Top: Bill Brand in 1980 poses with his recently-installed Masstransiscope. (Courtesy of Bill Brand. Click the images to enlarge.)
When Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope, a zoetrope hidden behind a slitted wall at the long-abandoned Myrtle Ave. stop just north of DeKalb Ave., first debuted in 1980, straphangers could view it from the Manhattan-bound QB train. One of those things, it seems, is ready for a revival. After an extensive restoration that involved removed layers of graffiti, the Masstransiscope is back.
“When I made the piece,” Brand, a film and video artist, said to me this week, “I didn’t even have a VCR. I’m just really happy to have it back.”
The recent saga of the Masstransiscope goes back about five years, according to Brand. The piece, designed as a zoetropic image, had been lost to time. Many of the lights had burned out, and the hand-painted panels had long been vandalized. It had become a rather of New York subway lore, forgotten to time by all but a few.
Brand, giving a talk to a group of film archivists, threw in a mention of the Masstransiscope as what he called one “an unusual cinematic work.” The response from the audience was immediate, and these archivists urged Brand to restore it. “Do I spend the time restoring this or do I make the next piece?” Brand questioned.
In the end, Brand decided to contact the MTA about restoring the piece. While Arts for Transit was initially resistant mainly due to the price, Brand secured some funding through a grant from the Albers Foundation. When development above ground allowed for temporary access to the remnants of the Myrtle Ave. station, Brand headed underground to survey the damage.
What he found was not pretty, but with the grant in hand, volunteer labor from some of his NYU students and some good old trial-and-error, Brand eventually figured out the best approach to cleaning and repairing the unique work. “I was interested in restoring it,” he said, “but not sure how.”
At first, Brand consulted with Metroclean Express, the company tasked with power-washing the city’s bus shelters. While the original work contained an anti-graffiti film, Brand was unsure how kind the years had been to his now-28 -year-old piece. Four hours into the work on one of the Masstransiscope’s 57 segments, just half of the panel had been cleaned, and the cleaning was taking its toll on the panel. “I thought this isn’t going to work this way,” he said.
Back in his studio, Brand experimented with a variety of commercial paint cleaners and eventually discovered a combination that did the trick. In a few weeks, all 57 panels had been stripped clear of what Brand guessed were between 20 and 30 layers of graffiti. While the piece still has some minor damages, as Brand said, “that was dust and hair.” Riders espying it from the windows of a passing B or Q train won’t be able to notice the damage.
Newly restored, the Masstransiscope has enjoyed something of a soft launch. Randy Kennedy profiled the piece in a Times article on New Year’s Day, but the MTA has not held any sort of formal unveiling ceremony. It is now including on Arts for Transit’s permanent artwork website as well. “It’s really exciting to be able to present it again,” Amy Hausmann, assistant director at Arts for Transit, said.
Now relit with longer lasting lightbulbs, the Masstransiscope will be in the minds of MTA officials. Hausmann and Lester Burg, a curator at Arts for Transit, told me that they plan to keep on eye on it. Conservation is indeed an issue for the arts-minded side of the MTA.
Over the next few months, Brand is hoping to give a Transit Museum-sponsored lecture about the work, but in the meantime, he is quite content to let riders discovery it for themselves. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I overheard a couple wondering just how long that “flip-book type thing” had been on display. The two could not agree as they spent the ride across the Manhattan Bridge talking about it.
“I’ve been really tickled by how much self-generated interest it’s generating this time around,” Brand said of his piece that offers riders a 20-second glimpse at a zoetrope live in the subways.
In a Times article published a few weeks after the Masstransiscope debuted in 1980, John Russell described the sensation of watching the piece flicker by. He wrote:
It offers an arresting experience, in which colored forms (some abstract, some not) are seen to change, transform themselves, collapse, explode or blast off before our eyes in a matter of seconds. (The exact length of time varies with the speed of the train. A further element of ambiguity is added by the fact that the train usually slows down quite markedly at one point, thereby showing the traveler exactly how the piece works.)
Those words still ring true today. Meanwhile, take a look at the Masstransiscope in action: