It’s impossible to escape the heated rhetoric around Park51 in lower Manhattan. The proposed community center for some of the city’s Muslim population has been called everything from the Ground Zero Mosque, which is the preferred term of the right wing media, to labels more appealing to the left, such as the Cordoba Center — though the developer prefers to call it Park51. No matter your political preference, the fact is you probably have an opinion about the issue.
Well, Adam Wissing, Kenny Komer, and Boris Rasin, the brains behind another street intervention earlier this year which took aim at the ethically challenged New Museum, have joined the very public fray with a poster campaign that invites people on the street to voice their opinion in writing. Their latest project is produced by a group called “Concerned New Yorkers,” which comes from a fictional PAC they created during the 2009 mayoral election when they pitted fictional billionaire Charles Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons television series against billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
As part of the “Concerned New Yorkers” project, the trio have placed 1,000 posters on the streets of the city with the intention of posting another 2,000 in the near future. The group certainly has a knack for touching upon sensitive issues that highlight ethical quagmires, but their Cordoba Center/Islamic Community Center poster is more minimal than their past campaigns. The visual austerity of the new poster is a perfect fit for the controversy as it stripes away the colorful rhetoric and makes the appeal for public participation feel more emotional and sincere.
I caught up with the group online to ask them some questions about their new campaign.
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Hrag Vartanian: Tell me why you guys decided on creating this unusual poster project centered around the Cordoba Center?
Concerned New Yorkers: We wanted to create an interactive project that would allow people in New York City to voice their opinions on this divisive issue. The debate is about so much — religion, national tragedy, politics, culture wars, and competing values. Most of the discussions take place on the internet, either on partisan websites or in the comment threads that follow any article about the proposed building. Making a physical document that invites people to stop what they are doing and write a public comment on a busy street seems like a way to get people involved, invested, and gives them a chance to let off some steam.
HV: How did it come about?
CNY: We had an idea to do something in response to this debate. After a brainstorming session we decided that instead of making our own statement we would instead open it up and let the public speak. Everyone has an opinion on this issue and this format lets people see the arguments from both sides.
HV: What was the goal of the project? Have you achieved it?
CNY: The goal of this project was to get people to write something. If we get a stranger to write a long, thought out response, or if there is a back-and-forth conversation between the two sides, then I feel like we achieved our goal.
HV: Have there been any good or bad surprises with the projects?
CNY: I am a little surprised by how quickly many of the stickers get taken down. It seems like people are offended by either the questions or by how someone chooses to answer them. I am a bit disappointed by that. I wish both sides respected the other’s right to voice their opinion. Then again, I can understand how someone may want to rip down a sticker on which some asshole wrote “muslims suck.”
HV: What are your personal feelings about Park51?
CNY: The project is supposed to be neutral but we certainly have strong feelings about this issue. We strongly support the building of Park51. Some people think that by blocking construction we would be sending a message to extremists that they won’t win. Instead, I think we send a message to Muslim Americans that they are not welcome. Besides, the First Amendment’s protection of religion and assembly kind of ends the debate for us.
HV: I was intrigued by the website design, are you guys photographing the posters and adding them periodically or doing something else?
CNY: Yes, we try to return to the spots we covered a day or two after we posted there, take a photograph and post it to the website and on the
HV: What would you consider a success for the project?
CNY: If we can get people responding openly and honestly — and not simply shouting rhetoric at each other — then we consider the project a success.
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