It’s Juneteenth and at Facility, Bob Faust and Nick Cave’s art lab and studio space in Chicago, the installation of the first component of their latest community-based project, “Amends,” is underway. For it, the artists have invited friends and colleagues to hand-write personal testimonials on the gallery windows, to reflect honestly on aspects of themselves that have contributed to holding our society back from equality.
The result, “Letters to the World Toward the Eradication of Racism,” ranges from inspirational mantras — Margaret Mead’s quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” is printed in large caps across the storefront — to gut-wrenching personal confessions. “I was raised as a white supremacist,” begins a letter by Michael Workman, an artist. There are admissions of complicity and silent acquiescence, regrets for words used and not used, apologies for taking easy paths or for acting out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Most of all, there are acknowledgments of vast unearned, unquestioned privilege and commitments to do better.
“George Floyd was another tipping point for me,” says Cave, for whom the beating of Rodney King nearly three decades ago was a watershed moment in his career, leading him to create his Soundsuits, ornate, full-body assemblages designed to rattle and resonate with their wearer. In a profile of the artist last fall, I described them as a “kind of race-, class- and gender-obscuring armature, one that’s both insulating and isolating, an articulation of his profound sense of vulnerability as a Black man.” This year, the killing of Floyd, along with the fatal shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, have led all of us to wonder how much, if anything, has changed. “It made me question my own practice,” Cave says. “Is my work purposeful enough? Why does this keep happening? How can I do more? I’ve been working against this problem and for this issue my entire career and am more committed to it than ever. We all need to be talking about it. ‘Amends’ is one way I can ask all to contribute and to keep the conversations and momentum of right now.”
We have seen things we can never unsee; the frustration and fury that have compelled Americans to take to the streets in protest have led to reckonings at all levels and in all forms. We are, as a culture, in a process of self-scrutiny. For some, this means volunteering for progressive political candidates or raising awareness of any number of entrenched racist structures, including a for-profit carceral system, defunded public schools and gerrymandered voting districts. For others, it means taking the time to explain the history of redlining to our kids or committing to diverse hiring practices. Cave and Faust, his partner in work and life, not only want these reckonings to continue, they want them to go deeper. And for white Americans who are still asking, “Where do I even begin?” their answer is: Take a look in the mirror.
A mixed-race couple (Cave is Black, Faust is white) whose collaborations have long sought to bring people together to address social concerns, the artists have never flinched from leading tough conversations about race and responsibility; their work showcases the potential power of community-engaged art in a highly individualistic, capitalist society. As Faust explains it, the origins of “Amends” came out of a talk they had after he returned from a march with his teenage daughter. Cave said to them, “If you want to march about it, you have to talk about it,” words that are now displayed prominently on the gallery windows.
Public art has already been powerfully felt as of late. From the spectacular murals of Floyd that have cropped up in cities across the country to the artist Jammie Holmes’s use of airplane banners bearing Floyd’s last words, and from screenings of Arthur Jafa’s landmark film “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” (2016) to the celebrations of Black creativity flooding social media, the importance of art in our current civil rights movement is unquestionable. But how can Black artists, inevitably tasked with putting words and images to American brutality and injustice, reposition the burden to end racism by placing it where it should be — on white individuals? How to convert empathy to action, or frustration, righteousness and grief into something enduring?
“We’re asking people to be vulnerable, and that’s a big ask,” says Faust. “To actually confront yourself, and then have to write it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it until it gets to a point that you’re actually raw and not just writing what you think you’re supposed to say.” Making amends won’t end with this project or in November, with the election, he points out; it is an ongoing process of rectifying wrongs. “Hopefully, with the commitment of real feelings to these things in a public way, we can take some of that anxiety away from an individual to do it. Because I think that’s what we all need to know — that we’re all guilty.”
During the second phase of the project, “Amends: Community Clothesline,” which begins next Thursday, anyone can stop by and write on yellow ribbons and tie them to a clothesline on the schoolyard across the street in a show of solidarity and commitment to change. But it’s perhaps the project’s final component, which asks for global participation in the form of a hashtag, #AMENDS, that is the most ambitious. “It is not a call out, but rather a call to action through acknowledgment and subsequent change in each of us,” the artists explain on their website. Everyone is invited to use the hashtag to acknowledge their own role in the common project. Taking responsibility, Cave and Faust remind us, isn’t just a matter of public performance but a necessary step in order for hearts and minds to move toward reconciliation. “At least for me,” explains Faust, “the moment you write something down it takes a different position in the body. Right?”