A group of as-yet unidentified artists affixed a bust of NSA leaker Edward Snowden atop a column along the edges of the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Green neighbourhood on April 6th.
According to Animal New York, whose Bucky Turco documented the bust’s installation, a few of the artists involved in the project are based on the west coast; one of them estimated that the fabrication, transport, and installation of the statue required a budget of around $US30,000.
There was nothing haphazard about this cross-country, high-budget artistic conspiracy, including its decision to install the statue atop the remains of soldiers who died fighting for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
“In researching the location, we discovered remains of POWs from the Revolutionary War were interned as part of the memorial,” the artist said through Turco, whom Business Insider contacted with questions about the artists’ awareness of the site’s significance as a mass grave.
“We questioned if they sacrificed their lives for the same freedoms and ideals people like Snowden continue to fight for. We hope placing this piece here brings an added relevance and new attention to their losses. This honours not only their fight and cause, but the current struggle to keep their vision alive.”
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is a 149-foot pillar built in 1908 to commemorate the thousands of revolutionary soldiers who died while detained aboard British ships moored in and around New York Harbour.
They lived in incredible squalor: As the New York Parks Department’s website explains, “Over 11,500 men and women died of overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation, and disease aboard the ships, and their bodies were hastily buried along the shore.”
By 1808, the prisoners’ remains had been consolidated in a site near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and they were moved to the current location of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in 1847.
The Monument is more than just a memorial to soldiers who died as part of the struggle to create the world’s first republican democracy. It’s also where thousands of them are actually buried.
The artists’ selection of the Ship Martyr’s monument was highly deliberate, and they clearly sought to demonstrate a well-studied respect for the monument and what they believe it to signify.
They wanted to draw attention to what they see as Snowden’s continuity with earlier generations of authority-questioning American patriots as opposed to, says, presenting the now Moscow-based leaker — or his political and cultural canonization, among a certain crowd — as a break with American democratic tradition.
“It’s not just about the bust, it’s about the context, because it’s a continuation of story that was started hundreds of years ago,” one of the still-anonymous artists, speaking through a voice harmonizer, told Animal New York in a video posted on the site. The artist also noted the importance of “honouring the aesthetics that are already in place.”
The group was careful not to damage the memorial itself: “We’re installing it in a way that it could be removed without doing permanent damage to the structure,” one artist said.
Care aside, one could reasonably ask whether the final resting place of thousands of unidentified American patriots is an appropriate venue for politically motivated guerilla art — even leaving aside the still-ongoing debate over Snowden’s motives and decision-making in the course of affecting the single biggest leak of classified intelligence information in American history.
The artists are apparently prepared for the accusation that their work trivialises or desecrates sacred ground. They could have picked a more sensitive site than a mass tomb to carry out their project, but they deemed this particular mass tomb to be especially suitable for political and artistic appropriation.
“Our research revealed the memorial ‘s long history includes many cycles of neglect (though it’s currently in wonderful care),” the artists wrote in the statement relayed to Business Insider through Turco. “This makes it even more clear that through the years their sacrifices have gone under-appreciated. Our hope is this new attention on the memorial in some small way helps break the cycle.”
Maybe their sacrifice has gone underappreciated, but the artists’ attempted tribute may not be missing something: An NBC News poll from mid-2014 found that 2/3rds of respondents had a negative impression of Snowden, while a plurality did not support the leaker’s actions.
One would think the approval rating is much higher for the revolutionary soldiers entombed near the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument.
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