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Illicit Snowden statue put New York City officials in ironic dilemma

(Animal New York / Aymann Ismail)

(Animal New York / Aymann Ismail)

Runners and dog-walkers in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park were greeted with an unusual sight yesterday morning: a 4-foot tall bust of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The pair of anonymous artists responsible tapped arts and culture blog ANIMAL New York to film the guerrilla installation, which was covered and eventually taken down by the city parks officials by mid-day Monday. The artists’ developed a contingency plan that involved 3-D printing “an army of mini-Snowden heads.” Although, to-date, no such back-up forces have arrived, a group of locally-based political artists known collectively as The Illuminator projected a holographic image of Snowden in the place where the bust had briefly stood last night.

Before dawn, the small crew donning construction attire hauled the 100-pound statue, made by a sympathetic sculptor on the West Coast, into the Prison Ship Martyr’s monument, built to commemorate the 11,000 American soldiers who died on British ships during the Revolutionary War. Snowden’s likeness was placed atop an empty column. Rather than bronze, the statue was constructed out of hydrocal, a substance often used in Las Vegas casinos to replicate castles and Romanesque statues in gaudy displays. They spared no detail, ensuring that the color of the bust and Snowden’s last name, spelled out at the column’s base, fit perfectly into the rest of the monument.

The placement was not incidental. In a statement entitled “Prison Ship Martyrs 2.0,” the New York-based artists write, “We have updated this monument to highlight those who sacrifice their safety in the fight against modern tyrannies.”

“All too often,” they added,” “figures who strive to uphold these ideals have been cast as criminals rather than in bronze.”

The sculptor charged the two artists only the cost of the materials; on the market, the project itself — which took six months — would easily run a bill in the tens of thousands. “If it were bronze,” the artist told ANIMAL, “it could be a $100,000 piece of artwork, maybe more.”

Snowden, a former CIA contractor who leaked a trove of documents from his tenure in national security, now lives abroad in Moscow under fear of being charged with treason should he return to the United States. The case received a public boost in the fall as the subject of Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary “CitizenFour.” Highlighting the scheduled expiration of the Patriot Act on June 1, comedian John Oliver ran a humorous segment featuring an interview with Snowden Sunday night on his popular late-night show “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver asked Times Square pedestrians — just miles away from Fort Greene — to identify Snowden. Many could not, rendering Monday’s installation all the more well-timed.

“It’s not just about Snowden,” the artists said in an interview with Mashable. “It’s about the ideals that he was trying to work towards and push others to care about.”

The bust put unwitting New York parks officials (and, more so, their bosses) in an interesting dilemma: either allow an illegal installment, or look heavy-handed by covering up and tearing down a visage of the man who revealed damning secrets the government would much rather have kept under wraps. They chose the latter, making an ironic fate for a statue of someone living in political exile. Even more ironic, and a good deal more troubling, will be if city officials track down and bring charges against the artists. A New York Police Department spokesperson told a local NBC affiliate that the department “will be looking for DNA and other clues that may lead to a suspect.”