Josephine Tovey -Apr 7, 2015
New York City Parks workers work to remove a covered large molded bust of Edward Snowden at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. Photo: Reuters
New York: For one morning, a statue of Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence contractor and whistleblower variously regarded as a dissident hero and national traitor, stood high atop a hill in New York City.
Hours later, the unauthorised sculpture was shrouded in plastic, removed by the city's Parks and Recreation Department as the media and locals watched on, before being transported to the local police precinct.
But two of the artists behind the sculpture, who spoke to Fairfax Media on condition of anonymity, hope that its presence, however fleeting, will help spark conversation about Snowden, surveillance and the American ideals they say he was fighting for.
"We were both dismayed that Snowden and the ideals that his actions represent haven't gotten more traction in mainstream media," one of the artists said.
"It's not just Snowden, it's Bradley [now Chelsea] Manning and every other whistleblower whose fighting for the ideals this nation was founded upon. Snowden is an easy representation to use, so we used his visual."
"This is one of the few times he's been cast as a hero and his actions cast as heroic."
Snowden became a divisive international figure in 2013 when he revealed the enormous surveillance capabilities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other surveillance programs, leaking classified information to journalists and sparking global debate about privacy and national security in the digital age. He fled to Russia soon after going public, and has been charged with espionage, slammed as a "coward" and "traitor" by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The sculpture, worth around $30,000 by the artists' estimate, has been around a year in the making, from conception to the early morning installation in the park on Monday. The guerilla installation was carried out by a group of people under cover of darkness, as exclusively captured by the NYC media outlet Animal. It immediately sparked a flurry of attention on social media and in the neighbourhood. By coincidence, satirist John Oliver aired a surprise, funny and revealing interview with Snowden the night before.
The artists placed the bust, made of a plaster-like substance but carefully constructed to look like a typical bronze monument, on a column with a bald eagle at the base, amid a war memorial called the Prison Ship Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, which commemorates the lives of American prisoners who died on British ships during the Revolutionary War.
"The people who fought for the creation of this country during the revolutionary war, they're marching in the same direction in our minds as Snowden, and other people like Snowden who continue to whistleblow or try to alert people to the secretive nature of a government that is treating a people as guilty before innocent," said the artist.
His colleague added they wanted to challenge people's conceptions of Snowden by inserting the official-looking statue in the public space, spurring them to ask questions the portrayal of Snowden as a traitor and seek more information about what he did.
When Fairfax Media arrived at the park on Monday around 1pm, the statue had been tightly wrapped in a blue tarpaulin and string, and was being watched over by a handful of police officers and parks department workers.
In an awkward display, staff from the parks department then drove a truck up alongside the statue, and began the process of removing it, as a small crowd of photographers gathered around them and parents and children watched on, baffled. Staff were careful to keep the tarpaulin in place so the statue's face remained obscured as they slipped it off.
In a statement, the Parks Department said "the erection of any unapproved structure or artwork in a city park is illegal", while the NYPD confirmed to Fairfax Media they had taken possession of the bust and were storing it at a local precinct. Its fate is unknown, with the artists risking charges if they come forward.
The artists point out the now iconic Charging Bull statue on Wall Street was also a guerilla project eventually accepted by authorities, and hope that either New York City or alternatively, a museum or institution would display it. It could be replicated with relative ease - they still have a mould and 3D image of the bust.
Nevertheless, they were disappointed it was removed so quickly, and disturbed that it had to be shrouded from the public in the short interim.
"To cover it up, to step on an eagle's head as you climb it to throw a tarp over it, is so symbolic and ironic that you can't help but kind of shake your head," the artist said.