New York City’s Park Avenue tunnel will be closed on Saturdays from August 3 through August 17, 2013 for the installation of an interactive light and sound exhibition by artist, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Pedestrians will be permitted to enter the tunnel and will be directed to a silver intercom in the middle of the tunnel, where they are invited to speak. The speaker’s words are then transformed, reverberating through the tunnel as sound and light that varies with the volume and tone of the speech. The tunnel remains illuminated by the voices of the past 90 participants, and as new participants add their voices to the tunnel, older recordings are pushed to the end and replaced.
As the New York Times reports, upon reviewing plans for the piece, the New York City Police Department requested that the reverberations be on a six second delay, enabling the piece to be censored based on the content of the messages spoken. It is unclear what kinds of words or sentiments, precisely, the City was looking to censor. The artist, however, ardently refused any such restrictions, stating that the entire piece is about giving people a platform to express themselves.
In the United States, only a few limited classes of speech, such as true threats of violence, lack some degree of First Amendment protection, and government attempts to restrict the content of speech are subject to strict limitations. Constitutional jurisprudence recognizes that such protection extends beyond written or spoken words. The First Amendment protects other mediums of expression, including music, pictures, films, photographs, paintings, drawings, engravings, prints, and sculptures. See Hurley v. Irish-Am. Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Grp. of Bos., 515 U.S. 557, 569 (1995).
Interestingly, Lozano-Hemmer’s piece involves multiple levels of speech, first the expression of the speaker and then the subsequent artistic transformation that occurs when the words are recreated as light and sound, becoming part of a larger work within the tunnel. The degree to which the City could lawfully subject Lozano-Hemmer’s piece to content-based censorship is certainly debatable. Ultimately, the artist reached a compromise with the City, permitting all speech within the art piece except anything that may cause immediate alarm, such as yelling “Fire!”
Gothamist features an image and video gallery of the piece here.