Cultural Commentary: An Idea Cannot Be Evicted


By Aubrey Sanders

Photo courtesy of Kyle Depew.

In the predawn hours of Monday, Apr 6, an anonymous group of artists erected an unsanctioned, four-foot-tall bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. The statue was affixed to a vacant plinth belonging to the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, which memorializes American POWs who died in the Revolutionary War. The artists titled it “Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0.”

“We have updated this monument,” they stated, “to highlight those who sacrifice their safety in the fight against modern-day tyrannies.”

Snowden’s 2013 leaks of classified government information revealed extensive infringements on privacy rights by surveillance programs that spied on people’s data in the US and abroad.

The bust depicting his likeness was promptly cloaked in blue tarpaulin by the New York City Parks Department. Within hours of its unveiling, it was dismantled and seized by the NYPD.

But the city’s expungement of the Snowden bust elicited an even bolder response from a second group of guerrilla artists, The Illuminator Art Collective, who slipped into Fort Greene Park after dark and resurrected Snowden’s image in the form of a spectral “hologram.”

“Our feeling,” the Illuminators stated, “is that while the State may remove any material artifacts that speak in defiance against incumbent authoritarianism, the acts of resistance remain in the public consciousness.”

BTR sat down with Mark Read, an Illuminator member, to discuss the censorship of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0.

“If we consider our lack of privacy a crisis, and Snowden a real hero in that context, then you can’t merely erase him and his role from the public’s memory,” he says. “That conversation is still alive, and it needs to be kept alive.”

Earlier this month, a sculpture honoring whistleblowers Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden was unveiled in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz Square. The piece, titled “Anything to Say?”, depicts the three standing on bronze chairs. A fourth empty seat encourages the public to stand up alongside them.

“The statue pays homage to three who said no to war, to the lies that lead to war and to the intrusion into private life that helps to perpetuate war,” Italian sculptor Davide Dormino announced to the press.

Regarding the disparate cultural reactions to the monuments, Read remarks, “There’s a skepticism born within historical experience in Germany that might predispose them to recognizing whistleblowers.”

He suggests a greater skepticism of the mainstream media in the US, who he feels “restate the position of the powerful.”

At the very least, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0 succeeded in reigniting public interest in Snowden and in the disturbing information he disclosed.