In Times Square and beyond, artists are honoring essential workers with digital PSAs

In Times Square and beyond, artists are honoring essential workers with digital PSAs

Those passing through Times Square may notice that the typical ads plastering the digital boards have been replaced with art. Since May 15, works from Mel Chin, Jenny Holzer, Pedro Reyes and Carrie Mae Weems loom over Times Square as part of a digital public art campaign in honor of essential workers.

Messages for the City,” now in its second iteration, culls work from over 30 artists and designers to be featured as digital PSAs across screens in New York City. Expanding the scope of its original footprint, the new edition will also bring the digital PSAs to Boston and Chicago.

PSA by Nekisha Durrett. Photo: Maria Baranova.
PSA by Nekisha Durrett. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Presented by Times Square Arts, the Poster House and For Freedoms, the campaign aims to convey community and to express gratitude toward essential workers, while acknowledging the increased impact on immigrants and undocumented workers.

“Especially in times of uncertainty and change, artists can figuratively — and, in Times Square, literally — shine a light on hidden truths and celebrate those people and phenomena which are often unseen or unacknowledged,” Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, said.

The project originally launched April 17, lighting up billboards and nearly 2,000 LinkNYC kiosks. The second phase will bring the creations to Boston and Chicago via JCDecaux screens. Alixa Garcia, Christine Sun Kim, Christine Wong Yap, Duke Riley, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, G.O.N.G. (collaborating with Mel Chin), Nekisha Durrett, Paula Crown and Xaviera Simmons are among the artists featured in the newest iteration.

PSA by Christine Sun Kim. Photo: Maria Baranova.
PSA by Christine Sun Kim. Photo: Maria Baranova.

“Art asks us to pause, to take a moment to consider what is in front of us,” For Freedoms said. “We hope that this project will further encourage us to pause, consider and appreciate those whose jobs are essential, who return to their nightly hospital shifts or daily customer service responsibilities, to guarantee that we are taken care of through this pandemic and beyond.”

The new edition of the initiative also features a limited edition benefit print by artist Pedro Reyes in “solidarity with New York’s nearly two million immigrant workers.” Listed at $295 (and currently already sold out), net proceeds will benefit the advocacy organization New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), which has recently announced the #NYUnitedFund in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Social distancing is a privilege,” Reyes said. “I chose this drawing as an homage to those workers who work with their hands and on whom we depend to keep society going.”

Read below to learn more from artists Duke Riley, Christine Wong Yap and Mel Chin about the inspiration behind their works.

Duke Riley
“For Whom Honor Is Due”

Artwork by Duke Riley.
Artwork by Duke Riley.

Some of the youngest people to die in the COVID-19 pandemic have been health care workers. I was originally compelled to make this design to raise money for the families of health care workers who gave their lives to save others. Like all essential workers, they sacrificed all for little payback. I want to share my admiration and gratitude with those surviving while also acknowledging those who loved and lost them.

I became sick with COVID-19 in mid-March. The nurses who treated me in my fortunately short stint at the hospital provided further inspiration. It had already felt like a personal issue for me, since my sister’s early nursing career was interrupted by her untimely death during the AIDS epidemic.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Times Square as the main street of New York City. In this sad time we’ve lost so many, including Jimmy Glen, beloved owner of Jimmy’s Corner — Main Street New York’s last great bar. Sharing this image there feels like it’s touching the heart of the community that has become a symbolic ghost town of America during lockdown. Those
passing through are courageous and I want to share this image with them all. All of these sentiments coalescence in “For Whom Honor Is Due.”

Christine Wong Yap
“Thank You for Your Sacrifice,” “Thank You for Your Courage” and “Thank You for Your Commitment”

Artwork by Christine Wong Yap.
Artwork by Christine Wong Yap.

I wanted to thank all frontline personnel by making drawings based on real, diverse NYC medical workers.

“Thank You for Your Sacrifice” is inspired by an emergency room doctor who temporarily left his home for the safety of his partner and baby. “Thank You for Your Courage” is dedicated to unionized nurses organizing for adequate PPE (personal protective equipment). “Thank You for Your Commitment” is influenced by two FDNY paramedics, Sherry Singleton and Christell Cadet. Sherry organized a GoFundMe fundraising campaign for Christell, who has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for over a month. Shortly after, Sherry was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, and is in the process of recovering.

I also hope that pointing attention to the risks and struggles faced by health care workers (and their families) can lend perspective to coping with shelter-in-place guidelines, social distancing and disrupted routines.

Mel Chin and G.O.N.G.

Artwork by Mel Chin with G.O.N.G.
Artwork by Mel Chin with G.O.N.G.

Artist Mel Chin invited a team of artists to develop a work for those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic and a collective idea for “WAVE” evolved naturally and swiftly.

The opportunity to situate this work in the historic intersection of Times Square, where many converge from around the world, in a city now the epicenter of the biggest wave of COVID-19 infections in the U.S., inspired this pulsing, energetic message to elicit empathy
and communicate sincere gratitude to those on the frontlines of this unprecedented crisis.

“WAVE” was designed to express gratitude to our essential workers — especially healthcare workers. Words of appreciation honor these individuals with poetry, translated to cymatic (visible sound) imagery, expanding this intention beyond the limitation of words. “WAVE” is a convergence of science and art that broadcasts a heartfelt message, reflecting how each one of us, individually and collectively as a society, are deeply indebted for the sacrifices being made by those on the frontlines, as well as recognition of those enduring painful loss at this time.

G.O.N.G. members include Jacob Brault, Mel Chin, Pat Clifford, Fabiola R. Delgado, Maps Glover, Amy Braden Hughes, Dawne Langford, Ben Matchar, Ben Premeaux, Michael Angelo Rodriguez, Amanda Wiles, Elijah Williamson and Naoko Wowsugi.

Top Image: PSA by Carrie Mae Weems. Photo: Maria Baranova.