A few thoughts on the Trump Balloon

Part two in a series on air as an element of the public realm (part 1 here).

All of the things I wanted to write about this week is going to have to wait, because – as I type these very words – someone is floating a balloon in London and causing an international incident.

Balloon

There’s been plenty of ink spilled about the giant inflatable Donald Trump baby figure. As an act of political speech, it’s not subtle, and I expect most of you already know what you think about it. I’ll leave the “is it good?” question to others, because that isn’t what interests me. I’ll offer a few quick thoughts on how this incident speaks to broader issues.

  1. The air above public parks is normally a lightly-supervised civic resource

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To state the obvious, public parks aren’t just the ground and physical objects attached to it. The airspace above park grounds is part of the public realm, and that makes it an important civic resource.

As with other public spaces in mature democracies with tight budgets, there’s typically a long list of ordinances and rules governing what is and isn’t permissible in parks, and a very light level of staffing to enforce those rules. The rules for ground and sky are mainly enforced on a complaint basis (of course, this can get very problematic).

For instance, the small park closest to our house is very quiet, and it doesn’t have a full-time employee on site. Unless you bother someone else who’s there, they know how to complain, and they do, this leaves a very broad swath of possible activities. Go ahead, the air is fine. Kick a ball, huck a frisbee, fly a kite, play a clarinet, fly a drone, make delicious-smelling smoke (disposable BBQ grills are popular here), pop the cork of a bottle of Prosecco with your picnic (also inordinately popular), make a human tower. The level of staffing creates a dynamic in which it’s more about social norms than government rules, with people taking full advantage of the possibilities for how to use the volume of the park, and some people inevitably testing those limits.

I saw my favorite example of this dynamic in a recent visit to Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Street vendors were demonstrating and selling the Amazing 588 Arrow Helicopter every evening.

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With a bit of plastic, an LED, and a rubber band, you can launch it 30-40 feet into the night sky and they flutter right back down to you. I don’t remember if they were selling them for 1 euro a pop or 2, but the mark-up is terrific regardless. The vendors’ behavior was intentionally eye-catching in one of the busiest tourist spots in town. And it was plainly illegal. There was no sign that the vendors had licenses, and no indication that they were the slightest bit worried about the authorities showing up and throwing the book at them. And it wasn’t treated as a problem by anyone I could see. The kids loved playing with it, too. It’s a great example of how people find opportunity within the limits of how public spaces are regulated in practice.

If you value living in a free society, and you don’t want to pay taxes for constant, vigilant enforcement of every rule on the books, this dependence on social norms versus strict enforcement is a fact of life.

2. It’s a fundamentally different dynamic requesting advance permission to make a political act in public space

To go back to the example of my neighborhood park, I quite literally could make my own inflatable figure of whatever/whomever I like (this week, I think I’d choose Gareth Southgate – what a guy), fill it with helium and fly it, and I’d bet you no one would care. Unless I asked permission.

When someone applies for a permit to float something in a park, they invite a strict interpretation of the actual rules on the books. This exchange nets them certainty that the authorities won’t shut them down, and can afford them a fortune of advance free publicity – whether it’s approved or not.

Back to the Plaza Mayor, we happened to be there to see another eye-catching (but far more officially sanctioned) use of the air above a public space.

We heard a helicopter, and then we saw poems falling from the sky. Thousands of them! The Bombardeo de Poemas (Bombardment of Poems) is a project of Casa Grande, a public art group based in Chile. They commemorate anniversaries of cities being bombed by inundating the city with poems – it was incredible. I’ve never seen people run to catch a poem. A very novel and bold use of airspace above a public place.

3. The bureaucratic approval process for the balloon is what’s actually funny here

“The team initially planned to sail over the Thames on boats, the blimp floating overhead, but the Port of London Authority warned that winds would be too strong. They then resolved to tether it in Parliament Square Garden, but struggled to secure the Mayor of London’s authorisation. City Hall maintained that inflatables are art, not a legitimate form of political protest. The Mayor eventually caved last week, possibly under the pressure of media coverage and an online petition. Bonner says the blimp has also obtained the permissions of the Metropolitan Police and the National Air Traffic Service — which requested that the balloon never fly over 30 metres of height.” Wired 12/6/18

Inflatables are art, not a legitimate form of political protest. Inflatables are… art. Art is… not a legitimate form of political protest? Hang on a minute. Hang on two minutes. Inflatables certainly can be art, but they’re certainly not always art (you’ll never look at a bouncy castle the same way again). And – regardless of the specific instance or circumstances – art is a… supremely legitimate and long-standing form of political protest!

I’m not an expert on the permit requirements for temporary installations in London parks, but this smacks of a public entity grasping at straws to not allow something, knowing full well that it will cause them nothing but strife.

Also, “gosh, we’d love to have your international publicity stunt on our river, but – shoot – it’ll just be too windy.” Classic.

4. Actions in public space that are approved on free speech grounds are regularly misattributed 

However, the president also suggested that the dispute with Khan was personal and that the mayor had shown disrespect to him by allowing a 20-foot “Trump Baby” balloon — an orange likeness of Trump wearing a diaper — to fly over London protests during the president’s visit.

“I used to love London as a city,” Trump said.

“I haven’t been there in a long time. But when they make you feel unwelcome, why would I stay there?” he said. “I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London.” NPR 13/7/18

In a city of 9 million people, a couple of artists raised £29,000 and got something like 10,000 signatures on an online petition. Neither of these figures represent very high barriers to entry. The City government tried to deny the application, and had to relent – either because they feared more bad publicity or (more likely, in my experience) they knew their rationale for denying the application was weak and they were vulnerable to litigation. And yet the story here becomes that the people of London and Mayor Khan did this, instead of the truth that the Mayor is governing a city in which political speech in public spaces is a protected right, and there was a small and resolute group of people who materially supported this project.

Of course, 67% of Brits have said that they think President Trump is either “poor” or “terrible”. Further polling might indicate that the balloon is/was popular. But that’s not the same thing as authorship/agency. And confusing the issue of who’s behind a project like this can definitely be politically advantageous.

And all too easy. It’s so much easier to grasp a balloon than tens of thousands of people marching in the streets. Despite a long time to practice, we’re just not that good at appreciating protected speech in public space as part of the liberty of which we’re so rightly proud.