A new courtroom installation and performance series that invites visitors to consider the relationship between performance and law will open Feb. 15 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Created by artist Courtney McClellan, “Witness Lab” collapses courtroom, theater, classroom, laboratory and artist studio into one experience — all inside UMMA’s Stenn Gallery.

Co-presented with the Roman J. Witt Artist Residency Program at U-M’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, “Witness Lab” runs through May 17 and is McClellan’s participatory investigation into the concept of witnessing as a social and artistic act.

Through the use of performances, mock court proceedings and trial advocacy workshops, McClellan tasks visitors with documenting their observations of the proceedings, playing the roles of courtroom sketch artist and court reporter.

The “Witness Lab” installation includes a mock courtroom in the U-M Museum of Art’s Stenn Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Courtney McClellan)

“‘Witness Lab’ is a dynamic experiment for UMMA,” said museum director Christina Olsen. “It’s simultaneously an installation, a performance space and an artist’s studio — but more than that, it’s a project that will deeply engage our community and complicate our collective understanding of justice and art.”

McClellan’s “Witness Lab” installation is part of the artist’s ongoing research into who performs the role of witness in our society, how that understanding compares with the narrower legal definition of the role, and how courts use performance to establish truths and mold perception.

“Witness Lab” performances and courses
  • “The Salem Witch Trials” with Professor Len Niehoff’s U-M Law Seminar — March 11 and March 18, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
  • “Romeo vs. the City of Verona” performed by Katie McBride’s Greenhills Middle School Drama Class — March 13, 1:30-3 p.m.
  • Supreme Court 101 with Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack (registration required)March 24 and April 7, 5 p.m.
  • Performance in Trial Advocacy with Judge Timothy Connors and Margaret Connors — March 25 and April 1, 5-8 p.m.

“Witnessing is an act of keen observation, but it’s also an act of retelling,” she said. “It’s inherently subjective. In 2020, I want people to consider the complex truths found through shared storytelling.”

McClellan, an artist and writer from Greensboro, North Carolina, is the 2019-20 Roman J. Witt Artist-in-Residence at U-M. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She serves as visiting assistant professor of art in the sculpture area at the University of Georgia, and is a Working Artist Project Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

“After reviewing over 100 applications to the residency program from internationally recognized artists, I felt that McClellan’s proposal held particular relevance in light of current events,” said Chrisstina Hamilton, director of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series and Roman Witt Visiting Artist Program.

“Our community and our nation seek a deeper understanding of how justice is shaped at local levels and in Washington — and McClellan’s work can help us develop this.”

The Roman J. Witt Residency Program, developed with the support of alumna Penny W. Stamps and named in honor of her father, is an annual international competition that awards one residency per academic year to a visiting artist or designer who proposes to develop a new work in collaboration with students and faculty.

The residency provides an opportunity for the community to witness and take part in the artist’s creative process, and is expected to culminate in the realization of the proposed work, as well as a presentation that summarizes the process and work accomplished.

The Law School and Office of the Provost provide lead support for “Witness Lab.”

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