Interrogating the Obvious / by Kiersten Nash

Parks, like advertisements, are meticulously manicured political, economic, and social fields through which normative beliefs and behaviors are negotiated. Since Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux first drafted their 1857 Greensward Plan, Central Park has served as a complex mix of motivations—that seek to nourish political and commercial interests, foster public health, provide jobs, harvest profit, "refine the rich, and lift up the poor." “Although planned as places of healthful recreation for all classes, landscape parks were built to middle-class standards."  In the case of Central Park, it took approximately 20,000 individuals, 2 years, and "more gunpowder than fired at the Battle of Gettysburg" to cultivate the cultural blueprints of New York City's elite (an attempt to mirror that of 'our' European brethren).

 Detail from an original sketch of the Greensward Plan by Calvert Vaux.

Detail from an original sketch of the Greensward Plan by Calvert Vaux.

In 1980, after what some considered a dramatic decline, "a group of civic and philanthropic leaders" throughout New York City converged to restore Central Park's aesthetic (and corresponding values) to its 'former splendor.' "Since its founding, The Central Park Conservancy has "managed the capital restoration of much of the Park's landscapes and facilities; created programs for volunteers and visitors; prescribed and carried out a management plan for the Park; and set new standards of excellence in park care." In August of 2011, the Conservancy, in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, unveiled a new strategy in its quest to sustain° the Park's standards of excellence—a wayshowing program that, according to Conservancy president, Douglas Blonsky, "helps visitors have as rich an experience as possible in the Park…by telling them: ‘Do This! Try This!’” Amongst the 1,500 directives that punctuate the pastoral paradise, is:

"BE QUIET! TRY SILENCE!"

NYC Parks and Recreation Title 56.105.D dictates that "No person shall make, or cause, or allow to be made, unreasonable noise …so as to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or harm." Chartreuse and white signage reading: "No Musical Instruments. No Amplified Sound." demarcate eight of the Park's most popular, highly-trafficked destinations as 'Quiet Zones.'

  Central Park Quiet Zones   (from foreground, back)  Sheeps Meadow, Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Terrace, Conservatory Water, Turtle Pond, East Green, and Conservatory Garden

Central Park Quiet Zones (from foreground, back) Sheeps Meadow, Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Terrace, Conservatory Water, Turtle Pond, East Green, and Conservatory Garden

  Bethesda Terrace, Central Park NYC

Bethesda Terrace, Central Park NYC

  Bethesda Terrace 'Quite Zone', Central Park, NYC

Bethesda Terrace 'Quite Zone', Central Park, NYC

Its graced movie screens and mantles around the globe. The fact that it has been deemed off-limits to musicians, does not surprise NYC-based composer and performer, Sxip Shirey: "All over the world, 'street performers' are the first to be put on TV, film, photos to promote the diversity and excitement of city life and they are also the first to be regulated to the point of not existing. Notice how every movie about NYC shows some mime in the street. That mime doesn't exist, that sax player standing on the street corner doesn't exist either; we are living in a media mythos of NYC that doesn't exist in real life." Title 56.105.D not only silences musicians, it has the capacity, by means of quantum modulation, to radically alter the political, social, and economic ecologies° that have come to characterize Bethesda Terrace, Central Park, and NYC.

Theory of Action: Interrogating the Obvious  The sun silhouettes an 8 foot bronze angel descending upon Bethesda Fountain as her cherubs—Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace—frolic in the pool of water below. Meanwhile, couples paddle across the pond, while others recline on the Terrace steps, ensconced in a chorus of voices emanating from the marble promenade. Upon visiting Bethesda Terrace, it became apparent the Conservancy's message echos loud and clear for those tuned in: Quiet is subjective. You are the subject. If we deem your music 'unreasonable,' we reserve the 'privilege' to silence you. Or more loosely interpreted, shh...you're in a fucking quiet zone (quiet, here being irrelevant considering anyone outside the realm of the Conservancy or its attendant NYC Department of Parks and Recreation has little control over how it is interpreted). The capacity to interpret the messages embedded in a given context—is fundamental to developing a critical consciousness necessary to confront the present. Unless you're the next Jimi Hendrix, one must learn to read music before tearing into All Along The Watchtower, i.e. generally one must know the rules before they can break them. To this end, Roland Barthes (and Bob Dylan) suggest interrogating the obvious: [dis]assembling the signification of messages communicated in a given context or [un]packing the myth.

By migrating from the two-dimensional realm of visual communication into the third-dimension by enacting the subjectification of Title 56§1.05.D, I hope to: [re]present the negotiation of normative behavior as individual and collective actions; challenge the legitimacy and authority of the Conservancy and NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation; increase situational awareness (literacy) of the various connotations and meanings embedded throughout Central Park's Quiet Zones; provoke dialogue regarding cultural [re]presentation and [re]production amongst artists et al; [un]playing, as cultural provocateur and theorist Mary Flanagan refers to this process in her book Critical Play, affords individuals the opportunity to enact "unanticipated conclusions often in opposition to an acceptable or expected (adult-play) script."

Precedents
LA Has Faults, Yee Chan 
Silence, John Cage