Park51 Imagery and the Rhetoric of Contested Space

by Lisa Braverman

A couple of weeks ago as I skimmed the news, I saw the freshly-released images of the Park51 Community Center (colloquially known as the “Ground Zero Mosque”). In the same sitting, I also performed my semi-regular check of a former professor’s co-authored blog, No Caption Needed. Perusing the two in such short succession inspired reflection on the nature of the image in strategic communication – and more specifically, the nature of the image in the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terror, as well as that conflict’s implications in contemporary American public culture. Strategically, images make claims concrete. Curiously, in the case of the Park51 project, even the mere promise of images was worthy enough to create front-page news.

Park51 Street View Concept

According to the Park51 Blog, on September 28, 2010, three “renderings” of the proposed community center were released. As of October 3, 2010, no architectural brainstorms had been added to this slim posting. The computerized images look light, airy, and labyrinthine. The colorless interior and exterior of the building form what appears to be the frame of an empty mosaic. Though interesting, the renderings are far from blueprints and there are very few of them. Why, then, did they command enough attention to be featured as one of CNN’s top stories on October 3, five full days after the images were posted? And is it mere coincidence that after the images were released, we began to hear stories break about the community center’s supporters being under threat?

There are several plausible explanations for the images’ catalyzing force. First, the “renderings” of Park51 move the center’s existence from the realm of the hypothetical to the realm of the eminently plausible. Although images can inspire dialogue, they do not require it – an image exists because someone thought to bring it into being, not necessarily because a group engineered its appearance. This has implications for the efficacy of strategic communication more broadly. Images can often signal quick forays into the public dialogue, and like all other forms of communication, they can take on a life all their own. In other words, by presenting a public with an image, that public is encouraged to discuss what they are seeing – and yet the creative processes behind the image’s genesis need not be the result of discussion itself.

Second, when used and regarded strategically, images evoke things they do not visibly picture. These preliminary sketches of the community center are not simply musings about a building. They represent an implied victory in a very prominent public conflict. With these images, plans for Park51 publicly move forward – in contrast with plans to rebuild the World Trade Center, which have repeatedly stalled. Apart from and intertwined with the controversy itself, the images evoke a residue of terror and anguish. Therefore, despite the largely unimpressive nature of the architectural plans themselves, Park51’s blog posting was quickly catapulted to national and international news levels.

Strategically, the use and analysis of imagery has tremendous potential to alter the ways we think about contested spaces. Fundamentally, many of the ideological conflicts we try to mitigate are spatial as well. In the case of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” for example, the issue of location plays an incredibly prominent role.  This conflict is not about the existence of an Islamic community center per se, but rather the center’s proximity to the World Trade Center site. Visual depictions of what the community center might look like are actually inserted into the Manhattan landscape. In terms of public debate, it hardly matters that the landscape is fictitious.

Acts of terror are also territorialized, and can be thought of as contests over space. Competing ideas of what should be done with different locations permeate much contemporary conflict, so we can think of space and imagery as (potentially) persuasive. Spaces can be engineered, manipulated, and captured graphically. That instance of manipulation can, with the split-second click of a mouse, be globally transmitted.

With reference to Park51 and the project’s ability to communicate strategically, the entry of images into the public conversation has certainly sped up the rate of dialogue. Though groups in conflict can quite notably use imagery to draw attention to their specific causes, images can also have messy and unintended consequences. Such images can call up intimations of the very phenomena they are trying to usurp, in this case, terrorism.

To clarify, I do not believe the community center bears any resemblance to an act of terror, but rather that even peaceful architectural sketches can implicate such far-removed phenomena as the former “Global War on Terror.” Images direct our minds rapidly and in many directions. They should be both used and analyzed with care.  In the case discussed here, it is necessary to question not only the images, but why they became so popular.  The questioning should take place in specifically public contexts, not just individually in the privacy of our own spaces.