The Paper Monument for the Paperless gives a public face to undocumented people by pasting their portraits up around Europe’s city streets.
The Paper Monument for the Paperless is not much like many other monuments. Whereas your typical monument tends to remain fixed in one place and fairly limited in its size and scope, the Paper Monument is distributed across long distances and it’s been allowed to grow steadily over time. For this reason, its meaning has also remained more open to interpretation, and its impact much more unpredictable. It is, in short, a living monument.
No choice but to live on the streets
Comprising a series of 60 black and white woodcut portraits of undocumented refugees, it traces its origins to a three-year-long collective artistic project initiated in 2013 by social artist Domenique Himmelsbach de Vries and the Dutch-based refugee collective We Are Here. While this was a couple of years before the words “refugee crisis” hit the headlines, there were already many people residing in the Netherlands (and other European countries), without papers and therefore without access to work, social housing or welfare, stuck in a brutally impersonal bureaucratic regime and almost entirely reliant on the charity of others, with many with left no choice but to live on the streets.
More than simply numbers
In response to this situation, We Are Here invited Himmelsbach to organize a workshop to come up with projects that would enhance their visibility in the public sphere. At the same time, they also identified a clear need to establish a safe and friendly atmosphere in which the members of the collective could keep themselves occupied, be social and active and maybe even tell their life stories. An idea emerged to make portraits of them in these moments, when their humanity was temporarily returned to them and they were finally treated as more than simply numbers in a database.
International activist tool
Three years later, Himmelsbach secured support from the Europe by People project to have 31 of the portraits printed in a special print run of 6000 copies. This changed the scope of the project dramatically as it meant that the portraits could be circulated far and wide. Since then, activists from around Europe have ordered sets of the posters: from Madrid, to Krakow and Heidelberg and even Boston in the U.S. In Himmelsbach’s own words “the Paper Monument finally became a real international activist tool”.
Next up, the artist plans to issue the prints in a collector’s item series, bound in a book or as a leporello (a foldable accordion-shaped book), with the aim of selling them to public art collections and using the proceeds to finance gluing and pasting the portraits through the cities of these institutions: “So, the institutions of our countries will also symbolically accept these people”.
A Story that should be told
Meanwhile, Himmelsbach also estimates that he’s still got around 1000 newspapers (that’s 16,000 posters) left to distribute. “The project will not stop before these are all spread”, he said, adding that “this is quite a burden”. When asked about why he has stuck with the project all this time, Himmelsbach explained that he sees the project “as a story that should be told… even though it’s already been going for a long time, I still feel responsible for spreading it.”
Returning to this idea of a living monument, it’s fitting (and vital) that this monument is kept alive. Since undocumented people still continue to be excluded from our public life, they deserve nothing less than a monument whose very purpose is “to give them a public face.”
If you’re interested in spreading the Paper Monument in your locale, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.