“Confined here on Union Square, I cannot know how it all turned out. How fares the Union?” Abraham Lincoln asked me on our brief phone call. I didn’t know how to break the fractured state of our country to the late president, so luckily it was just a recorded message. Lincoln in Manhattan’s Union Square is one of the 35 public statues across the five boroughs of New York recently given a voice by the Talking Statues project. Each has a new blue marker which encourages you to listen to a 90-second call “from” the statue, activated by QR code or URL.
New York Talking Statues was created in collaboration with NYC Parks, and launched on July 12. It follows similar Talking Statues interventions in cities including London, Helsinki, and Berlin. It started in 2013 in Copenhagen, the idea of filmmaker David Peter Fox. A full map of the statues is available online, with details on the authors and actors animating each figure, often offering the native language of the statue subject as a listening option.
“We have asked the authors to include at least these aspects within this timeframe: The statues should talk about their own lives and highlights, their relationship to New York, and also address something about the present — this could be where they stand, what the statue looks like or just say ‘hello,’ like Lincoln does to his listeners,” Fox told Hyperallergic.
The goal is to engage passersby with the public monuments in their city, many of which were erected decades ago for reasons that are now obscure. For instance, Central Park has a statue of Cuban patriot and author José Julian Martí, sculpted by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, and donated by the Cuban government. Riverside Park has a statue of 19th-century Hungarian politician Lajos Kossuth, sculpted by Janos Horvai, funded by local Hungarian-American organizations. They’re both included in Talking Statues, as are representations of Frederick Douglass, Confucius, Joan of Arc, Antonín Dvořák, and Balto, the hero sled dog of the 1925 serum run to Nome.
“Choosing statues from New York for the project was not difficult even though there are many,” Fox explained. “The reason is that we chose a theme of diversity and immigration.” He added that the aim was the represent as many nationalities as possible. “I chose the theme of diversity and immigration because of my grandmother — Betha Fox — came to the United States as an immigrant in 1922 from Russia,” Fox added. “She lived in New York.”
I tried out the Talking Statues app at three sites in Union Square. The messages varied from the ponderous monologue of Lincoln (written by George W. Saunders and voiced by Pete Simpson), to George Washington on horseback declaring he was not hailing a cab but instead blessing his troops, to Mahatma Gandhi who gave his activist biography. “I may have never traveled the world, but the world came to me,” he says of his non-violence legacy, as voiced by actor Jan Triska with a script by Thrity Umrigar.
There are sadly few women’s voices; New York City still has only five statues of historic women. Along with figures like Gertrude Stein and Harriet Tubman, Talking Statues includes the statue of Athena in Queens. It could have been informative to add the voices of the unsung women who modeled for our public statues, whether Audrey Munson on the Manhattan Bridge, or Hettie Anderson guiding the statue of William Tecumseh Sherman, rather than an allegorical goddess. Nevertheless, the initiative does have a concentration on stories of immigration, and the cultural diversity of the city. New York has hundreds of public monuments , some older than the city itself, and Talking Statues adds a new reason to pause and consider why and how a person came to be immortalized in bronze.
A map of the statue sites is online at New York Talking Statues.