For nine years, the Times Square Alliance has invited architecture and design firms to submit proposals for a romantic public art installation in Times Square celebrating Valentine's Day. Past winners have included a statue of a heart that glowed to the pulse of a heartbeat, a pavilion of 12 mirrored hearts, and, after Hurricane Sandy, a heart-shaped platform made of pieces of wood from boardwalks damaged by the storm.
This year's selection, which goes on display for a month starting February 7, is no ordinary tribute to love and devotion. Designed by the Brooklyn-based Office for Creative Research, "We Were Strangers Once Too" consists of 33 metal poles streaked with red and pink bands of varying thickness, arranged so that when viewed from the right angle they form a heart. Up close, however, the meaning of the piece changes drastically, as the poles are revealed as a statistical breakdown of the different immigrant groups in New York City, with each band representing a particular nationality.
The significance of this year’s installation is not lost on the Times Square Alliance. In the words of the Alliance's Director of Communications T.J. Witham, "We think of ourselves as both America's town square and the world's town square." Indeed, Times Square is unique amongst public spaces; more than 300,000 people walk through it every day, many of them from outside the Big Apple, so anything displayed there reverberates far outside the five boroughs. This statement on contemporary politics is no accident on the Alliance's part. "There is a timely component to it," Mr. Witham acknoweldges, "and it seems important right now to have something in Times Square that speaks to both the incredible diversity and the strength of the diversity of New York."
"Timely" is hardly an unusual descriptor for the work of the Office for Creative Research. In each of its past projects, the group has illuminated some aspect of contemporary society through data, whether it be mapping the decline of elephant populations in Africa, developing tools to identify counterfeit medication in Nigeria, or visualizing the history of NASA from its annual reports. As the Office's managing director Kate Rath puts it, "We believe that data literacy is fundamental for living in this era of information, and want to put data in public spaces to broaden the public’s understanding of data."
With "We Were Strangers Once Too," the Office for Creative Research hopes to use data educate the public about the benefits that come with immigration, and to speak out against the perceived anti-immigrant tenor of much of President Trump's campaign rhetoric. The title of the piece comes from a 2014 speech by former President Obama announcing his executive action plan on immigration reform. “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once, too," Mr. Obama said then. "My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants."
For Rath, the contrast between Obama and Trump is indicative of a troubling development in the way Americans view immigration. "You just need to compare this language to the words of our new President to understand how different the times we now find ourselves in are. A lot of us have found ourselves strangers again under Trump’s policies, and art is one way for us to find a place to convene, to be loud and angry together, to dissent."
Because of that, for all the turmoil the past months have brought to American life, "We Were Strangers Once Too" is ultimately hopeful, a celebration of shared heritage and unity rather than a lamentation of differences and division. "The core message of the piece is that New York City is home to a hugely diverse community of immigrants from many, many different countries," said Rath. "If Trump wants to stop immigration into this city and this country, he’s going to have to build a lot of walls."
The February “Going Places” issue of AVENUE, out at the end of this week, celebrates how immigrants and immigration have enriched New York City.
Rendering courtesy of The Office for Creative Research