By Sabina Mollot
While Union Square Park is generally known as a mecca of free speech, whether it’s for protests, dancing Hare Krishnas or lone, boisterous characters who may or may not be performing, apparently, according to one police officer, not all of the park is zoned for said free speech.
Ed Woodham, the creator of the long-running Art in Odd Places festival, which takes place each October along 14th Street, said this year, he was made aware of a “designated free speech zone” in Union Square Park.
This was on Saturday, when a police sergeant made two of the participating artists get up from where they were sitting in the park at a small booth.
The reason, Woodham said he and the artists were told, was that they had to move to an area where free speech was allowed, which would be identified by a green coin on the ground.
Not knowing where this was, Woodham asked the cop, “Will you show it to me?” and said he was told in response, “Well, it’s really hard to find.”
Woodham added, “‘That’s why I asked you to show it to me.’ He couldn’t do it.”
Woodham said he was also told this was a long-running city policy that had only begun to be enforced a couple of months ago. The artists, who were visiting from the Netherlands, and had a booth at which they were offering free help, ended up moving to the east section of the park’s south plaza, where they later told Town & Village was where they were believed the free speech “zone” was.
As for the elusive green coin, “We’re still looking for that secret place,” one of the two participants of the installation, Domenique Himmelsback de Vries, told Town & Village on Sunday.
The other participant with the installation, Marieke Warmelink, had done the same thing at last year’s festival, and hadn’t been told at any point to move, although other artists had. One was Jim Dessicino, a sculptor who’d brought a statue of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to the park, only to have Parks Enforcement Officer quickly arrive and instruct him to remove it. The reason, a Parks spokesperson later told T&V, was that he didn’t have a special events permit.
This year, the booth for the free help installation, called “Embassy of Goodwill,” was identified with a nearby banner held up with two poles, which may have been what the caught the earlier attention of the cop.
“Ed said it’s been 11 years (since the festival’s running) and now they’re actively enforcing,” said Warmelink. “We are very curious about why they’re enforcing it. Politics change and they really affect how you move freely in a public space.”
Following the event, Town & Village asked the Parks Department for comment on the so-called “free speech zone.” In response, the department’s head of media relations, Crystal Howard, said there is no such thing and implied (though wouldn’t directly say) that the sergeant was probably just confused, thinking the festival participants were art vendors. Vendors as well as performers working for donations in the park are required to do business in certain spots that are marked by a limited number of “expressive matter vending” medallions.
Then again, even without an artist being mistaken for a vendor, due to Parks regulations, artists who don’t first contact the city about their plans to set up a non-commercial installation are just as likely to get stopped.
Howard referred to a department policy that determines whether permits will be given to artists on a case-by-case basis. It states, “No person shall erect any structure, stand, booth, platform, or exhibit in connection with any assembly, meeting, exhibition or other event without approval of the Commissioner or his or her designated representative.” Additionally, sometimes permission will also be required from the Public Design Commission.
In a written statement, Howard added, “NYC Parks supports free speech; we do not have designated ‘zones’ for such activity. We work to accommodate artists and vendors’ desires to use parks as venues to express themselves.”
She also defended the removal of the Snowden statue last year, saying its placement itself was illegal and that, since the 19th century, it’s been against Parks policy to erect a monument dedicated to a living person.
As for the sergeant who spoke with Woodham, Howard couldn’t confirm whether he was a member of the Parks Enforcement Patrol or a local precinct. Town & Village called a number he’d given to Woodham to reach him, but it had a voice mail box that hadn’t yet been set up. A spokesperson for the NYPD also didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office also didn’t get back to us.
When told of the Parks Department’s reaction, Woodham seemed unconvinced confusion was at the heart of the issue as much as plain old bureaucracy. He referred to “Tourist in Chief,” a 2011 project by Leon Reid IV, which put cameras, an “I (Heart) NY” cap and shopping bags around park statues.
“Reid’s project was endorsed by the Community Board 5 but ignored by the Parks Department,” said Woodham. “He hired a lawyer and in the last days before the festival received a permit.”
Interestingly, the point of the “Embassy of Goodwill” piece was to make a statement about its creators’ own regional government.
In the Netherlands, said Warmelink, free speech is curbed in similar ways to what she experienced here. “You have delegated space where you can demonstrate,” she said. “People want to demonstrate in front of government buildings, but you can’t.”
She added that the government has been getting more conservative and less inviting to outsiders.
“One of the politicians said we don’t want refugees to get used to the social security we have in the Netherlands; we don’t anyone to profit from the same level of stability we enjoy,” she said. “We don’t feel our Dutch identity is the same as the politicians.’ So we’re doing the opposite. Going places to offer free help.”
So far, takers at the booth had requests that ranged from making banana pie to helping someone clean their home to find a friend for someone, Warmelink said.
As the booth serviced curious passersby, a couple of other festival participants also performed — without any issues — in the park’s south plaza. One was a study on surveillance in which the artist gave polite warnings to park goers that they were being recorded. Another piece involved a white woman fake whipping a black man wearing an animal skull loin cloth as he held a sign that read “Gimme Bak mah clothes!”
In related news, the police intervention at the park wasn’t the only bureaucratic brick wall the festival ran into this year. In recent years, the opening reception has been held at Campos Plaza, outside on the 14th Street side. But this year, Woodham’s NYCHA contact informed him a day prior to the event, which was set for last Friday, that if he wanted to hold it there he’d have to buy millions of dollars in insurance first.
“They wanted me to buy workers’ comp insurance as if I was going to be onsite for two years doing construction or as if I was doing a big concert at Carnegie Hall,” he said.
But since Art in Odd Places (or AiOP) doesn’t sell the art it exhibits and no one is paid other than stipends for some of the artists — Woodham said he couldn’t afford it and canceled the opening. This, he added, was the first time in the history of AiOP that an event had to be canceled.
“The artists who came from abroad were disappointed,” he said. But then at 5 p.m. on Friday there was a torrential downpour, “which made me feel better,” said Woodham.
Fortunately for him and the artists, the festival, which began on Wednesday, continued through Sunday to sunny skies and warm weather.