Chatting with the Artist Who Turned Edward Snowden into a Mobile Sculpture
He told me why a lot of people don't recognise the NSA whistle-blower.
On Friday, October 10, Edward Snowden appeared in New York's Union Square, though few recognized him at first. You couldn't blame passersby for missing him—the nine-and-a-half-foot-tall, 200-pound sculpture of the world's most famous whistle-blower didn't have any distinguising marks; he was just a giant white man made of concrete hanging out in the park. In a moment too serendipitous to make up, the first person to clearly recognize the model of the controversial NSA document leaker was none other than Glenn Greenwald, who happened to be eating breakfast nearby.
"It was totally random—we didn’t tweet at him or anything," said artist Jim Dessicino, who created the statue and put it in Union Square as part of the Art in Odd Places Festival. I talked to the Delaware-based sculptor and MFA candidate the next day, as he was unloading the sculpture in the Meatpacking District. "I emailed him months ago about the sculpture, and he never got back to me."
Dessicino's work focuses on representations of power, specifically "what it means to make monuments without a commissioning body—to deal with things like traditional monument-making and traditional art, especially in a public space," he said. "Because how often in America do we go out to public space not to purchase anything, but to just be there?"
On Friday, in another oddly symbolic incident, the artist was approached by an employee of New York's Parks and Recreation Department, who explained that Union Square is a privately owned space and Dessicino would have to move the sculpture or be fined. So the next day the Snowden statue was re-erected on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, where it stood all afternoon without much interference, save one teenager who scribbled the word "TRAITOR" in chalk at the feet of artwork.
Though some coverage of Dessicino's project has focused on how people haven't recognized Snowden, the artist told me that non-Americans immediately knew who the statue was supposed to be. As I stood with Dessicino and his work, I noticed that non-English-speaking tourists all realized what they were seeing, while New Yorkers (especially young people) stopped to take photos, though many couldn't identify the white monolith. When I asked some of them why they were taking photos of someone they didn't recognize, they told me, "He seems important." (One kid said he thought it was a famous tech person, since the Snowden sculpture was facing the massive Apple store a block away.)
Over the course of the afternoon, I spoke with the Dessicino about why the NSA whistle-blower isn't as famous as he should be, and whom he'd like to take a photo of next to the statue—besides Glenn Greenwald.
Glenn Greenwald next to the sculpture in Union Square. Photo via Jeremey Scahill's Twitter
VICE: At this point, Snowden’s face is pretty iconic, but did you model the sculpture off any photo in particular?
Jim Dessicino: I modeled the sculpture off the original Laura Poitras video. I started making the sculpture last September, and I did the head first in clay. I made that in about three weeks. Her video was the only thing [with his face in it], really. I watched it over and over again, and paused it to make stills.
You didn't use any computer modeling?
No, absolutely not. It was just by looking at it. I went to school at [Philadelphia's] University of the Arts and had two great sculpture teachers. I learned how to just look at people, and recreate them sculpturally.
When you were making his face, in particular, did you try to add any expression to it?
Yeah, I wanted an expression of him being a little unaware, or a little unsure. This is how I felt about what happened. It’s hard to talk about it now, since so much has changed. Snowden has become this very pivotal figure in the issue of surveillance. It’s the big information-age issue, and the issue of my generation. He and I are only a year apart in age. I was just happy that there was someone in my generation—which is always labeled as self-serving and full of themselves—who would sacrifice all his liberties to try and give us information.
So turning him into a statue, an object of idol worship, is that your commentary on how we should view him?
I wouldn’t say that making a statue of someone makes them an idol. I’m trying to be critical of the whole concept of monumentality. It’s about discourse and a distance between you and what’s made. This can be a democratic activity that can make people pause, bring them together, and discuss things happening right now, in a public space. I thought it was important to try and take something slow and old and traditional that expresses clearly what I’m trying to say and what society could represent through sculptures, a very slow and permanent medium in a world of crazy-fast technological information. I just wanted to give people a chance to slow down and think about the fastest, most invasive, all-encompassing subject of privacy, technology, and surveillance. And here’s the oldest of art forms questioning the guy who’s the questioner.
I saw one article that said you were going to stand watch next to the sculpture to make sure it’s not vandalized. Do you think by the end of the Art in Odd Places Festival you’d be interested in seeing if people deface it without anyone stopping them?
I have to take it to the Delaware Center of Contemporary Art, where it will be in a show for the next three months. I’ve been getting a lot of offers from people in the South and Midwest who want to put him in public parks.
What are you thoughts about the public parks official coming to Union Square and kicking you out? That seems like an almost ironic incident.
A little bit, yeah! We had someone from the park security partnership come by, and they were so happy. They took the postcards I was giving out, and said we love this, we love Snowden. Then a cop came by and he was really happy, and he took a festival brochure and a postcard. Then this guy from the park service came by ,and said he really liked sculpture and took a postcard—but he said that unless we had a permit, we had to leave to go or he'd get in trouble with his boss. So I called the festival, and they didn’t have a permit. I was more than willing to leave because I didn’t want to cause this guy any trouble. I said, "Don’t give me a ticket, and I won’t give you any trouble."
Why’d you put the Snowden sculpture specifically next to Abe Lincoln in Union Square?
It’s an American conversation, a conversation about liberty. Lincoln knew a lot about liberty. Here you have this young guy, Snowden, talking about civil liberties in a different way and different age, but the conversation is an American conversation—and it’s an old one, as well as an ongoing one. I’m sure people walk by and ignore that Abe Lincoln sculpture all day long. Or they think of Lincoln in a mythological way—as the preserver of the Union and the freer of slaves. By putting the Edward Snowden sculpture there, it hooks Lincoln back up into time and creates a direct link from the past to the present.
What do you think of many Americans not being able to recognize Snowden?
That general sense of apathy—of being disengaged with public life—is something very typical of our time. People aren’t concerned with someone like Snowden—a crusader for civil liberties. It’s none of their concern.
Why don't you think Snowden is a household name?
He is not a household name because he does not have a TV show. To be a household name in the internet age, you need to be in the news constantly and be entertaining. Edward Snowden is like history class—informative, insightful, and important—but he reveals uncomfortable truths that some do not want to hear. He is not entertaining.
To see more of Jim Dessicino's work, visit his website here.
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