Witness Lab is an architectural courtroom installation and a performance series by Courtney McClellan, Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence at the School of Art & Design. On Feb. 17, about 100 people attended the Artist Talk featuring McClellan, hosted by the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which explored the role of witnesses in society and how humans understand truth in our legal system.
From February to May, Witness Lab will host a series of public trial simulations, theater and trial advocacy workshops that invite the audience to reflect on the role of truth in society. Art & Design students will document the performances through drawing, photography, text and video. The accumulated products will result in the publication of a book.
While discussing her inspirations, McClellan talked about her upbringing in a community of lawyers and teachers and her experience studying journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She acknowledged that though she did not pursue a career in journalism, journalistic methodologies have stayed with her and became an integral aspect of her artistic production. When she was teaching at the University of Georgia, McClellan said she followed and observed the mock trial team for three years.
“Even though just inherently in this mock trial room, learning that cases weren’t finite and outcomes were creative and many different things could happen inside them — after this long observation, I knew as an artist I must turn to some kind of action,” McClellan said.
McClellan also explored the role of storytelling in a courtroom and how it contributes to the infinite uncertainty of truth. She said she sees litigation as a place where storytelling and performance intersect. She also said she considers “liveness” vital to a courtroom.
McClellan suggested that the act of witnessing contributes to a collective narrative in the legal space and that this public gesture is just as important as the performers in the trials. She said the openness of this space plays an important role in its subjectivity, which shows that truth is not an absolute but rather something people share with each other.
“Witness is a powerful act. Witness is a presence but also a retelling,” McClellan said. “It’s active and social and political in nature.”
After the Artist Talk, the audience headed to the Irving Stenn, Jr. Family Gallery to experience the performance itself. Different from, yet imitative, of the traditional courtroom, Witness Lab was painted in a shade of light blue with counsel tables on both sides.
Camille Casemier, School of Art & Design and Music, Theatre & Dance junior, said she has been a huge fan of McClellan’s work and is interested in her research-based art.
“The interaction in between the courtroom and the religious space is something that I wasn’t really aware of so I thought that was really interesting,” Casemier said. “As an artist who also likes to do a lot of research, it felt really affirming to hear (from) someone a lot further along in their career.”
Conner Darling, a performance artist and University alum, expressed his interest in public ritual and McClellan’s medium of art.
“I enjoyed her point about simulation versus reenactment,” Darling said. “Simulations can allow anything to happen effectively and a lot of what she has done is creating the space for things to happen as opposed to prescribing certain events.”
Reporter Lola Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.