Born From A City On Fire: What Reclaim The Monuments Has Created Since The Summer Of 2020

by | Jul 20, 2023 | ART, POLITICS

In this in-depth discussion conducted by filmmaker and educator Todd Raviotta for RVA Magazine, Alec Cirqui, one of the minds behind Reclaiming the Monument, sheds light on the transformative power of art and the pursuit of social justice. Born in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Reclaiming the Monument was created by collaborators Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui as a projection-based protest art project used to address the deeply rooted issues of inequality and historical memory within Richmond, Virginia and beyond.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui projecting at There All Along Downtown Richmond (5/22/22)

Todd Raviotta: Last summer, one of the greatest things I did was work with you on Reflections, the Belle Isle Project. Working on a projection animation in collaboration to explore this together felt great. I learned so much that was unexpected, to kind of peel back layers of history.

Was there anything that surprised you for what you learned the most about either our city or about our country or about the people of the planet through your part in all of this? Was there one thing that you were like, “that was surprising”?

Alex Cirqui: The thing that I really took away from this last year, that I didn’t really properly grasp going into it, was just how much there’s this really rich history of resistance in Richmond that ties in deeply to the struggles that we’ve gone through recently as a city and the struggles that we’re trying to address through our projects in pushing back against white supremacy and white supremacist narratives.

It’s interesting how that arc is present from the very beginning of the story of this place since colonization began, all the way up to the present. Looking at something like the Sacred Ground Project and the work they’ve done to try to preserve the history of Shockoe Bottom, the work they’re doing to raise awareness and literally fighting for their place in this land, you can see the connection to that from the earliest days of this city.

I think that’s sort of been the big thing for me in terms of, “oh, wow, like there’s a legacy here” that the people have been resisting this thing and working against this thing, whether it’s literally rebelling or the indigenous people maintaining their sovereignty, carrying out their treaty obligations as this dutiful thing they’ve done for over 200 some years of like, “no, we’re keeping our end of the deal. You have to keep yours.”

There’s a continuity to the city of Richmond that there’s always been resistance. There’s always been this subculture pushing back. There’s always been these hidden stories. On a smaller level, especially with the first project we did, There All Along, at the White House of the Confederacy, learning about the lives of these free and enslaved individuals who labored in that space in depth and then finding out that William A. Jackson or James Jones, they weren’t minor characters in history. They were people who most people had never heard anything about before unless they were working basically at the museum, but these people were in newspapers all over the country in their day. They helped write state constitutions. They helped influence the course of the war through the intelligence they gave.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
There All Along projection installation downtown Richmond (5/22/22)

Seeing how these extraordinary lives are hidden beneath the surface, if you look hard enough and peel back the layers, the information’s there. It’s an amazing thing. Just thinking about all the lives of consequence who we don’t know about, who there aren’t records of, who helped shape history in our city, through small acts or large acts, how there’s this whole other legacy to explore that we’re just cracking the surface of.

And if you look at the JXN Project, with what they’ve done with Jackson Ward and looking into some of these legacies of just one neighborhood and making people aware through changing street names and through the JXN HAUS, there’s so much there that we can keep exploring and dive into to reclaim our history as a city and our identity, knowing that there’s an equally rich story to be told beyond the dominant narratives.

TR: In bringing up Richmond as a place and as a space, is there something very unique about Richmond that it might not be a kickoff point? There’s something about it being one of the first places that is this story of “The New World” picking up with what preceded it, but that it might also be a launching point for a greater introspection of the country following that lead?

AC: I think absolutely. If you look at the history of Richmond, and really just Virginia itself, it really precipitates a lot of the things that become larger national issues and larger national problems down the road that kind of define American history. When you look at something like the Virginia Company as one of the first joint stock companies and Virginia as a colony, as a capitalistic venture, a lot of those legacies converge here and are born here and spread across the country as it grows. If you look at our legal system, the creation of legally defined race and whiteness in America, that all starts in Virginia with Colonial Slave Laws, even the legal precedents for Police Violence start here through something like the Casual Killing Act of 1669. Virginia is the progenitor of those legacies of systemic racism that we are still grappling with. Massive Resistance in the 1960s and the Jim Crow system of the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Lost Cause mythos, all of that comes from here and they go on to have a devastating effect on the rest of the country. So it’s like in order to heal, you kind of have to look at the wound and that can only be done through looking at our story and untangling that story and telling the full spectrum of the truth instead of this mythology we all have been brought up with, and to me that is a healing act. If this place is intrinsically built into America’s foundation, then we have to kind of start here to bind up that wound.

TR: Another knowledge point looking back to Belle Isle research was seeing continuity to the same misinformation on the printing press or in disentangling mythos. When you’re a kid and you learn about a General in the Civil War, but you don’t really know the know, and what was cherry-picked to tell their myth story. In the Age of Superheroes, this all becomes even more clear, continuity of how these stories are spun.

When at the former White House of the Confederacy projection, at the panel talk before the light-up, it was mind-blowing, the dots of history being connected. A remark was made that in the horse carriage garage building behind where the speakers were, was where that initial propaganda for the Lost Cause ideology was made. Finding that out, I was kind of shattered and sat in a space going, “wow,” you rewind, you think about the people that are in that space, and they’re plotting and scheming, making stuff that obviously echoes reverberates beyond today. But if you don’t know that, that’s where that was, then you can’t think about those aftershocks where it started.

Is there a through line starting with the downtown White House of the Confederacy projection through to Libbie Hill? Was there something that you saw one built on the next? Was there something you unpacked and learned that impacted the next installation?

AC: Each installation was really different. We were working with different groups of people, and each one of these projects was a huge undertaking for us. Every day you’re trying to make this seed of an idea into something real. Organizing events, working with your partners, doing your own research, and then working with artists to create this thing. There’s a lot of process involved in it.

There wasn’t specifically laid out like “this leads to that that leads to that,” it all just came together. What was immediate was our partnerships, but some plans we had at the beginning of the year weren’t able to be realized. They became something that evolved into ultimately, I think, something better. I feel proud and happy with how everything turned out. But, our plan to begin the year and our plans at the end of the year and how things worked out are pretty radically different.

The first project at the former White House of the Confederacy, that was the one that kind of ended up closest to what we initially thought it was going to be because we had a really solid partnership with the American Civil War Museum and with [painter] Miguel Carter-Fisher. We knew we had a clear vision and we knew how that was going to shake out.

I think the through line for me is learning to trust the collaborative process because I knew as someone who is creative and how I usually function, I get this brain download from wherever, the cosmos, and have this solidified this like a platonic ideal of the perfect thing this should be. And then, as an artist, as a creator, you really want to cling to that, but then realizing that through the collaborative process, through working with historians and activists and different community members and artists, you’re going to always find something that’s better than the imagined, perfect ideal thing that’s not really real. If you trust the process, if you trust the people you’re working with, you will not only ultimately get there, but you’ll get to something that you could never get to on your own from the seed of an idea.

That was really inspiring for me, letting go of that preciousness of an idea or a project. What we’re doing as a team is platforming, and we’re trusting our partners to use their voices and their skills and talents to get to something that feels real to them. The resonance of that, it feels real to everyone else when they encounter it.

I think that was the main thing for me, beyond just the truth-telling. Seeing how a collaborative process, a community-based process, a dialogue-based process can work when making public art. Working with people and giving them these opportunities, you’ll get to something that’s really true if you kind of focus on that being the intent and everyone can get behind it. You can get to something that feels really honest and pure.

I think Belle Isle was so great because it was this really beautiful gathering of the community. We had plans for that project to be a different thing initially. We had some hiccups and we had some partnerships fall through, and then we ended up finding a really beautiful middle ground to work with a lot of people and create a sort of energy that I think a lot of us have been missing since 2020. Creating a place where we could bring the community together without corporate sponsorships and without a lot of oversight or heavy-handed involvement from the city or officials.

TR: It’s like you got points of view in a sphere or some other geometric form. That really opens up with community participation and gathering because every person in a community is going to have a different perspective, and that creates a better dimensional understanding. When looking at a city and its history, a land and its history and time, we weren’t present for most of the earth’s existence. Learning about other pinpoints just creates a better understanding. Is there anything you can share about how different monuments were identified as potential pinpoints to bring others in on and create the canvas and create space?

AC: I have studied history for a long time, and particularly the history of Richmond and our region. So starting this project, I had a general outline, I knew some historically resonant sites, and I knew where important work was being done and where some stories were to be told hadn’t fully been told, or at least engaged with by the public at large. From the beginning of this project, once we started building with the Mellon Foundation, it was extremely gracious, kind, and generous in helping us find the path forward. When they first announced the Monuments Fund, they mentioned our work in several national publications. We saw there’s an opportunity here. What exactly that opportunity was, we weren’t entirely sure. Some of our original ideas were way too ambitious or too loose.

We worked with them for about a year, almost a year and a half building, from the fall of 2020. Then we got the grant at the end of 2021. We worked with them through this great process of going back and forth, talking, giving them iterations of the proposal and building the teams we’ll be working with through that year and a half. From the beginning, we had the seed of an idea and through talking it through with them, we found this refined model and these partnerships that we could pursue. Working with Ana Edwards [American Civil War Museum, Education Programs Manager, Sacred Ground Project, Director], we made plans to work with Ana at the beginning of 2021 and that evolved into something that was really a big part of this project and a really great person to have guiding us because she has so much experience and knowledge, not only in activism but public history, and she helped us shape the vision and scope of what we could do.

When we first started the There All Along [the hidden Black lives inside the White House of the Confederacy], I knew about Mary Jane Richards. I didn’t know about the other individuals who we ended up talking about. You start with the seed of an idea, start with general themes and areas like with the White House of the Confederacy, you have this really prominent historical building that a lot of people, including myself, didn’t really want to go to because for a long time it was sort of this shrine to the Lost Cause. It was the Museum of the Confederacy for a long time. A lot of people didn’t feel welcome there. It’s still a potent symbol for some people in the world for that ideology of white supremacy. And so now there is a natural resonance there where we can in the same way I felt like as a community, through our work and through other people’s work, that we took the power off of the Lee Monument, kind of sucked out that negative energy to the point where it didn’t mean the same thing by the time it came down it was no longer oppressing anyone in the same way it had before. It had become a place that some people saw as a place of Liberation. It was through that project that we thought maybe we can help suck some of that energy out of the former White House of the Confederacy site. Help tell these other stories that we know are there and sort of through this metaphysical process of art, creation, collaboration, and community, we can transform what it means, to transform what people understand it as.

TR: It’s not erasing the thing, it’s showing it for what it is. Was there a personal moment that was a spark when you became interested in this history? Even before these projects, as a child or young person, like was there a moment of “I want to know more” or “I want to get into real history,” was there something that was that inciting moment for you?

AC: I’ve always really been attracted to history in a sense that it’s not just great stories, it’s great stories that have consequences for why the world is the way it is. I remember having a conversation with someone when going to college for history and was talking to a friend who was in computer science or something. They asked, “Why are you studying history?” I was like, “Well, you can use context.” and they laughed it off, I was like, “Why does he think that’s funny?” I think a lot of people don’t understand that studying history, it’s not just this thing that happened, it’s “what’s the fundamental nature of human nature?” “What does it mean to be a human being?” “What does it mean to exist in society?” “Why are we dealing with the world we’re living in this way?” Understanding those legacies is a reason why a lot of lawyers come out of history studies. It’s because it’s the structural makeup of society. It’s why we speak English. It’s why we follow these laws. It’s why certain things are illegal.

Since I was a little kid, the thing that I think inspires me the most about American history is sort of the contrast between the notions of freedom and liberty and inherent issues of injustice that’s right next to it. Living in a place like Richmond that has this depth of history and has this really traumatic period of time that didn’t really end but has something of the conflagration of the Civil War happening here the place where I walk around every day, there’s something about that crucible of like, “what will America be?” “Will America be a place that lives up to its ideals?” All of America is a place that embraces oppression. It’s not like those two things separated or ended, but at least on the central issue of slavery, that inherent contradiction that was had out here.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
Computer and projections of Robert Brown, Downtown Richmond  There All Along (5/22/22)

The more I studied the Civil War in college, the more I studied the post-Reconstruction era, the Jim Crow era, so much of it converges back on this place where we live. If you look at the defining landmark case of the eugenics movement, Buck vs Bell that happened in Virginia, that happened in Richmond. There’s the Virginia Board of Vital Statistics, a man named Walter Plecker who in a lot of ways was the architect for institutionalized eugenics, institutionalized on-paper racism that influenced the Holocaust, the creation of a legal framework for where you can not only institutionalize someone but you can sterilize them. That was literally the groundwork that Hitler and the Nazis used. So that’s the model. It happened about 20, 30 years before all that stuff happened in Europe. Much of the world’s issues converge in this place. I think something about that resonance kind of resonated with me. I’ve been pretty intensely into this stuff for 10 or 15 years now. I learn more every time I go back and go a little deeper. A deeper understanding of what a tangled web there is and in how much the past isn’t just the past, it’s the present.

We’ve seen in the last three years we’re still dealing with issues that are 160 years old, 200 years old, 400 years old. And if telling the truth about history wasn’t a powerful thing, you wouldn’t have people trying to ban Critical Race Theory. People wouldn’t be passing legislation to stop you from learning the truth. The more you learn, the deeper you go, the deeper understanding you have of the world. So for me, it’s really I want to understand my society, and I want to learn from people who’ve resisted and helped make the world a better place. And a lot of times, as Barack Obama is fond of saying, “it’s two steps forward, one step back.”

TR: Going off of the quote from Obama, the idea where life is a dance. It’s all a balancing act and micro balancing like Yoga, you have to move an ounce of pressure to your left metatarsal you’ve got to lift your arm. And it’s never something that is just static. You’ve got to keep making micro adjustments. You have to keep moving to keep balance. And sometimes it’s gross adjustments and sometimes it’s minor, but it is a constant thing. Whether it’s Obama or Alan Watts or some other philosopher talking about you’ve got to keep moving, you’ve got to dance with life that you’re given because if not, you’re going to get pushed over, break, or fall.

To the different moments of what you spoke to earlier, working with collaborators, working with partners, doing each event its own mini production, when it was happening, the re-contextual moment was there something from when the public was involved that stood out to you or specifically memorable on the nights that the actions were happening?

AC: There’s a lot of little moments. The last project we did, Libbie Hill, was really great because we got to have it there for about a month, for all of Indigenous History Month, Indigenous Heritage Month, it’s got multiple competing names depending on who’s putting it out there. But having that especially during November and Thanksgiving 2022, when we have this really sanitized, absurd children’s tale version of colonization, or we celebrate that we were “welcomed” into this country, by people that we then genocide. Having that project get to exist not just for a weekend or three days of super labor-intensive production in terms of being there the whole time. But having this piece of public art that really existed in sort of a monumental way in public, when we were there, when we were not there. We’d go up there to check on the sign and make sure it’s working right, turn it on.

Every time we were up there, people were learning. People were reading the sign, people were talking to each other. You’d see neighbors talking to neighbors. I remember seeing this one guy reading the informational signage to an older woman who couldn’t read it. Seeing people learning and interacting with it, seeing the power of what a work of public art can do to inspire people or what a work in public can do to educate people. There’s so much you can say with art. There’s a lot of things you can’t say with art and with public art, a lot of times you need to say it concisely. And that’s why we deal with these myths and archetypes. It’s an easy way to weave a story around it.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
Informational sign at the Libbie Hill TSENACOMMACAH installation (11/12/22)

Art can help find kind of an emotional center point to communicate with people and say a lot in ways that are subconscious. With the Tsenacommacah sign, not only where there are these beautiful representations of the flora and fauna of our region and representations of the indigenous way of life that has been supplanted here. But also, there is the representation of their larger spiritual ethos and worldview through the way the artists utilize the elements and be able to communicate all that stuff in a subconscious way, people are learning things that they didn’t really realize they were learning. That was really powerful to see, how art can be a communicator to people and how it can really touch people’s souls.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
TSENACOMMACAH sign Libbie Hill RIchmond 11/12/22)

When you do these things you don’t know how it’s going to be received. It’s been great to see every project was received well and people were moved by it. Seeing people get emotional and learn, that was powerful. Working with our partners, especially at the former White House of the Confederacy and Libbie Hill and the African Burial Ground. Those three projects were really powerful because they were really acts of reclamation, giving voice to people who haven’t always been given voices in these spaces. Especially with the African Burial Ground, the Virginia Defenders and Sacred Ground have been doing work there for 20 years, so creating an art installation with them helped to bring more people in to hear their voices and seeing the way public art can help engage people was really inspirational.

TR: For each of those spaces, going back to the Lee Circle, what became Marcus-David Peters Circle, all of these different spaces are places that I took for granted for long periods of my time in Richmond. With the workshopping you did to work out what became the starting points that became something organic on its own. Was there inspiration? An artistic, historic framework where you’re like, “That’s good work.” “Let’s pick up the torch and keep carrying it forward”? Was there any past movement or artist that did inspire some of what your project has become?

AC: To a degree, the artist who has probably shaped my thinking a lot about how I’ve tried to do this is honestly Yoko Ono. She has really been a big inspiration for me. I admire the way Yoko Ono uses language and kind of gets big messages out in a concise way. And how Yoko Ono has used place and light. A lot of this project was really process-based. It wasn’t so much like, “Oh, I’m inspired by this one person and we’re going to try and do this sort of work.” But it was trying to play with the mediums of public art, the language of public art.

We explored a pretty wide variety of genres, starting with Miguel, who has a really beautiful, incredibly disciplined craftsmanship nature down towards how he approaches oil painting and going with this traditional classical way that we’ve presented historical figures and having him create this really beautiful vision in collaboration with the historians we were working with. They operated within that neoclassical language of monuments that we often see.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
Historic Burial Ground Raising Shockoe Creek light installation (10/7/22)

By the time we got to the African Burial Ground Project, doing something a little bit more modern, something that’s a little bit abstract, more contemporary light-based, using the space, not being as literal. Then on Libbie Hill, where we’re using something like public signage. We’re doing something you can see that sort of thing anywhere, like the Richmond sign off of 95, placemaking, or the LOVE signs that are all over Virginia. Using that medium to communicate to people. Just in explaining Belle Isle, I’ll be like, “This is an experience. This is something where there’s going to be art, there’s going to be light, there’s going to be music, there’s going to be crafts, there’s going to be activities.” Something to come experience and to just be together. Exploring the wide variety of possibilities was really the main goal. The challenge of this stuff is trying to find how you can say a lot without saying too much, which is where the Yoko Ono influence has stuck in my mind, a lot of her work is really subtle, it’s powerful and carries big messages, inspiring human messages to try to touch that Universal Humanity and connect people with other people’s humanity.

One thing that was really great about the White House of the Confederacy project was we were able to find photographs of these people and to take an old 19th-century photograph upscaled through A.I. to bring out more detail, take out some of the blurry areas, take out some of the graininess and really present these people’s faces in a powerful way. There’s something about connecting with another human being’s face, looking in their eyes, recognizing their humanity, being able to stare into someone else’s face from 160 years ago who was at the place. The goal is always to connect people with the human stories that we’re addressing because ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about history. We’re talking about human beings who are just like you or I or anyone else who lived with fear, doubt, pain, who struggled, who had issues, who had joy, who had family, who had children, who had love, who were just doing their best to get by. It is embracing that full spectrum. That’s really the goal.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
Raising Shockoe Creek, Historic Burial Ground light installation (10/7/22)

TR: For each of the different events I was able to attend, there were so many takeaways, learning something new about a person, a place, an institution, there were even times either meeting a new person that would become a future friend or an old friend that I hadn’t seen in a while that through chance I crossed paths with at this event. There are shared notes, for a place like Belle Isle that one might have a lot of different memories. Now it’s been crushed through a new lens of this new experience that changes all the old experiences. All those things are priceless and valuable because I know more now. 

My human experience has new experiences, like moving from the Valentine Museum to right outside of the Former White House of the Confederacy and being in between a VCU health center ambulance pathway. It’s a big “Wow, what a big city, all this history with the modernness.” That night, I was talking to an old friend, a historian who is working at the Maggie Walker House, telling me history compounded with history, you are exploring, people’s homes and places where people were born or worked. It’s like an accordion. It’s going to open and close, time and history aren’t going to stay static. You’re going to be like, “I’m really close.” And then, “I’m so far away.” Depending on perspective, you’re going to see how you’re closer or further. Through the different projects, the different installations, was there a moment of any of those that you could say, something that was, “Oh, my gosh, I’m really far away from that moment in time” or a moment where you’re like, “Oh, my God, I’m really right on top of that moment from the past” by being in the present?

AC: I tend to think of time on a cosmic scale. 200 years ago it’s not that long ago, 400 years ago, really in terms of time, it is not that long ago. The world has changed a lot, but we’re still dealing with the consequences of something that was written on a piece of parchment, in the 13th century. Through the former White House of the Confederacy Project, we learned a lot about these individuals and the communities they were living in while they were working and enslaved in that space. 

To connect it to Maggie Walker and the JXN Project, these people were living in the precursor to Jackson Ward. They were living in free and enslaved black communities on the Northeast end of Richmond. And how that legacy goes back to the very beginning of Richmond and is still sort of the defining Black neighborhood of the city and how that legacy they were living under converged into something like Interstate 95 and the destruction of that neighborhood. 

Then also looking at our partnership with the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, how they’re part of a history that goes back like 11,000 years. There’s archaeological evidence on the lands, on their reservation that goes back to when people were hunting wooly mammoths. That’s their history in that spot and how they signed a treaty in the 1600s that they’re still trying to uphold today, this safe haven from this encroaching and increasingly violent expansionist white settlers state. It’s the last refuge of their culture and their people and it’s now under threat from climate change.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
TSENACOMMACAH sign Libbie Hill RIchmond 11/12/22)

History is not just the past. History is the present. It’s legacies that we’re all still dealing with. We as a community never talk about the indigenous people of Virginia. The only time they’re given any lip service is when they go do the ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion, yet they’re the first people who were colonized by the English in this country, but we ignore this incredible ongoing story that we’re not talking about and instead, we’re told this Pocahontas myth. But when you look into the Pocahontas story, she was captured, taken, she was held hostage, she was paraded up and down the rivers while they burned native villages. She was forcibly converted to Christianity and married to a man and then was shipped overseas against her will as sort of this token prize to be paraded around the English court and died of disease. There’s this part of her story where she’s in England and she sees John Smith again and goes to John Smith’s house. She says to him, “You’ve been a friend to me, you were kind to me. But the people you’re with, these people, they’re liars.”

And so seeing the myth, the Disneyfication of that story that most of the world knows, even something like, who’s the director of The New World?

TR: Terrence Malick.

AC: Malick. Seeing that even something that’s supposed to be a little bit more real, the mythos of that, the unwillingness to look at the truth of her story, how we’ve taken this person who was a victim and turned her into this “Noble Princess who helped make America.”

TR: The more stories are told, the more sides of the stories are told, the more time compresses again to see clearer, you see more of what reality is today by understanding it is a direct connection to what happened then or the yarn spun around that. Webs are both supporting, nets can be a safety net and can catch you when you’re falling and hold you up. But then they can also be confining and can catch you and hold you captive. We’re talking past tense to the work of 2022 and the connection to years of research before and the instigating birth of these projects. While you might not be able to say anything concrete or specific, are there projects that you’re in a nurturing stage to look ahead to?

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
We are Gabriel projection Historic Burial Ground projection (10/7/22)

AC: Our big thing right now is trying to start a nonprofit. That’s the big ambition because we weren’t sure when we set out last year, “Is this just going to be a year?” “Is this going to be kind of the completion of our work?” and we would be done and not want to do anymore. Would we be so burnt out? But the last year has been so meaningful and inspiring and we’ve been able to see the potential of being in a position to platform artists and platform activists and historians. Working in partnership, using public art, and light-based art as a medium for communication that we want to continue to pursue. We want to explore different areas. I know climate change is something we’ve been talking a lot about, using this communicative method, not just to speak to the past but speak to the present and the potential future. That’s something we really are interested in.

We’ve got several projects that have carried over from last year. We gave out grants to artists, we partnered with Mending Walls, and we funded the completion of a film by local filmmaker and artist Aria Swarr, who documented a lot of what happened in Richmond in 2020 and got some really phenomenal footage. We’re using our project management experience, our knowledge, and funds we’ve been able to get through the attention our work has received to help platform other artists to make works of public art. We stumbled into making public art, at least on this scale, this subject matter, and attention. We went and did something; we had this opportunity. It’s not something that is readily available to most people. It’s not something that there is this clear entryway to making even temporary works of public art. 

So trying to make sure there’s a community-based public art process happening in Richmond, that’s really our big desire because as much progress has been made, there’s a lot of the same old systems in place, there’s a lot of the same old bureaucracies and political maneuvering to try and use this medium to push some kind of agenda or to posture for politicians.

Interview by Todd Raviotta with Alex Criqui of Reclaiming The Monument
Projecting at MDP/Lee Circle Richmond (6/21/20) 

What happened in Richmond 2020 was the collective will of our city. A bunch of like-minded people got together and got the world’s attention. We were just a really highly visible part of that. We want to help continue that process and help make sure that there will still be opportunities, a different way for people who might not be at the top of someone’s list to make something and to speak to the public and hopefully continue to build an audience where people in our city and around our region would come to check out what these people have to say.

TR: Like you were talking about earlier with lawyers, historians, and politicians, that affects medicine and that affects civic planning, and that affects education. When you have everybody in their disciplines separate, you don’t have a real social fabric that overlaps and is intertwined. Everybody’s working on their own. We were talking about your tech friend who asked, “Why the history?” It’s that thing of it all matters and it all needs to have acknowledged attention. Community art to me seems like an antidote to competition art, where there’s only going to be one award given, there’s only going to be one best. There is a great need for, and that’s the art of a producer knowing how to thread things together and keep it connected and tighten the loops in a way that makes introductions. There’s something valuable to anyone that can see the importance of community and community-based art.

Where’s the best place to keep up with both publishing of past stories, the documentary artifacts, or new information for what is to come?

AC: Our websites have some info on the last year: and, particularly if you want to learn more about stories of the individuals who were projected on the former White House of the Confederacy. We’ve got full biographies of each of the people we covered. They’re not as long as they could be. We’re hoping to expand on that and to get that to be a sustainable resource that people can use for education down the road. In terms of 2023, trying to get the word out as best we can on the usual channels on Twitter or Instagram.

Here are the links to our social media accounts:


TR: When all art is commercialized you’re not getting the true artist statement or voice or a collective cultural statement because it’s to sell something else. That’s where community art can be that antidote. It takes support and it takes visionaries to connect those threads. That’s why I love art curators, they create a dialogue between works, between time, place, space, and theme, so that the viewer, whatever realm they walk in, creates more conversation, more understanding.

We didn’t get to talk about some of the offshoot pieces. But in closing, were there any spin-off project pieces, whether it’s the Cathedral in D.C., that you’d like to share about how that is part of this?

AC: The Washington DC projection was really powerful to work on something that is so iconic as the Washington National Cathedral. It’s not only a national place but it’s a spiritual place. Stephanie Merlo, our team member, has this really amazing family history that connects to Juneteenth, which is a lot of why we thought we could even do that project in the first place.

It came up and at first we were thinking, “we’re not sure if this is right.” Then we started talking to Stephanie about it, and she was like, “Oh, by the way, my great great great great grandfather helped found Juneteenth.” And so she went down to Texas to do some research and really help bring this great story of the South Texas tradition of Juneteenth, how it began and what it represents, and some central elements to it that inspired and shaped the artwork.

It was really cool to combine the secular and the theological together. It’s something that means a lot to a lot of people in Washington, DC, and around the world and around the nation. So it was really cool to do something at a place that has a big meaning and platform, and on such a massive, beautifully made building. We were able to work with them closely to use the beautiful stained glass they have inside their building as inspiration and the source material for some of the projections there. That was a great project.

TR: There’s that beauty of synchronicity of a collaborator, having that direct connection, that shows everything about the chronology of humans and their ancestors, their descendants. We’re not in a vacuum. It is all connected. There is a real sacred importance to public service and art that creates dialog and continuity because if more people were public servants and politically minded in participatory politics, more diversities of backgrounds and disciplines represented in governing bodies, we’d have that more well-rounded society than whatever terms we have for systems that exclude versus systems that value and thrive because multi-dimensional perspectives are included. It does take magic, and it takes magic makers. I want to thank you for everything you’ve done and everything your team of collaborators has done for Richmond art and community. I hope it will continue to spark more of these positive lights down the road.

AC: Yeah, I appreciate it. I appreciate you’ve been involved in being part of the process, and I appreciate the support you’ve shown us over the last year. Really meaningful.

TR: You’re welcome. And here’s to much, much more.

Reflections Light Installation

Documented video footage

Reclaiming The Monument presents Reflections
July 10, 2022 Belle Isle Richmond Virginia featuring Belle Tolling projected on underside of bridge

Animated: Todd Raviotta
Music: Jouwala Collective & Butcher Brown
Projected Artwork: Austin Miles, Ethan Brown, Cate Duckwall, Miguel Carter-Fisher
Thanks to Alex Criqui and Dustin Klein, & The Valentine

Recontextualizing Richmond 2022

Main photo by Joey Wharton

Todd Raviotta

Todd Raviotta

Artist in many forms. Sharing love for cutting things up as editor and fine art collage media mixer, love of music as a DJ, and love of light in photography and video. Educator of Film Studies and Video Production for over two decades. Long time RVAmag contributor and collaborator.

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