Subvertising Campaign Shocks the Conscience, But Not for Long
On Wednesday morning, two dozen cages fashioned from chain-link fencingappeared on sidewalks at strategic locations around Manhattan and Brooklyn. A pair of these were placed in Lower Manhattan: one on Centre Street, opposite the Municipal Building and close by the Brooklyn Bridge; the other about two blocks away, near the intersection of Broadway and Vesey Streets.
Each one contained a lifelike mannequin, the size of a small child, wrapped in a foil blanket, which bore a disturbing resemblance to a shroud. From around the edges of these blankets, locks of hair and smalls pair of shoes were visible. Concealed within every cage was also a rudimentary audio system that repeatedly played a track of a small child sobbing. This was interspersed with the sound of a heartbeat.
These installations together comprised a guerrilla art piece titled “#NoKidsInCages,” which was conceived, fabricated, and surreptitiously placed at carefully chosen points in the hours before sunrise. Among the collaborators on the project the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a non-profit that provides free and legal and social services to immigrant children, families, and refugees.
RAICES was assisted by an advertising agency, Badger and Winters, which is known for provocative, issued-oriented media campaigns. All of the locations for the cages were at heavily trafficked tourist sites (the Centre Street cage was near the pedestrian approach to the Brooklyn Bridge), or the offices of media companies (the cage Broadway and Vesey was in front of the headquarters of Refinery29, a digital media and entertainment company focused on young women). Locations elsewhere in Manhattan included the front doors of the New York Times and Fox News.
On the outside of each enclosure was a sign bearing a litany of disturbing facts: more than 3,000 small children have been separated from their parents while attempting to enter the United States illegally; they spend an average of 154 days apart from the mothers and fathers; six have died while in custody. (The soundtrack of weeping children, it turns out, was tape obtained by investigative reporting organization ProPublica of actual toddlers detained by the U.S. Border Patrol, crying out for their parents.)
As the morning rush hour got under way, the Police Department’s 911 call center received hundreds of notifications that crying children were trapped in metal enclosures around New York. Responding officers quickly determined that no actual child was in danger, but took significantly longer to figure out what to do with the Cages. Some were broken apart with crowbars and hacksaws. Others were lifted off the sidewalk by tow trucks.
The RAICES/Bader and Winters collaboration may mark a return to a tradition of New York street art that hovers somewhere between iconoclastic and seditious. Superficially, it resembles that maneuver that surprised the City by placing the “Fearless Girl” statue at Bowling Green in March, 2017. But that was done with the secret blessing of City Hall at the behest of a financial services conglomerate.
On another level, the Cages caper is more closely akin to the epic prank played by sculptor Arturo Di Modica in 1989, when he secretly (and illegally) deposited his bronze “Charging Bull” statue in front of the New York Stock Exchange in the middle of the night. As with the Cages, “Charging Bull” was initially seized and removed by police, although public support subsequently led to it being reinstalled (this time with official approval) at Bowling Green.
But there appears to be little likelihood that the Cages will welcomed back to New York’s streetscape. In this context, the piece perhaps belongs to a different New York tradition of street aesthetic, embodied by self-styled vandals such as Keith Haring and Banksy, whose art was meant to provoke and then to disappear.
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