Instruction Sets for Strangers is a project that challenges students to design interventions in physical spaces that instruct the public to complete a task without using any verbal or written cues. My teammates and I chose Washington Square Park as the site of our design intervention.
We started by doing research on the site. We were struck by WSP's rich history of protest and civil disobedience. The park has long been a site of mass protests for some of America's most progressive movements. I was particularly intrigued by the area's pre-modern history. In the 17th Century, all of Lower Manhattan was known as "The Land of the Blacks." Dutch settlers granted the land to enslaved Africans to act as a buffer zone and human shield between their settlements in Upper Manhattan and hostile Native American communities. Although the Land of the Blacks' purpose was exploitation, the settlements prospered and became a gateway to freedom.
We discussed this as a group and decided the goal of our intervention would be "to encourage collective art in the spirit of Washington Square Park's history of protest and reclamation."
We took inspiration from the post-election collective art at the 14th Street-Union Square and a photo I took at the Women's March as good examples of non-verbal cues that communicate intent clearly.
In the first iteration, we took a cut out of a world map and set it up on a poster board with stickers representing various movements: the Black Power fist, the Gay Pride flag, the Communist hammer and sickle, an anti-swastika sign, the Feminism fist, and an anti-gun sign.
We hoped that passerby would feel compelled to make a statement with the stickers if they had the prompting of the world map.
We had a few people stop and engage but not as many as we hoped. We had some conversations with a few of the people that interacted and it occurred to us that we were limiting in our choice of materials to a small range of statements.
We decided to go back to our original source of inspiration and use stickie notes as our medium. We hoped this would allow freedom of expression. To communicate our instructions and guide the feedback to reflect the topic of protest, we added a silhouette of protestors and cut some of the stickie notes in the shape of picket signs.
With the second iteration, we observed more people interacting with the board but the most interesting interactions were how people interacted rather than what they wrote. Our easel was pretty flimsy and between the wind and the pressure of the pens against the canvas, it was falling over every other interaction. One of the first large groups to interact were a bunch of kids and their parents. When the canvas started to tip over, the kids took turns holding the canvas so the others could write. Moments later a young man interacted but had the same trouble with the easel. One of the parent's of the kids held the canvas up for the young man. The young man then moved the easel behind the fence and stuck the legs firmly in the soil. No more tipping over and two great examples of unintentional collectivism
At the end of two hours we had a lot of stickie notes to read. I went up to a group who were spending quite a bit of time at the board and asked them what they thought it was. One man said "I think it's just a community note board, like collective art." Another person said "It's a place to share encouraging words, words of peace. I see the people at the bottom. It looks like they're peacefully protesting." The feedback and interactions were positive and I felt it captured our initial goal. In reflecting, I think the most meaningful part of our experiment was observing how readily people worked together and took charge on creating solutions.