Making his mark: Paul Ramirez Jonas on Public Trust

Guest blog post by artist Paul Ramirez Jonas explaining the experience of Public Trust, from first encounter to making a promise public. (All photos by Ryan C. McMahon except where noted.) 

The experience of Public Trust begins at the moment of attention. Maybe you notice the big marquee or are curious about what is going on at the table. It is not unusual for people to hover for a long time before they decide to participate. For some the vicarious experience is enough, and that is okay. 


Once you make up your mind to participate, you are invited to sit down at the table and the interaction begins with an invitation to declare a promise. At this point, the previously declared promise is still typeset on the table. The performer reads it to you, and states that they first need to erase the previous utterance to make room for the new one. This is an opportunity for them to say the previous promise out loud, to give you an example of what others are doing, and to make time for you to compose your thoughts.

Once you speak your promise, the performer begins to compose the words on the table. This pragmatic action is subtle in that it references typesetting, printmaking, sign-making, and publishing. It is a deliberate choice in the piece. It turns spoken words into more that just writing; it turns them into a form of writing that makes the words publicit is preparing them to be published. 


Once typeset, a first copy of the contract or drawing is made. This is an enactment of your words now being reproducible. In real time and in front of your eyes a print is being made, a drawing, a contract. Through very simple means, your speech is taking permanent form. Does this translation from ephemeral sound to concrete materials introduce accountability? 

The Seal
Now on paper, the words take on some conventions that can be found both in fine art drawings and legal documents. Is it a coincidence that these two forms share similarities? Making this drawing, and the issue of who is the author of it, is another aspect of this piece. First comes the seal, it imprints the drawing with a title (Public Trust) and the year of its production. 

Copy Number
Next the drawing is numbered. This takes on characteristics of the fine arts (numbering an edition), and legal documents (numbering how many copies of a contract there are). 

Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Your Mark
You are then asked to make your mark on the paper. You can do this by signing your name, signing with a drop of blood, or giving your finger print. The three ways in which you can “make your mark” are not crazy deviations from the norm, nor are they inventions–all three are plausible. Granted, the drop of blood does comes from mostly a fictional realm. In the future, I would like to make a piece where you name something, or are able to change your name.

Small Choices
I am interested in the opportunity to reconsider a social interaction that we are familiar with: What is my name? How do I state my name? What mark on a paper will represent my identity? These choices are imposed us every day: fingerprinting, photos of our faces, demands for our signatures, asking for our social security number, our credit card numbers, that little number in the back, our government issued IDs, our printed names. Sometimes we are asked for two of these in conjunction because our word is not enough. Rarely are we given the choice of which one to use. Can having a choice be enough to make us wonder about our relationship to identity and the markers of identity? Most likely not, but in Public Trust, the brief 8-10 minute interaction is filled with small moments where you get to choose and re-consider very normal things. 

Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Making it Big
Once the first contract/drawing is finished it is handed over to a performer to transcribe into the big board. This allows your words to travel from an intimate encounter, to a setting where they will be shared with strangers. The author Michael Warner says that A public is a relation among strangers. 
There are three lines in the board reserved for your words. The bottom of the message is at about 5’6” so that when you poses in front of the marquee your promise will be visible above your heads. 

The Big Board
The marquee is a wall mounted onto scaffolding that moves to three locations around the city. Everything in Public Trust is made within a language of portability. This is an event not an institution. The artist George Brecht said: “Every object is an event ... and every event has an object-like quality”Promises, Promises, Promises
The promisesfrom the news change every morning. These are promises that are being made to us by people in the media. They are found by searching via Google’s search engine with certain filters on: searching only for news, from within the last 24 hours, using the key words “promises”, “vows”, “I will”, “pledges to”, “assures”, “guarantees”, “commits to”. 


The Oath: Making a Choice
While one set of performers writes on the large marquee, at the table the performer makes a new copy of the words. They state that this will be the real document, the one that you will have to give your word over. You are encouraged to select from the objects on the table, and choose which one you will use to give your word. There is a selection of sacred as well as secular texts, a piggy bank for a deposit, a bell to call a witness or someone to shake hands with, and many more. This performance involves a constant repetition of your words… thus, the performer reads the words in the drawing as they are rubbed in the first copy AND the second copy.

The Oath
Once the second drawing is finished, (and sealed and numbered and signed again), you are asked to give your word and in effect make your promise. Each object on the table has a vow that needs to be repeated and the promise making is facilitated by the performer:

Making it Public, Again
Once the promise is made, the interaction at the table is done and you are invited to have a photo taken next to the marquee using your phone and our camera. Yes, this is self-promotion. But it is also a continuation of the logic of the piece: the public utters a promise, and this speech act is then copied, published, transcribed, distributed, circulated. Michael Warner in writing about publics also said: A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse. 

A Drawing
You leave with a drawing. Whose drawing is it? Who is the author? If you took a drawing class that required a set of materials, and were given a set amount of time to draw a still life, following clear instructions, and everyone in the class left with a similar drawing. Does it still count as your drawing? I am not really interested in the old question of originality versus non-originality. I just want to re-assure myself that you are leaving with a drawing you made. It’s your drawing in every sense of the word.

The Loop
After you leave, someone else sits. Perhaps they were sitting at the table next to you, or they have been eavesdropping on your interaction, or maybe they saw it yesterday and are returning to make their own promise. Either way, the whole process is repeated again.