Law through a new lens.
By Muni Suleiman
Humbled, not only by the stream of professional, collected students pouring in during what seems to be rush hour, but also by the face-off between me and the building’s security guard, I stand quietly by the cool, brutalist exterior of Columbia Law. If I had known that a Columbia undergraduate ID did not warrant access to the building, I would have spared myself the embarrassment. Despite the guard asking, it is not any pre-law aspiration that calls me into the building.
After some minutes, Bayeté Ross Smith, the Law School’s inaugural artist-in-residence and my reason for visiting the premises, convinces the guard to pardon my undergraduate status and leads me to the fifth floor to see one of two of his video installations. His work during this residency is an extension of his Art of Justice series, which engages the legal community with socio-political art, media installations, and programming. He offers to show me part of the work—a video project within a small-scale installation. Due to installation delays, the video project isn’t yet finalized in its presentation, but with the calibrations and headphones already prepared, we forge ahead. The first is located in a bright lobby decorated by law students chatting in chairs, the other in a dark hallway graced only by the bench on which we converse.
The videos are episodes of Ross Smith’s Red Summers, a project which explores the past and present of racist terrorism from 1917 to 1921. With the help of a Kinect sensor and headphones, I am first transported to contemporary and 1917 East St. Louis in “How white mobs firebombed homes and decimated a Black community in Illinois” and then to contemporary and 1921 Tulsa in “Tulsa race massacre at 100: an act of terrorism America tried to forget.”
The room we sit in for our conversation is decorated with pieces from another of Ross Smith’s series, “Taking AIM.” This project dissects “violence and our societal relationship to violence,” and asks “who is considered a threat and who is considered a victim” in our world? The images, one of which features an adult Ross Smith framed within a shooting range target, along with questions of history and temporality—themes explored in all of his art—loom large as we speak.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: A critical element of your work is making sure that it is accessible and relevant to people’s daily lived experiences. When you place your art in these lived spaces as opposed to a gallery exhibition, what do you think is different about how people interact with it?
Bayeté Ross Smith: There’s a history with fine art being connected to elite people and elite spaces. That doesn’t mean it was only connected to elite people and elite spaces, but when we delve into the history of visual art as fine art, it’s often not accessible to, say, the average person. The fine art gallery system, as well as—to some extent—museum systems, don’t always meet people where they are. For me, it’s important for my artwork to not be sequestered in the proverbial ivory tower of the art world. It’s important for artists, when they can, to have their work to be used as a tool for developing critical thinking and education and learning. I’m very interested in this idea of art and media as tools for social change, so it’s very important to bring it into non-traditional spaces that are part of our daily lived experience.
B&W: Putting art in a space where daily life and daily experiences happen just serves to, at least subconsciously, have people think about these concepts. It’s really useful, especially in a law school space, to be keeping those in mind when one is doing their studies or even working towards practice.
BRS: It is important for us to look at art as a service in that we provide a service as artists, not necessarily all the time, but a substantial portion of the time.
B&W: Looking at the exhibition that I experienced downstairs, you’re seeing in real time how the history of the past and the present overlap with each other. You said that it was important to look at how the present is built on top of the history of the past.
BRS: What’s happened in the past directly influences the present and allows us to understand what has transpired so that we can imagine a speculative future that is more productive and more joyous, so to speak.
With the 360 VR work I’m doing, I wanted to create an experience that made people feel like they were in a physical place and they’re able to look into the past and see what had transpired there literally overlaid on top of daily life in that place now. Through the use of technology—such as extended reality, virtual reality, augmented reality—we can give people those experiences anywhere where they have access to technology or the internet in the world.
From an American standpoint, I don’t believe that we think about history over a long enough time frame. We’re very quick to move past something once it happens. That can be useful, but that can also obscure our ability to understand and learn. We will think of something as ancient history, whereas in another society in the world, ancient history or not, it’s still relevant to how they’re processing the way things work today. I wanted to remind people of that. I know that the history of these incidents of mob violence in the early 20th century are part of a continuum, and they’re not discussed in terms of our history nearly as much as they should be, and in some cases they’re deliberately hidden and not discussed. So I wanted to create something that could be a corrective, connected narrative, but also make it experiential so that it resonates.
B&W: I think another part of social justice spaces right now is the discussion around critical race theory. I don’t think critical race theory is even being taught in contemporary American schools. I believe it’s this form of censorship of not only the violence that our country has committed, but also it inhibits people from being able to understand how these events definitely informed our past, but are also informing our future.
Making this history more accessible is important to the people that it impacted, but also the people that need to hear it to challenge their own biases and challenge their own perceptions.
BRS: Hopefully they will. You know, if they’re willing.
B&W: If they’re willing.
BRS: William Dunning was a scholar here at Columbia and was supported by Columbia in crafting an inaccurate version of how and why the Civil War took place, and the role Black Americans played in making this country the country that it became. That’s very specific, and that’s very intentional. You also have, then, organizations like The Daughters of the Confederacy creating curriculum for schools—and for some odd reason having the power to lobby and having that curriculum accepted on a state level all throughout the country. And again, that curriculum promoted this idea of the lost cause, gave an inaccurate depiction of the Civil War and why it took place, an inaccurate depiction of Reconstruction and how it took place, and created an inaccurate perception of African Americans at that time. So, a lot of people fighting against critical race theory are actually fighting for indoctrination they underwent, but calling the corrective narrative that actually is telling them a more truthful version of the history “indoctrination.” It’s ironic, but it’s also a very American thing to do.
B&W: To talk about the Art of Justice project, from what I understand, it’s been a multi-year series of art and media installations with programs that address sociopolitical issues while also specifically engaging with the legal community. What is the significance of this project to you?
BRS: An important point to raise about the work that I make and how I represent it is that my work is not about telling people what to think. The goal is to create scenarios where people are forced to question their pre-existing beliefs. Everyone’s pre-existing beliefs are different, obviously, but what that means … just like Black people aren’t a monolith, lawyers aren’t a monolith, Republicans aren’t a monolith, gun owners aren’t a monolith, people in the infantry, in the army aren’t a monolith. The type of message that can resonate with people and get them to think with more intellectual rigor and nuance about a particular subject of importance to society is going to shift and change depending on who that person is.
B&W: As you’ve been working on this project, have you learned anything about your own blind spots or have your ideas of its reach changed over time?
BRS: Well, we’re still somewhat in the beginning phases. I’ve done some work and I’m doing some work here at Columbia Law School now. I’ve done some work with Saint Thomas University Law School’s Intercultural Human Rights program, and I’m in the process of developing some programming with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and hopefully the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, but the latter is much more in just conversational phases.
In terms of my blind spots, this has been an ongoing discovery over the past 10 years or so, but what jumps out at me is I realize that lawyers and people with legal education and policymakers and even people one might normally assume would be more conservative are a lot more open to engaging in the subject matter than I would suspect the average quote—unquote progressive, to-the-left person would think. I’ve had some surprisingly great conversations and engagements and takeaways from dealing with someone who comes from a family of lifelong Republicans or someone who is a prosecutor.
B&W: I’m also curious about what exactly inspired you to go into specifically legal spaces like a law school or a district attorney’s office. Was that always a goal that you had in mind? Was that a conscious change in direction that you made?
BRS: My goal with my work has always been to engage with as broad a range of different audiences as possible in a variety of ways that fit into a daily lived experience.
But specifically thinking of targeting the legal community for engagement and developing a way to create spaces where they could engage in and embrace my work … I started having that idea maybe about seven years ago.
That stemmed from a realization I had from talking with someone who used to be a lawyer and is now a professor at a law school. And through the conversation with him, just realizing that a lot of people who go into professions that determine policy have legal education, as well as lawyers in general being at the forefront of impacting, not necessarily official policy, but if you were to take, even say, a corporate law firm—those are people who potentially influence the way businesses function and what some of the parameters are.
And then obviously there’s people who are directly involved in the criminal justice system. In addition, I was also thinking about policy makers, whether they're people who hold official leadership positions on the local, state and federal level, as well as various policy influencing organizations, be they thinktanks or other elements of society.
B&W: It’s as if bringing art that is meant to challenge your own biases and challenge your own perceptions serves as a reminder in the minds of students to apply their knowledge outside of school, but also within it.
BRS: I think you’re on the right track there.
The way people think and respond to my work can be a reflection of their biases, but it can also just simply be a matter of it not always being about bias, but just being about perspective and what their perspective includes and what it doesn’t include, which isn’t necessarily a bias. It’s just that it hasn’t entered their frame of vision. We all have a different way of seeing the world and our way of seeing has its merits, but it also has things that we’re not aware of. How do we broaden the frame?
B&W: What are some topics you’ve taken on that have received interesting reactions, or that have helped you further understand your own perspectives?
BRS: This particular installation here at Columbia Law School is about violence and our societal relationship to violence. Starting with the questions, who is considered a threat and who is considered a victim? And then how does the perception of victim or threat impact the likelihood of someone being involved in interpersonal violence? And then how does that scale up or down on a group level and on a larger societal level? And then, by extension, what does that say about our contemporary and historic societal relationship to violence? When is it deplorable? When is it acceptable? When is it recreational? How do we mark that in history?
Some of the other topics that are very interesting to me are the idea of nationality and how nationality intersects with identity and what our perception is of someone being a citizen.
In the “Passing” series, I thought it was interesting to play around with passports because passports are probably our most official, globally-accepted document that defines us. For the most part, everyone in the world looks at that document as a definitive starting point of who someone is. But then it’s also potentially arbitrary.
What is considered artistic is interesting to me. Not necessarily what is considered artistic, but what is considered high art or extraordinarily created, intellectually creative. As someone who comes from hip hop, it’s just very fascinating to know how intellectually rigorous and profound the impact is of that culture and the amount of brilliance and intellectual sophistication it took to create that culture and have its global impact the way it’s had.
But you know, I suspect that it’s a culture that’s not given the credit it deserves as one of the genius movements of the world because it’s essentially associated with Black people, Puerto Rican people, other groups of Latin Americans, and ghettos. So it’s not often aligned with—
B&W: The perceptions of high art.
BRS: Yeah. Or the perceptions of an intellectually profound art and creative movement like the Renaissance period, for example.
B&W: Or even the enlightenment period.
BRS: Right. But if you look at hip hop, it’s permanently changed quite a few things in the world. Like, even if you go beyond looking at music, just how we look at language and what we can do with language and how language can be used. What can rhyme and the use of rhyming.
Or even visually. Hip hop permanently changed the visual landscape of the world. You can’t go anywhere in the world that I know of and not see burners on the walls. Hip hop also shifted our understanding of what public art can be. But it’s not thought of in that regard. Those are the types of things that are very interesting to me in terms of our preconceptions and why we think a certain way about certain things.
B&W: By the time that your residency here at Columbia is over, what do you hope the law students or people that are part of the Columbia Law community get out of it?
BRS: It’s always important to question your pre-existing beliefs when you step into a situation as a person with legal education and legal training. It’s important to do that throughout your career, and that it’s important for lawyers and other people with legal education to constantly be thinking about the role they play, and the role the law plays in resolving some of society’s most pressing challenges.
In addition to that, I hope to inform and provide information, or at least lead people to information they didn’t know about what has happened and what is happening in our society.
B&W: I think it would be really interesting for you to elaborate on empathy and empathy’s role in your work.
BRS: That’s interesting because while I think empathy is important, I also think it’s overrated to a certain extent. When I say that what I mean is as people who live, and in many cases grew up in North America, South America, Western Europe—I mention those regions because I feel very confident in my understanding of the general core ideologies in those societies—as people who grew up with the cultural and societal backgrounds that we have, the reason why I think empathy can be overrated is because we should be capable of acknowledging the validity of a perspective that’s foreign to us.
Empathy does obviously play into the details, but quite often I feel like people use empathy as an excuse for not treating our fellow humans and the life on this planet with the proper respect. You don’t need empathy in order to understand some basic fundamental things.
B&W: How do you think photography conveys this message?
BRS: Photography is a very useful medium of art making because, in my opinion, it’s the most accessible. Everyone can make a photograph and everyone can look at a photograph and feel like they understand it. Most people don’t feel like they need to have a specific background or set of training to interpret a photograph.
Also, what I was saying previously about framing—how what is excluded from a frame is as important as what’s included, and how we each have a different way of seeing in the world—that becomes very apparent through photography in a very direct way.
You can see how multiple photographers frame certain circumstances and instances when you see multiple photographs of the same subject matter. So I think from that standpoint, it’s a very useful entry point to a lot of these topics.
B&W: I’m fascinated by introducing these pieces into a classroom. My own personal belief is that classrooms can suffer from not looking at things in an interdisciplinary sense, and not bringing in real-life applications. Classrooms can be hindered by theory. Theory is based on real life, but real life also informs theory. When you have art, or even just depictions of real life events, it can make learning and teaching more immersive and more productive.
BRS: Well, that’s something I hope ends up happening as a result of all this. I’m working with a specific set of faculty and administrators here at the law schools just because that’s who has been working with me and getting me acclimated to working here. I’m definitely open to having conversations and collaborating with more people here, more of the professors particularly, in terms of looking at how what’s installed can relate to what might be being discussed or examined or studied in their classrooms.