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 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

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