While most people slept, a trio of artists and some helpers installed a bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Brooklyn on Monday morning. The group, which allowed ANIMAL to exclusively document the installation on the condition that we hide their identities, hauled the 100-pound sculpture into Fort Greene Park and up its hilly terrain just before dawn. They fused it to part of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a memorial to Revolutionary War soldiers. As of press time, the sculpture was still there. UPDATE: Parks Department put a tarp over the bust and removed it this afternoon.
The idea for the Snowden tribute was conceived about a year ago by two New York City-based artists with a history of pulling off notable public interventions. They linked up with a renowned sculptor on the West Coast who was sympathetic to their cause.
The artists admit that Snowden probably wouldn’t approve of the project, since he never wanted the leaks to be about him, but they hope he’d understand why they did it. In a statement about the project, which they have entitled, “Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0,” they wrote:
Fort Greene’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is a memorial to American POWs who lost their lives during the Revolutionary War. We have updated this monument to highlight those who sacrifice their safety in the fight against modern-day tyrannies. It would be a dishonor to those memorialized here to not laud those who protect the ideals they fought for, as Edward Snowden has by bringing the NSA’s 4th-Amendment-violating surveillance programs to light. All too often, figures who strive to uphold these ideals have been cast as criminals rather than in bronze.
Our goal is to bring a renewed vitality to the space and prompt even more visitors to ponder the sacrifices made for their freedoms. We hope this inspires them to reflect upon the responsibility we all bear to ensure our liberties exist long into the future.
In 2013, the Snowden leaks exposed an expansive, covert surveillance program that spied on U.S. citizens, residents and even persons abroad, the likes of which the world had never before seen. While activists and a number of journalists have hailed Snowden as a hero, conservatives and politicians have called him a “coward” and a “traitor.” Snowden sought asylum in Moscow, where he remains in exile.
The artists said they’re dismayed that despite the trove of damning evidence the leaks exposed, the public has largely moved on from the story and no substantial actions have been taken against the NSA. “There’s a media landscape that has painted him as a criminal,” said one of the two New York artists. “You need something theatrical and large to counterbalance the Fox News-iness of the texture of the conversation out there.” At first, the pair thought about making a full-size statue of the former NSA contractor, but were later talked down from that idea by the sculptor. He recommended a bust.
Measuring 4-feet tall, Snowden’s head was placed atop one of the four columns that lie at the monument’s edge, above the eagles. The bust is made of hydrocal, a high quality sculpting material that’s commonly used in places like Las Vegas to create Roman-looking things, castles and other mega props casinos incorporate into their facades. Seeing it up close, you could never tell that you were looking at a plaster-like substance. In fact, over a dozen people walking their dogs passed by the new bust on Monday morning without noticing the unsanctioned piece. Both the color and design of the bust expertly matches the existing sculptures there, from its bronze patina finish to Snowden’s hair — which mimics the texture of the feather on the eagle. The artists also added letters spelling out Snowden’s name in an official-looking font befitting of a monument.
While it was very important that the piece be more than just a prop or paper mache effigy, the artists didn’t want to damage the surface that the bust would be bound to, either. After some debate, they decided on an adhesive that would firmly hold the head in place, yet could be removed without marring the monument.
The materials needed to create a bust of this type cost thousands of dollars, and the pair ponied up the cash. It then took a little over six months to sculpt, mold, cast and ship to New York. Had the sculptor charged market rates, he said it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. “The amount of work that goes into this kind of stuff, it’s easily a 30 grand project,” said the 30-something sculptor. “If it were bronze, it could be a $100,000 piece of artwork, maybe more.”
The artists are fully aware of the bust’s inevitable destruction and have left themselves a few options, including one that involves deploying an army of mini-Snowden heads. “We have a full size mold that can be poured again and its been 3D rendered, so we have the ability to print smaller ones at scale,” they said.
(Video/Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)