In March 2023, a month after installing his artwork Monumental Interventions in a temporary exhibition at the San Diego Airport, Evan Apodaca received a letter from airport authorities informing him that the airport was terminating its contract with the artist and removing his work from view. Publicly, the airport stated that Apodaca’s then-final iteration of the project did not match the artist’s proposal. NCAC’s Arts & Culture Advocacy Program issued a letter to the airport pointing out the ways in which this reasoning was flimsy at best, and alleged that Apodaca’s work was removed because it expressed criticism of the U.S. Military. 

Because the airport is a Federally run entity, it is governed by the First Amendment, but a line in the artist’s contact with the airport stipulated that either party could cancel the agreement at any time, for any reason, which protected the airport from legal repercussions. 

In December 2023, ACAP Director Elizabeth Larison spoke with Apodaca about the project and its fallout at the airport. 

ARTS & CULTURE ADVOCACY PROGRAM: As an artist, what was your intent as you set out to first make Monumental Interventions? Given that it is an ongoing project, have your interests changed as you’ve gone further into it?

EVAN APODACA: I started it in 2017. I came to that project as a documentary filmmaker and visual artist with a studio art practice in which nonfiction and storytelling come together. I had been living in San Diego for close to a decade and over that time had been seeing and hearing how the military is a conservative force in the region.

I wanted to dig deep into what San Diego is, and not just explore the history of the military in a commemorative, patriotic sense, but try to analyze and understand: How did we get here? How did the military come to monopolize the economy? And how did San Diego become such a military town? How did that impact the fabric of the society of San Diego? I wanted to tell it with a critical lens, which is not something that usually happens when people in San Diego tell stories about the military.

In San Diego alone, there are hundreds of defense contractors. There are seven military bases. 25% of its population is on active duty. The military presence in San Diego is everywhere, and I wanted a better understanding of how “the local” of San Diego affects a broader global environment.

ACAP: Before the work was selected to be shown at the San Diego airport, had it been shown anywhere else previously and what kind of feedback did it receive?

EA: Back in 2018 or 2019, I did a small pilot screening at Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego. At that point I had gotten a grant for that project from the San Diego Foundation, so this screening was to show the products of my research as a work in progress. I’m pretty sure the foundation administrators weren’t happy about the work at that screening; I didn’t hear any remarks. So that’s when I was like, “OK, something’s happening.” Then later, during the early stages of the pandemic when I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another chance to show it in the future, I shared some excerpts online for a short period.

ACAP: That surprises me. Because the thing I found so shocking when I first saw Monumental Interventions is that it didn’t feel particularly sensational or shocking at all. I found it to be thoughtful, intellectually provocative, and educational. I liked how it had this playful transposition of the voices of local San Diego residents onto these (yes, toppled, sometimes decapitated) monuments of famous, heavily influential people. But there’s nothing inherently troubling about this to me as an artwork. The history it describes is troubling, sure, but, it’s history, just told from a perspective that we don’t typically hear from.

EA: Yeah, in a way I’ve long imagined something like this might happen. From the beginning, when applying to that grant from the San Diego Foundation, I didn’t specifically say I was going to be “analyzing the military with a critical lens.” I just said the project was going to be “about the military”–which is still true. But I think if I had been more specific about that in the proposal, there wouldn’t have been any support, especially considering how the San Diego Foundation has their headquarters at an old military barracks. There’s just a lot of sensitivity around the military—in the US in general, and within US history—but especially in San Diego.

ACAP: If you had to guess, what specific elements of Monumental Interventions are likely most concerning to its critics? Visually, it’s pretty consistent between archival images of city landscapes and documents, and video recordings of present-day San Diego with CGI-animated statues, which are digitally toppled.

EA: There may have been a number of concerns. When an all-encompassing artwork like this is labeled “woke,” I can assume there was a total understanding and discomfort with every single aspect of it. The piece speaks to the evolution of racial demographics in San Diego; from city planners’ desire to make San Diego a white utopia, which began to change when the Navy began to hire people of color for its dirtiest and toughest jobs; how San Diego is a launching point for creating global U.S. hegemony; how patriotism is so easily adopted into our socially-constructed landscapes and at the cost of racialized and dispossessed peoples; how current day militarism at the border is part of the trajectory of manifest destiny (a settler colonial concept); how the beauty of San Diego is a veneer for something very ugly. Critics are concerned with all of that.

ACAP: So when you were first notified that your work was selected to be shown in the San Diego airport, what was your reaction? There had been quite an involved process of reviews and approvals for that.

EA: My initial reaction was excitement. I had already been working on the project for so long, and to get it in such a public arena and to get so many eyeballs on it was just really exciting to me, especially in this place that is a hub for tourism in San Diego. I thought that people from all over, who maybe have some conception of the region as a tourist destination, can maybe see some alternative perspectives on it.

ACAP: And did you ever have a sense between the invitation and the opening that the ideas in your work were under scrutiny by the airport leadership?

EA: On one walkthrough at the airport, before the work was installed, the curator of the art department said that my work was the only “political work” in the exhibition, and that he was really excited about that.

But when they started asking again about the transcript is when I became concerned about scrutiny. It wasn’t clear to me why exactly they asked for the transcript, like they could have asked for the video itself. Maybe they didn’t want to spend the time looking at the video or they just wanted to run through a list of buzzwords that they were afraid of.

ACAP: Well, it’s interesting as you point that out. NCAC also tracks and responds to the censorship of books, and requests to remove books from school libraries. Oftentimes people on a mission to remove certain books from shelves are motivated by one decontextualized snippet. They don’t read the full book, to see how the snippet figures in context. And so it’s interesting to think about these requests for the transcript. It’s because yes, they don’t want to see the whole work, they just want to skim and make sure all the text does what they want it to. But they’re also not seeing it in the full context of the work.

How did you learn your work would be taken down? Had the airport leadership contacted you with any concerns before hand?

EA: The airport had not communicated any concerns. The only criticism came from an airport volunteer on the day of installation, which was in February 2023. He was standing next to me as I was photographing the finished installation, and was watching the entire piece. After it ended, he asked me if I was the artist. I said yes. And then he just flat out said that the work was “woke bullshit.” And I was alarmed, and I just basically turned away or laughed or something, I don’t exactly remember, but his reaction made me uneasy and so I got out of there. About a month later, I received the notice of termination of the contract. There was really no explanation, so I had no idea when exactly they took it down.

I was really angry that it had already been decided, and that there was no dialogue about it whatsoever. I had no idea what was happening behind the scenes, as there was no communication with me, except to share that the decision had been made. So I started to reach out to peers and mentors for advice, and then that’s when I decided to publicize it on social media.

ACAP: Do you think the airport leadership or this disgruntled volunteer misunderstood or misread the work at all? Or do you think there’s just a difference of opinion about how one should speak about the military and its histories in San Diego?

EA: I think there’s a kind of backlash that’s embedded in our country’s history toward so-called “un-American” behavior. Some people think you shouldn’t speak against what your government is doing or what your country’s military is doing. I don’t know if they misread the work so much as it’s that: they know what’s happening, but they refuse to really admit what’s going on.

Airport leadership did ask me to meet with them finally, and that was when I learned that the volunteer’s comment had made it up to airport management and it was part of the reason why they decided to take it down–that there were complaints of a political nature which caused them to finally look at it. Publicly, however, they would only say that it was because the proposal was different from the final artwork.

ACAP: Aside from the work being removed from the airport and the loss of visibility and reach your work would have had if it had stayed up for the entirety of the exhibition (which closed in August 2023), has there been any additional negative fallout from this whole process?

EA: It’s really hard to say how these things impact you behind the scenes. I will note that in terms of applying to public art opportunities, there’s always this question asking if you’ve ever had a previous municipal contract terminated for any reason. I assume this means they don’t want to work with artists that had issues like this in the past, so it’s a possibility this would affect future applications of mine. Also, I think it might scare other institutions from showing the work. There have been two other institutions that have expressed interest in showing this work after the airport censored it, but then backed out. And in both instances, I don’t know why. I’m kind of scared to ask why and even if I did, they might not even tell me.

ACAP: How has the response to Monumental Interventions shaped how you see the project?

EA: The whole experience at the airport, I think, is really just a part of the project at this point. It started out as a work about military influence and power, and then the institutional responses to the work just kind of proved it to me in a very tangible way.

I think that it has led me to want to explore censorship as a theme within the work more deeply as well. And in some ways it has forced me to ask the question: what does it mean to make a work that challenges people if doing so means it might not ever get it seen? And what does it mean to make work that’s more safe just so that it actually gets seen… like, what’s better? And that is a really hard question to ask, especially when you believe something should be vocalized. But it is something that I asked myself immediately after the airport incident. To be totally honest, at one point I thought maybe I should just stop making work around militarism. Not just because of the censorship, but because it is a challenging subject to work around. You may think that the stuff doesn’t damage your soul in some way but it does. It just forces me to think of ways that I can continue to add to this work, but stay strong at the same time.

ACAP: Is there anything else you want to say about the project, about censorship, or anything that we didn’t touch upon?

EA: Given the publicity that the censorship at the airport received, it makes me wonder, how much further does this need to go in order to convince people that this is a topic that we need to start talking about in the art world?