January 14, 2021

Public Trust, Promises Made

Miranda Lash


Words matter, but how do we get them to stick?

We are living during a time when words seem to be simultaneously more powerful and more slippery than ever before.

With the amplification of social media, words can incite violence or provide comfort and hope depending on their context.  Yet at the very moment when words enter our public discourse, their meaning becomes subject to the agendas and aspirations of their interpreters. As citizens we must deduce for ourselves not only whose words can we trust, but what sources can we rely upon to tell us what they mean. Words live in tweets and posts, but tweets and posts can be deleted. And even when quotes are retrieved, we often have to contend with being told that what we heard isn’t what we heard. We are often asked not to trust our own eyes and ears.

In Paul Ramirez Jonas’s artwork Public Trust, on display in the MCA Denver exhibition Citizenship: A Practice of Society, Jonas explores the meaning and weight behind words and the forms of trust that give them meaning. By publishing a range of promises made by public figures, museum visitors, and even weather forecasts, we are confronted with the plethora of promises, both big and small that we must navigate as citizens in order to live our daily lives. Although the promises on the marquee rotate each day that the artwork is activated, Jonas also provides a means to document these promises and memorialize the sacred nature of making a vow. Two rubbings on paper are made every time a visitor participates in making a promise for Public Trust. One rubbing of the marquee’s promises is displayed on MCA Denver’s walls while the other copy can be taken home by the participant as a reminder of the commitment they made to themselves on that day.

This documentation process, which charts the promises made over the course of the exhibitionresists the fugitive nature of words by fixing them in time for all to witness. The significance of “giving one’s word” is underscored by each step the participants undertake in making their Public Trust promise. Visitors lock eyes with their facilitator, repeat their promise aloud, touch an object that is sacred to them such as a Bible or a Koran, witness their promise being made into a rubbing, sign their name, leave their fingerprint, and walk away knowing their promise will be seen by others. By making our private aspirations public, Public Trust asks us to confront how much we trust ourselves, and our own ability to follow through. By imagining how our words are seen through the eyes of others, we are urged to hold ourselves accountable.

For what is trust without accountability? Accountability matters too.