2005_07_sylkaandjohn.gifSylka and John celebrated Independence Day by setting up a display of small American flag templates in Union Square Park and providing a spectrum of markers with which passersby could exercise their right to express themselves by decorating them (or desecrating, depending on your ideology).

The basics:

Age, occupation, where do you live, where are you from?
Sylka: 35, social worker, we’ve been in Brooklyn all our lives.
John: 41, high-school English teacher.

A few for you:
Why are people drawing on flags on Independence Day?
J: This project is The Patriot Act. We had the idea of raising awareness about freedom of speech and the proposed Constitutional amendment against desecration of the flag. Freedom of speech is one of the most important rights in our country, and the idea behind freedom of speech is accepting other people’s viewpoints large or small, brilliant or ridiculous.
S: And access to dialogue. It doesn’t necessarily have to be what you want to hear or what you like to hear, as you can tell by our flags -- People said things that might be kind of offensive, but in that you have to allow this. You have to let the feeling go through you, let it happen, because you can’t censor the right we have, which is slowly being eroded.
J: We have all kinds of markers and you can come up and express yourself.
S: Anyone has the opportunity to write or draw on it, say whatever you want to say.
J: As long as they don’t hurt anyone, they can do whatever they want on the flag.

flags4.gifWhat will you do with the flags afterward?
S: We haven’t gotten that far yet. We woke up the other day and decided this is what we wanted to do. we’re going to barbeque also. It’s attracted a very eclectic crowd: the disenfranchised, some homeless people, certainly some mentally ill people—

Any Republicans?
S: Sure, there’s a couple of things on there that are red state-, vegetative state-style.

What messages stand out? What are the highlights?
S: A lot of people say, If we keep on allowing certain freedoms to be foreshortened or censored, when you keep doing this what will it look like 30 years from now? What will it be like for our children? It won’t happen all at once, it’ll happen bit by bit.

How does public art and activism make a difference?
S: It punctures the mass psychosis. Any act, any voice that stands out, whether a single one or a mass gathering, affects the status quo.

You’ve staged other public events or displays?
J: On the evening of Lincoln’s assassination, August 14 – he died on the 15th, but was shot on the 14th -- we decided to bring some awareness to that, which was kind of a tyrannical effort by one fanatic. So we marked it with poetry readings from Walt Whitman and log cabin syrup, and gave away pennies under the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the park.
S: People were very suspicious. They would not take the pennies.
J: This is our second public demonstration or expression of what it means to be an American, to participate in a democracy.
S: Our second together, but all through the early part of the staging of the Iraq war, I was very active, always in Washington or New York in the big marches. So this is kind of an extension of that.

Ever get tackled or tear gassed?
S: No, nothing really. I saw it, but didn’t myself get gassed.

Has anyone gotten angry at this display?
S: One guy told us we were getting too loud.
J: We were “disturbing the tranquility” of the park. And I agreed with him, and I toned down a bit.

What’s next for you?
J: There’s nothing next. It’s just a matter of expressing yourself, to keep the awareness of what it means to express your
S: September 24, some of the larger antiwar awareness coalitions, like MoveOn, are putting together a big hit-the-streets march again, and of course November 2nd will be a big one, so I think there will be more attention to some of the issues going on in the country.

flags2.gifWhat did you think of Live 8?
S: You know, I read about it, but I’ve been so out of the music scene so long. I’m so glad it’s happening but I feel like the issues around Africa right now… I feel like they haven’t addressed half of the corruption that goes on.

Are art and music events like that just making a lot of noise without getting enough accomplished?
S: No, I think they do get things accomplished. I think making noise is part of it. I think the endpoint is not always the point; that something that should happen is happening -- that is what’s so important; that the people are moved together, are excited and inspired. The end might not happen for a while. Vietnam’s end didn’t happen for years and years. It took a long time and I still don’t know if people learned from that. Still, you can’t be quiet. The world has to know that we’re obligated to point out reality.
J: When people walk away from what we’re doing today… it doesn’t end here when we pack these up. People are going to remember that what they did today was they expressed themselves on a flag in a public place and that feeling, that right, should stay with them. When it’s abrogated in any way, their response should be “I know what it feels like and I don’t want to lose that.” That’s what we hope to accomplish today.
S: It is a radical act in this current moment. There’s a lot of apathy, a lot of fear.
J: A lot of people have been frightened. They come up and take a look at it, but they don’t want to take that step to pick up a marker and drawing on it because they’re afraid someone’s watching them, or they’re doing something wrong.

What do you say to people who support the amendment?
S: Would you want to live in a country where you couldn’t burn a flag?
J: It’s governed under freedom of speech. They can express their interest in that amendment.

What was the most impressive display of public activism that you’ve seen or wished you were a part of?
J: The Boston Tea Party.


The questionnaire:
Favorite bar or restaurant?
S: Magnetic Fields, it’s on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Amazing music there -- excellent bar, excellent drinks, but they have great, great music -- punk and rock. The owners are really exciting, fun, progressive thinkers. It’s an awesome place.

Best celebrity encounter on the streets of New York?
S: We were just out the other night, walking around, and we saw Keanu Reeves. He was just standing outside this bar, smoking a cigarette and staring into space. This tribe of Japanese tourists jumped on him, screaming “Ooh! Matrix! Matrix!”

What law would you pass to improve life in the city?
S: Get the teachers a contract already. I don’t know if it’s a law but it’s been so long, it’s just sorry as shame.

What advice would you give Mayor Bloomberg?
S: Get rid of your ego, and fill it with something other than yourself. Learn to be more compassionate to people who need it.