sex worker and SoHo’s current status as an outdoor luxury mall?
I first became interested in Mary Jones when I read the transcript of her court interview after she was arrested for stealing a client’s wallet. She was a Black trans sex worker and a domestic laborer working at the Greene Street brothel with, in her words, “girls of ill fame.” I made two films about her—Salacia and Mary of Ill Fame—and felt called to place her into the streets she moved through, a larger-than-life alien superstar in her own time.
In the 1830s, many buildings in SoHo were brothels and the owners made a lot of money off of them until SoHo became industrialized and the sex trade moved north to the Tenderloin and Times Square. Knowing about this augmented my reality there. I’d laugh to myself thinking about all the sex happening in what’s now Balenciaga or the Apple Store. Outlaw and wayward spaces were ones in which Black queer and trans life could be made, so I feel called to them and their unfolding. That life, in tangible ways, paved the road for what’s possible now.
The AR creation of Mary Jones, located at at 108 Greene Street, then a brothel where she lived with other girls of “ill fame,” serves not merely as a homage to a figure I’ve long admired, but as a time-bending portal inviting the viewer into the transformative energy of our ancestors who are still here. Like a tuning fork, this AR creation and by extension Mary Jones in her immaterial form can help us tap into the powerful frequency of self-actualization that she radiated and continues to fill the streets of SoHo.
What’s the significance of Mary Jones’ styling? What is she wearing and holding?
Mary Jones had amazing style. She’s wearing the dress she wore to her court case in the 1830s and holds a wallet and sunflower. For the monument, I drew from the lithograph made of her in the 1830s that includes her holding a wallet, in reference to her being accused of stealing—, a charge often leveled against sex workers. The sunflower is a symbol of her radiance. In the midst of such bleak conditions, she shined brightly so bright that hundreds of years later we are still saying her name! To touch it off, she wears a light red rouge on her lips that form not quite a smile but give the impression of confidence and deep knowing.
During her case, Mary Jones said the girls she lived with at 108 Greene Street “induced me to dress in women’s clothes, saying I looked so much better in them.” I love the idea of Mary’s friends reflecting back her beauty and Mary knowing it enough to go out dressed in all her splendor. I love that the people who walked around SoHo were blessed enough to see her show up and serve abundant possibilities.
Pamela Council, 36, New York City
Fountains for Black Joy, A Fountain for Survivors is your first digital public artwork. Can you talk about the support you received to execute this work in a new medium?
A Fountain for Survivors was initiated as a temporary, site-specific artwork, with its first installation and activation being in Times Square in 2021. Since then, it has sparked widespread conversations in the art and cultural placemaking industries, as well as survivor and healing communities about caretaking, legacy, and the rivulets of support for critical monumental works.
With Kinfolk, I learned about the structure and edges of AR. We were both interested in exploring the archival potential of the medium , and together we considered recreating the original artwork. Through our iterative process, we found the medium could create a new work that presented more of the conceptual foundation of the larger fountain project.
This is one of our newest parks, built on land that was part of an earlier expansion of Manhattan, created through land reclamation. When we think about survivors, the evolution of the population, terrain, and ecology of the city are essential considerations. When we decided to highlight the architectural framework and linear scallop pattern of A Fountain for Survivors, I realized this was a similar gesture to David Hammons’ Day’s End, which traces the edges of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End. By situating this monument here, I’m pointing to the lines, to the linear frameworks—of survival, art, monumentality, and the building of public spaces.