Society’s Cage is a timely interpretive installation born in the aftermath of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders as our society reckons with institutional racism and white supremacy. The public installation features a bold interpretive pavilion sculpted to symbolize the historic forces of racialized state violence. The experience educates visitors and functions as a sanctuary to reflect, record, and share personal thoughts. It is conceived in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as a mechanism for building empathy and healing.
First located prominently on the National Mall, the initial build coincided with the 2020 March on Washington and ran through September 12, 2020. In October 2020, the pavilion was installed on another prominent site, in Baltimore at the War Memorial Plaza across from City Hall. Most recently—May 31 to June 19, 2021—the installation travelled to Oklahoma where it was exhibited for the centennial memorialization of the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre. Going forward, the pavilion will become a public travelling exhibition and continue its educational mission. Discussions are underway with cities and venues across the U.S. and even internationally.
The main takeaway from this experience is to help the visitor understand that the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are not anomalies, but rather the latest examples in a 400+ year historic pattern of unmitigated, unbound, systemic, anti-Blackness in the United States. It provides an opportunity to acknowledge and reckon with the severity of the racial biases inherent in the institutional structures of justice and creates a space for collective reflection, contemplation, sharing, and healing.
The pavilion is a series of bars which are hung to form a cube with a cavernous void that symbolizes our imperfect society and justice system. The void is shaped by historical data and serves as a visual metaphor to represent the primary institutional forces of racism that embody the Black American experience.
THE DESIGN The idea for the installation was a grassroots initiative that grew out of conversations among designers and architects in SmithGroup’s Washington, DC office as they reflected and grappled with the pandemic and systemic racism events that unfolded in 2020. Their discussions prompted serious and profound questions for personal and group reflection: • What is the value of Black life in America? • What is the nature of power? • How does power manifest itself? • What are the dynamics of power over time? • How are Black people impacted by the power structure? • How does this manifest itself differently in the experiences of Black women and Black men?
Further, how could the Black-led design group create an opportunity through artistic expression and design, to contextualize the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, and give voice to their unique perspective and experiences as both architects and Black Americans.
The installation concept is a process-driven design, anchored in research, data, facts, and real-time events over the past 400+ years of colonial and U.S. history. Support for the project was sponsored by SmithGroup and other fiscal partners. Analysis of the data focused on four primary research areas: Black Executions, Death by Police, Death by Lynching, and Mass Incarceration. With data and facts in hand, the aesthetics of the pavilion took shape in the form of a cube. A symbolic “perfect” form, the designers overlay the four data topics and began to deconstruct the cube in a literal and metaphorical examination of the racist institutional structures in the U.S. featuring six main elements:
• The Cube: The perfect cube form suggests a fair and equitable societal construct. • The Void: Carved out of the cube, the void is an obstacle-filled path symbolizing Black Americans struggle for survival. • Gravity: Data is physically manifested to demonstrate the odds stacked against Black Americans; inside, the weight of oppression is experienced. • Bars: The perfect cube of bars represents the systemic oppression of white supremacy actively subverting Black progress. • 1 in 4: 1 in 4 bars physically touches the ground, representing the statistical probability of being imprisoned as a Black American. • The Data: Systemic racism creates obstacles in every facet of life: employment, housing, education, police violence, mass incarceration.
THE EXTERIOR EXPERIENCE: EDUCATE Wrapping the edifice of Society’s Cage is an interpretive educational experience about racist lynchings, police terrorism, mass incarceration, and capital punishment as the primary institutional structures of anti-Black state violence. Visitors are directed to additional educational resources through QR codes.
THE INTERIOR EXPERIENCE: EMPATHIZE The interior of Society’s Cage offers the visitor an emotive experience. Enveloped in a soundscape commissioned for the installation, beneath a constellation of lights, this second interpretive experience is designed to build empathy and understanding.
Inside the pavilion is an opportunity to participate in a universal exercise of holding one’s breath for as long as they can. This experience is inspired by the indignities performed on George Floyd in the 8:46 in which his life was tragically and unnecessarily stolen.
The visitor is then encouraged to record a video on their own smartphone stating how long they were able to hold their breath (in minutes and seconds) and provide a brief statement of reflection to upload to a social media platform with a unique hashtag specific to this installation.
Society’s Cage provides an opportunity to acknowledge and reckon with the severity of the racial biases inherent in the institutional structures of justice in the United States. Using data-informed design, the all-encompassing experience creates time and space for both personal and collective reflection, as a path toward empathy, understanding, and healing is forged.