Performance art reaped the desired outcome of public dialogue when an artist projected criticisms across a monument to Confederate troops.
A little more than a dozen people gathered around the installation on Sunday evening, but countless others drove past or watched from surrounding businesses as phrases, such as “THIS IS BIGOTED,” “THIS IS RACIST” and “THIS IS REMOVABLE,” shone in red on the monument on the lawn of the Denton County Courthouse on the Square.
The words “WHITES ONLY” stayed firm above two defunct water fountains attached to the monument.
Emily O’Connor, the artist responsible, is an art student at the University of North Texas. She crowdsourced input on what adjectives to display on the monument.
“I wanted it to be the opinion of a group of people that live here,” she said.
O’Connor, 24, said she didn’t think the monument, or what it stood for, reflected the values of the majority of Denton residents.
She joined Willie Hudspeth, local activist and Denton County NAACP president, on his weekly protest of the monument. Hudspeth said he’s been protesting the monument every Sunday for about 20 years.
The projection doubled as a “self-initiated public art project” for O’Connor’s Art in Public class and was described as “performative interventionist art” by Alicia Eggert, her professor.
Eggert said O’Connor’s installation was in the same artistic vein as Jenny Holzer, an artist known for projecting phrases across buildings.
O’Connor first approached her professor with the idea about a month ago, before Denton County officials brought in crews to confirm whether the monument’s water fountains ever worked.
Hudspeth long has claimed the fountains not only worked, but also were available only to white people. Although he hasn’t been able to find documentation of either claim, local black residents who lived through racial segregation told him about the darker aspect of the already controversial statue.
“Blacks said [business owners] would not let them drink from it,” Hudspeth said. He claimed reports of assaults against black residents trying to drink from the fountain made the unofficial rule all but law.
O’Connor set up for the art installation expecting to be confronted about her work. Eggert challenged her to research the legality of the projection, as well as prepare herself for potential repercussions.
One man in particular, who left quickly before identifying himself, approached the small group around O’Connor, claiming she was defacing a “national monument.”
The statue, paid for by the Daughters of the Confederacy and installed in 1918, is not considered a national monument.
He argued the monument was “about a man protecting his land and his family,” and “[Confederate soldiers] were fighting for a way of life.”
When pressed by protesters about the practice of honoring Confederate soldiers, the man responded, “I don’t see anything wrong with honoring Confederate soldiers.
“This doesn’t do anything,” he said. “Go do something about something that’s real right now, not something that happened way back 200 years ago.”
Hudspeth, who had remained silent and allowed the man to argue with O’Connor, stepped forward and said, “This is happening to me today.
“I have to see this thing, for now, for 20 years of doing this,” he continued. “And I’m [trying to change it] the way you’re supposed to; you protest respectfully with the law.”
Dialogue continued — not without frustration on each side — fairly peacefully until the man noticed his picture was being taken. After claiming his privacy was being violated and subsequently being told he legally can be photographed when in public, the man quickly walked away and disappeared along West Hickory Street.
In the art critic’s absence, protestors discussed the main points of his argument and talked about ways to remove the monument and put it in historical context.