UH Opens New Interactive Art Display to Talk About the Police

Visitors can have their stories of interactions with the police printed and displayed anonymously.
Visitors can have their stories of interactions with the police printed and displayed anonymously. Photo by Melissa Noble
In the aftermath of Derek Chauvin's conviction for murdering Houstonian George Floyd, the subject of what it means to interact with the cops has never been timelier. Enter Brooklyn artist Shaun Leonardo, who will be presenting a piece called “Your First Interaction With Police” at the University of Houston main campus. The work is a constantly evolving dialogue about how people from all walks of life experience meeting with cops.

“To portray and feel deeply a fuller self that is not contained within these projections or these stereotypes— that has been my mandate. That has been the very thing I want to offer to the world,” Leonardo said in a statement. “I wanted to pull more and more people into that exploration so it would not be contained [solely] to my own narrative.”

The first part of the piece is projected onto the outside wall of the UH Fine Arts building. Using a QR code, visitors can anonymously relate their own police experiences to be displayed. Inside the Blaffer Art Museum, responses are printed and mounted near a display asking the same question. According to Melissa Noble, the managing director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, the piece wasn’t even fully installed before people began immediately participating.

“I think the prompt truly is neutral,” says Noble. “What is interesting is that when you go and see the varied responses. Most of them are quite benign, such as just getting pulled over. It’s not Shaun’s intention to drown out what is happening. He wants to start the conversation and have a way to talk about this.”

The openness of the piece is cause for some concern. Anyone who deals with white supremacists and other reactionary right-wing hate groups knows that they love a gameable system, and one only has to drive down the freeway in Houston and look for Thin Blue Line Punisher decals to see how keen many people are to pledge undying loyalty to state violence in their quest to own the libs. Noble acknowledges that infiltration by police brutality apologists is a concern.

“We had had internal discussions about it,” she says. “Our UH police chief is involved only in that they would respond if it happened. The university is very supportive. They want to support racial equality. While we don’t anticipate it, we know it’s a possibility.”

“Your First Interaction With Police” is part of a larger presentation involving Leonardo that UH is pursuing. There are currently plans to have him do a livestream conversation with UH Police Chief Caesar Moore Jr., as well as a workshop with 8 Million Stories, a non-profit that works on eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline.

“The goal is that, perhaps, these students will see the potential of going to college and change the pipeline to higher education rather than prison,” says Noble.

Your First Interaction with Law Enforcement continues through Sunday, April 25 at the Blaffer Art Museum, 4173 Elgin. For more information, visit BlafferArtMuseum.org or call 713-743-9521. Visitors must pre-register to adhere to COVID restrictions. Free.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner