Current artists: Amon Azizov, Wei Chen, Qiao Fu, Gao Min, Guo Kun Sheug, Artashes Karslian, Ji Yin Jin, Li Qun, Lin Ruo, Dean Lu, Ren Jien-Guo, Jorge Rivera, Sharif Sadiq, Peter Walsh, Xiang Yue Chuan, Dario Zapata, Zhuang Xuemin

Organized by Peter Walsh, Ongoing.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ai Wei Wei Confirmed as Central Park Portrait Artist

Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei was confirmed today by the New York Times as having been a portrait artist in Central Park during his sojourn in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the same moment, New York City officials continue to crackdown on artists working in Central Park, directly across the street from where New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself unveiled Ai Wei Wei’s "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads".

In an article from 1991 about the death of portrait artist Lin Lin in Times Square, Times reporter Richard Bernstein, who identifies Ai Wei Wei as "a painter and sculptor who was one of the first young Chinese artists to come to this country" says "A typical day might include several hours in the afternoon drawing portraits in Central Park, Mr. Ai said. Then, a portrait artist might travel down to 34th Street to work for a few hours in the early evening outside Macy's. Later at night, he might venture over to Times Square, where, despite the dangers of the neighborhood, there are often many prospective customers late into the night."

Today's article on Ai's New York City photos at the Asia Society states "Mr. Ai worked as a street artist while he lived in New York, charging $15 to $25 for a portrait in Times Square." As usual, the Times, which has consistently taken the city's side in the current dispute between artists and the Parks Department, avoids stating that Ai worked in the parks, even though their own archive confirms it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Brian Haw and the Fight for Public Space

Brian Haw (middle) with Peter Walsh (left) and Zuky Serper (right) at Parliament Square, London, November 2, 2004. Photo: Susan Kelly.

Peace to Brian Haw (1949-2011).

Coming up out of the tube into London’s bright mid-day sun, I wheeled my election cart up into Parliament Square, Big Ben’s Clock Tower looming over me as I struggled to get my bearings. Immediately I was welcomed politely to a patch of park sidewalk across the street from Parliament by a scruffy, sharp-minded man in a winter coat and a cap covered with political buttons like the hull of a ship is encrusted by barnacles. It was November 2, 2004, Election Day in the U.S. presidential election, and Brian Haw had already been on site for three years. Brian, armed with a cheap bullhorn and a forest of hand-lettered signs, was a one-person campaign against the Iraq War. He kindly gave me tips on the lay of the land as I set up a voting booth for Plebiscite2004, ostensibly an art project, that I had been running for about a month in the run-up to the election.

This post is not about that project or U.S. elections or the War in Iraq. Instead, I’d like to honor Brian as a defender of the right of ordinary people to make use of public spaces in vigorous, difficult and honorable ways, as opposed to notions of public spaces as being white-washed “neutral spaces” or “quiet zones” or even worse, public-private real estate to be sold off to the highest bidder.

Like the current and on-going court battle over artists’ rights to work and sell in New York City’s parks, Brian’s extended legal fight over his right to use a park sidewalk in London and to speak his views publicly gets at the heart of what we want democracy to be. For example, what does it mean that across the street from where Ai Wei Wei’s "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" is now installed in front of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has instituted a crack-down on artists’ ability to interact with the public. This is not meant to conflate the seriousness of Ai’s detention with the ability of a small group of artists to make a living, but rather to point out that the fight for public space and freedom of action is being played out across the world – in London as well as Beijing, in New York as well as Cairo.

It takes people like Brian Haw and Robert Lederman, the repeatedly arrested president of the New York City based street artists’ group A.R.T.I.S.T., being willing to fight on the street and in the courts to be able to keep the “public” in public space.

Every art action on the street entails a negotiation over the right to be there. On that day in London in 2004, Brain Haw used his experience to help me defend my own right to be there as City of London police officers pressured me to move. Literally I was given a choice: be arrested if I stayed on one side of a crack in the sidewalk, or be fine if I moved to the other side (in this case, into the jurisdiction of the City of Westminster). Here in New York for the same political art project, I had to get the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to intercede on my behalf in order to set up in front of the Unisphere in Queens’ Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The street is the front line of the push between regular people and the authorities – no matter where you are.

For more on Brian’s life and times and his court battles, see these links:

Brian Haw, New York Times Obituary

Brian Haw, Wikipedia

Brian Haw, Al Jazeera Obituary

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Public Space Battle in NYC Grows: City Actions Now Extend Beyond Artists to Include Musicians and Newspapers

As scorching summer temperatures hit Manhattan, sparring over what a person can do in New York City’s public parks has heated up too.

In May a panel of New York State Appeals Court judges allowed new park rules to go into effect, dramatically restricting where artists can work and sell in four busy city parks, pending the outcome of an artists’ lawsuit against the city’s Parks Department.

“Panel Finds Vendor Restrictions Do Not Violate Free Speech Rights” New York Law Journal, May 18, 2011.
"Appeals Court Rules Against Artists in Dua v. City of New York Department of Parks Suit," Cental Park Portrait Exchange, May 18, 2011.

Meanwhile the Parks Department ordered it’s Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers to expand enforcement of restrictions beyond artist vendors to include musicians in newly created “Quiet Zones,” including near the crowded and popular Bethesda Fountain in the heart of Central Park.

“Musicians chased from Central Park,” New York Post, May 28, 2011.
“Musician Crackdown At Central Park's Bethesda Fountain,” A Walk in the Park, May 29, 2011.
“No Radios by the Fountain, Please! Or Cellos!,” New York Times, June 5, 2011.

Concurrently, Robert Lederman, president of the street artists organization A.R.T.I.S.T and an artist/plaintiff in a second suit against the city, in federal court, reports that new depositions of PEP officials confirm that sellers of newspapers such as the New York Times, New York Post and the Daily News are now officially banned from selling from temporary stands in parks such as Union Square. Those news-sellers would be forced to compete for the same restricted locations used by artists.

“Why Bloomberg is Evicting Newspaper Vendors From 4 NYC Parks,” Robert Lederman, June 8, 2011.
“Art vendors spots restricted at Union Square, High Line,” The Villager, Volume 81, Number 2: June 9 to 15, 2011.