We human beings are a storytelling species. Our social institutions— religious, legal and cultural— are based on narratives that may be fanciful or fact-based or influenced by precedent. But they are also ever-evolving. Throughout the winter and spring of 2020, Courtney McClellan, this year’s Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, invites us to join her and a diverse array of legal thinkers and visual artists in examining the stories that shape the narrative of justice, past, present and future.
The site of this extended investigation into the dramatic underpinnings of the legal system, will be held from February 15 to May 17, in the Irving Stenn, Jr. Family Gallery of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. A full-size replica of a courtroom installed in the gallery will serve as the setting for a wide array of activities, seminars and presentations.
McClellan has enlisted help from the University of Michigan’s legal and arts community to tell a multifaceted and complex story. The Trial Advocacy Society and the University of Michigan Law School’s Oral Argument Competition as well as undergraduates from the Collegiate Mock Trial Association, and others, will participate by performing mock trials, excerpts from plays and readings from court transcripts among other activities. Legal scholars, judges and working members of the justice system will hold trial advocacy workshops and students from the U-M Stamps School of Art and Design will contribute visual observations in the form of documentation of the courtroom proceedings through drawing, text, photography and video.
Witness Lab kicked off on January 30, before the installation opened, with a three-person presentation from the Penny Stamps Distinguished series entitled Theater of Justice. Actor John Delancie, well known for his performance as “Q” on Star Trek: The Next Generation, was one of three presenters in this multidisciplinary discussion of drama in the courtroom.
Throughout February, March and April, local and regional professors, historians, members of the legal community and artists will use the created courtroom for presentations and discussions concerning the state of our legal system today.
A slightly different take on narrative within the criminal justice system will be presented late in the series with the film El Panoptico Ciego (The Blind Panopticon) on Friday, April 10. The 53-minute documentary describes a recently discovered trove of official records from the main men’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. The 139-year-long record of life in prison, beginning in 1869, tells its own story through artifacts and documents.
Throughout the series, Artist-in-Residence McClellan asks visitors to actively witness and reflect upon their shared experience: “Witnessing requires a presence but also a retelling. Storytelling allows one to share experiences. I hope for visitors to not only hone their skill of bearing witness, but I also hope they are reminded that to witness requires not only telling, but also listening.”
The goal of Witness Lab is to present audiences with a nuanced and elusive truth: that the courtroom is a place where the goal of performance and legal storytelling is to arrive at justice.
Witness Lab is presented in partnership with the Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence Program of the Stamps School of Art & Design, with lead support provided by the University of Michigan Law School and Office of the Provost. For more information about Witness Lab, visit umma.umich.edu/exhibitions/2020/witness-lab.
February 17 – Penny Stamps Speakers and UMMA, Artist Talk with Courtney McClellan: Observer Vs. Witness, 5:30-7pm, Helmut Stern Auditorium.
March 11, 18 – Witness Lab: Salem Witch Trials with Professor Leonard Niehoff’s U-M Law Seminar. Public invited, seating is limited. 5-7pm, UMMA Stenn Gallery.
March 13 – Romeo vs The City of Verona, Greenhills Middle School interaction. Was Romeo guilty of Tybalt’s death? Public invited, seating is limited. 1:30-3pm, UMMA Stenn Gallery.
March 22 – Artist Reflections with Courtney McClellan: Artist as Researcher. Free and open to public, registration is required. 3-4:30pm, UMMA Stenn Gallery
March 24, April 7 – Supreme Court 101. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack uses famous Michigan cases to illuminate important judicial decisions. Free and open to the public, registration is required. Attend one or both but must be registered separately. 5-6pm, Stenn Gallery.