Taking it to the Streets

A group of NY artists create an old-fashioned forum for discussion about the Park51 Islamic center


A group of artists are taking public discourse back to the old days, when all you needed to get your thoughts heard was a pen and paper, not a Twitter account and an online following.

It’s a throwback to a time when computers were scarce and thoughts on paper were plentiful.

One day, as I was out reporting, I saw just that: a simple white poster with black text that left enough room for handwritten commentary. In the sensory overload that characterizes New York City, the clean white lines and hard edges of the poster caught my eye.

The poster was divided in half by a thin black line. To the left of the line it read: “The Ground Zero Mosque should not be built because:” and to the right of the line: “The Islamic Community Center should be built because:”

You know the drill — fill in the blank.

Immediately, I found myself wondering: Why does one side read “Ground Zero Mosque” and the other “Islamic Community Center”? But mostly, I just wanted to track down the masterminds behind this project.

I enlisted the help of a few friends with a knack for taking pictures around the city. Within a few hours, I received a picture message on my phone, with a blank poster identical to the one I saw earlier in the day, followed by a message that read, “Concerned New Yorkers.”

Influenced by the recent debate over the proposed lower Manhattan Islamic community center, a group of local artists decided to take this discourse to the street. They called themselves “Concerned New Yorkers,” and they wanted to provide a forum for those wishing to voice their opinions on local issues.

Kenny Komer, Boris Rasin and Adam Wissing created the group last summer to elect Monty Burns for Mayor of New York City as a social commentary on politicians and their empty promises. Thanks to their viral campaign, a mix of political and artistic pranksterism, the Simpsons character had the greatest number of write-in votes during last year’s mayoral elections.

Now, the group is taking on a more serious issue: that of the proposed Park51 community center.

“We aren’t making a statement, but everybody else that is interested enough to make a statement does,” Rasin said. “Artistically that’s the interesting part of the project.”

New Yorkers have their say

“When the story was exploding in the news, we wanted to chime in and do something about it, because it’s very important,” Boris Rasin said. “A lot of people have a lot to say from outside of New York. And we live here, this is our city, and we have something to say about it.”

The group of twentysomethings then embarked on a project that would take them to the streets of Manhattan.

Rasin said the trio wanted to put the posters up before September 11, in time for the dueling rallies. So they rushed to get out as many posters as possible on September 10. To date, they have distributed over 1,000 posters to various locations in Manhattan while keeping tabs on the responses via their website and Flikr page.

Here’s a sample of the reactions:

The Ground Zero Mosque should not be built because:
its disrespectful to those killed
Then the muslims win.
cause muslims suck

The Islamic Community Center should be built because:
a billion Muslims should not be blamed for the work of a dozen terrorists.
Its about love
U.S. Constitution Amendment #1
Grief doesn’t cancel rights

Some respondents even posted on both sides of the black line, an example of the division created by the debate circling the proposed Park51 building:

It’s a slap in the face to all the ones that lost family

written in the same handwriting as

It the culture of our great nation Freedom of Religion

The wording of the poster brought about some debate among the artists. Rasin explains, “At one point, the original design said, ‘Should it be built?’ We knew that nobody would agree on the name. So then we decided to just let people respond to the posters the way they wanted to. If you call it ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ you’re probably leaning in that direction, and if you call it by its proper name, then you’re probably leaning in that direction.”

From an artistic standpoint, the posters proved to integrate simplicity and interactivity.

“We aren’t making a statement, but everybody else that is interested enough to make a statement does,” Rasin said. “Artistically that’s the interesting part of the project.”

As far as reaching their goal, soliciting responses from the public is the true measure of success for the group.

“The success of the project is if people respond, if people write. Some people wrote paragraphs and some people wrote something on the other side weighing the pros and cons of the debate. It’s making people think.”

Rasin, who describes himself as an atheist Jew, and the other group members support the Park51 project. Their main objective, however, is to have all voices heard on the issue.

“The project seems to be neutral enough that people of both sides of the debate appreciate being asked,” he said.

The group will distribute posters for their dialogue-building project until a decision is reached, and that appreciation seems likely to continue.