Archive for Arts for Transit

Fire up the old DVRs tonight because Channel 13 has some intriguing content on tap. Starting tonight at 8 p.m., New York’s public television station will be airing two hours of transit-related programming.

First, Treasures of New York heads underground for an hour-long look at Arts for Transit’s popular installations. The documentary is available online if you can’t wait until tonight, and it explores 25 years of Arts for Transit, with interviews with artists Faith Ringgold, Tom Otterness, Milton Glaser, Bill Brand (and his popular Masstransiscope), Andrea Dezsö, and Elizabeth Murray.

After that, take a step back in history while reliving one of the most famous gut-punches New York has ever endured. American Experience is debuting The Rise and Fall of Penn Station tonight at 9 p.m. Here’s the blurb:

In 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad successfully accomplished the enormous engineering feat of building tunnels under New York City’s Hudson and East Rivers, connecting the railroad to New York and New England, knitting together the entire eastern half of the United States. The tunnels terminated in what was one of the greatest architectural achievements of its time, Pennsylvania Station. Penn Station covered nearly eight acres, extended two city blocks, and housed one of the largest public spaces in the world. But just 53 years after the station’s opening, the monumental building that was supposed to last forever, to herald and represent the American Empire, was slated to be destroyed.

We’re still living with the decision to destroy old Penn Station, and architects and transit advocates are forever fighting over the future of the rail station that currently carries the lost structure’s name. Tonight’s show provides a great opportunity to appreciate the grandeur of old Penn Station and mourn what we lost amidst the wrecking ball. If anything, it’s a welcome break from wall-to-wall Olympics broadcasts.

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I know I keep coming back to Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope, but there’s something about the piece I find irresistible. Perhaps its the ability for it to surprise jaded New Yorkers who suddenly find themselves watching an animated rocket ship blast off as the Q train passes by; perhaps it the creative use of an abanded subway station. Either way, even though I posted about its restoration a few days ago, I’m back again.

This time around, we have a video from the MTA about the restoration. Bill Brand, the artist, speaks on the enduring timelessness of his subway zoetrope, and the video follows the restoration process. We see glimpses of the old Myrtle Ave. station and the panels en route to their rejuvenation as MTA workers get off a B train at the abandoned station. The historical center piece is a glimpse of the subways and the Masstransiscope in the mid-1980s. The system was a different beast back then.

So take a gander at the short video above, and if you’re a fan of the Masstransiscope as I am, apparently you can get a mug. I’ll be back later on Thursday with some takes on a new and intriguing fantasy map for future subway routes as well as the mayoral candidates’ plans for mass transit investment and expansion.

Categories : Arts for Transit
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I’ve been a long-time fan of Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope. It’s one of Arts for Transit’s more intriguing installations as it is a zoetrope in an abandoned subway station. Visible from the Manhattan-bound B and Q trains just north of De Kalb Ave., the art installation shows a series of moving images as the train passes by. Originally installed in the early 1980s, it was meticulously restored in 2009, but graffiti artists attacked. By mid-2013, it was again dark. Now, thanks to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal we know why.

Over the weekend, Ted Mann unveiled his tale of the restoration of the Masstransiscope. Apparently, vandals had taken advantage of the Superstorm Sandy shutdown to wreck havoc on Brand’s art. After the storm, Arts for Transit workers found that some of the 57 metal panels had been torn down while portions of the 228 still images had been tagged. Over the past year, the art has been meticulously restored, and last Wednesday, the Masstransiscope for again visible to Q and B train riders, many of whom are surprised by the moving images.

As part of the latest refurb, Brand has reduced the lighting requirements from two fluorescent bulbs per panel to one, and going forward, MTA employees and Arts for Transit officials are going to explore ways to better seal off the Myrtle Ave. station, the Masstransiscope’s home. As Bill Matheson, a Transit line manager, said, “Hopefully we won’t have to do it again before I retire.” [Wall Street Journal]

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Arts For Transit hosted the auditions for the MTA’s Music Under New York program this morning, and the authority’s videographer has already produced a video from the day’s events. For my money, the best MUNY group around are the Ebony Hillbillies.

Categories : Arts for Transit
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Graduation by Dorothea Tanning is the first in the newly revived Poetry In Motion series. (Courtesy of MTA Arts for Transit)

The MTA’s decision in 2008 to axe the Poetry in Motion displays turned out to be a rather unpopular one. Weary straphangers who enjoyed the whimsy or thoughtfulness of the rhyming subway placards bemoaned the disappearances of the poems, and the Train of Thought project that placed it never took off.

Today, nearly a year to the day since initial rumors resurfaced, New York City Transit announced the triumphant return of Poetry in Motion. The first verse of the new series, which I espied in a 3 train on Sunday, comes from Dorothea Tanning, a poet who passed away this January at age 101, and it is entitled “Graduation.”

“Our customers tell us again and again that even a small investment in art and music underground makes a huge difference to them,” MTA Chairman Joseph J. Lhota said in a statement. “It can really improve the entire experience of riding the subway. And the beauty of this program—and of poetry and art in general—is that it can really transport you.”

The MTA, along with the Poetry Society of America, announced today that the new program will be an expanded version of the old standby. The poems will incorporate images from the authority’s extensive Arts for Transit collection and will be available on everywhere from subway car palcards to MetroCards to the travel bulletins posted in subway stations across the city. Within the subway cars, the decorated posters will be in the shape of a square at eye level rather than in the rectangular space reserved for overhead placards.

“The artwork and the poetry are not meant to necessarily interpret each other but to create a dialog,” Sandra Bloodworth, Director of MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design said. “You may experience them individually or as one. Each stands in its own right, yet they can be viewed in tandem. The interpretation is up to the individual, so we don’t expect everyone will experience the art or the poetry or the two together in the same way. It will be left to a multitude of interpretations.”

The authority said it will release the next poem in April and then offer up two new ones each season. Three million MetroCards per quarter will come adorned with the poems as well, and that total represents approximately 11 percent of all MetroCards sold each quarter. For more on the return of Poetry in Motion, check out Cldye Haberman’s paean to program.

Categories : Arts for Transit
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Photo: Art for Second Avenue

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Art at the new 63rd Street station will evoke the former Second Avenue elevated trains.

I’ve been sitting on this one for a couple of weeks, but it’s still timely. A few weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Maloney profiled my favorite under-the-radar MTA department. She highlighted the upcoming plans for art installations at the MTA’s new stations. Along the 7 line extension and underneath Second Ave., the authority will soon have four blank canvases, and they’re planning new art for each station.

She writes:

As subway riders descend the escalator into a new 7 line station near 10th Avenue and 34th Street in 2013, they will be followed by a mosaic of brightly colored celestial orbs shining from a deep blue sky. At a planned Second Avenue subway stop at 63rd Street, the walls will display photographs evoking the elevated trains that once rumbled above. And a station at 96th Street will feature line drawings fired onto ceramic tiles, playing with perspectives as travelers move through the space.

The designs are part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to make each of its new subway stations on the extended 7 line and new Second Avenue line a massive work of public art. Building on the MTA’s nearly three-decade history of enlivening subway and commuter rail stations with mosaics and sculpture, the agency has commissioned art that accompanies riders from the sidewalk to the platform and helps shape spaces that haven’t yet been built.

The effort is ongoing: The MTA last week issued a call for artists for the Second Avenue line’s 72nd Street station. “It’s very exciting,” said Sandra Bloodworth, director of the MTA’s Arts for Transit and Urban Design program, who, along with the artists, discussed details of the projects for the first time. “It’s three New Yorkers, three visions. I think that reflects the subway; it reflects our ridership.”

As Maloney notes, the MTA allocates a small portion of the construction costs to artwork. The new installations are expected to cost between $900,000 and a $1 million each and are a part of projects that will cost a few billion dollars each. It’s a great program that livens up the subways, turning them into the city’s most extensive art gallery. Check out Maloney’s piece for more renderings of the upcoming art. Jean Shin’s work at 63rd St., which, according to Maloney, will “depict the 1942 dismantling of the Second Avenue elevated line and the opening of the sky over an area accustomed to rumbling and shadows,” sounds particularly intriguing.

Union Square in Motion is the world's largest digital linear zoetrope (Photo via Joshua Spodek)

I wonder how many transit systems can say they are home to two life-sized zoetropes. While Manhattan-bound riders on the B and Q have long spied the Masstransiscope just east of the Manhattan Bridge, straphangers passing through Union Square can now marvel at the world’s largest digital linear zoetrope.

As part of a temporary Arts for Transit installation, the MTA along with a professor from Parsons the New School of Design and his students unveiled “Union Square in Motion” earlier this week. Consisting of abstract and organic images, the scenes move as subway riders walk past the display. The installation is similar to a project designer Joshua Spodek and his team installed in Bryant Park last year.

“When you see two strangers stop to look then start talking to each other, amazed at the art they’re seeing in the subway, you realize what art can do to create community and draw people together,” Spodek said.

The display is current housed in a temporarily vacant retail space outside of the fare control area and below the Food Emporium along 14th Street east of Fourth Avenue. “These works of art will be shown in series, so subway riders will get a fresh visual treat each time they walk through the station,” Lester Burg, Program Manager for MTA Arts for Transit, explained. For more on the project, check out Spodek’s website. I’ve embedded a behind-the-scenes video of the installation process after the jump. Read More→

Categories : Arts for Transit
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The Overlook

At ground level at the new Atlantic Ave. Terminal, Allen and Ellen Wexler’s “Overlook” inspires an outdoor pause. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak.

Grand train terminals have long been prime people-watching areas. The buildings are alive with those who scurry to and from trains, those who are waiting for friends and loved ones to arrive, those counting down the minutes until they can head home and those simply enjoying a public space. Stepping back to observe the pace of life in motion is one of the pleasures of commuting life.

A few weeks ago, the MTA finally cut the ribbon on its new terminal building at Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. Over budget and past deadline, the new building garnered praise for its airy inside and state-of-the-art facilities. Inside the terminal, at ground level but overlooking the lower level is the MTA’s latest Arts for Transit installation, and it is evocative of that people-watching tradition of train terminals.]

Early last week, I took a tour of the building and spoke to the artists behind the “Overlook,” a granite-and-glass installation that brings a sense of calm and tranquility to an otherwise busy building. It is, in the words of Allen Wexler, half of the husband-and-wife team behind the piece, supposed to represent “the intersection between nature and city” in an urban environment.

Artists at the Overlook

The artists, pictured above, talked to me about their design process and the inspiration for the piece. The two of them worked closely with John di Domenico, the architect behind the new terminal building, to construct something that would seem both natural for the terminal but also unique for the space. It is a site-specific installation meant to evoke a scenic overlook at a national park, and it transforms the upper level into a spot for simply watching urban nature.

The Wexlers took images of national park overlooks and came up with a fractal computerized design. Each granite panel is connected to the others via straight lines to turn this into what the artists called “a pxilated iconic scenic overlook.”

“We sought to create the experience of viewing an urban public space as if it were a nature setting, using granite tiles mathematically pixilated to create nooks and crannies similar to those found in rock walls,” Allan Wexler said. “Our public work seeks to engage the people who use the space, creating a rich experience that resonates over time.”

An Observation Point In the end, the MTA hopes that their new installation creates a meeting space at the station as well. With over 25,000 LIRR passengers and 31,000 subway travelers passing through the new terminal each day, the “Overlook” is ready to become a local landmark. “This vantage point was created as a collaborative effort combining our design that placed the wall between two sweeping stairways and the artists’ vision of morphing that structural wall into an outcropping of rocks,” di Domenico said.

Hanging above the ticket area, the waiting room and two grand staircases, it’s bound to become the terminal’s prime people-watching spot as well.

After the jump, a slideshow of scenes from the new Atlantic Ave. Terminal. Click on any of the photos in the post to enlarge. Read More→

Categories : Arts for Transit
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MTA Arts for Transit, Permanent Art Program

The Sol LeWitt installation at 59th St./Columbus Circle. (Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Rob Wilson. Click to enlarge.)

Taking a walk through the Columbus Circle station right now is one of the least pleasant experiences in the subway. Undergoing a complete rehab that is behind schedule, the station is hot and dusty. Platforms are cut off; walls are exposed; staircases are closed.

Eventually, the station will be completely transformed, but for now, it is in a perpetual state of construction. On Wednesday, a glimpse of color appeared amidst the construction as the Sol LeWitt Arts for Transit installation opened on a double-wide wall on a mezzanine in between the A/B/C/D and 1 train platforms.

The piece, shown above and again at the bottom of the post, was commissioned in 2004, and LeWitt, who passed away two years ago, selected the site himself. The work is 53 feet wide by 11 feet tall and is made of 250 porcelain tiles of six varying colors. It is called “Whirls and twirls (MTA)” and is one of the more vibrantly-colored entries in the Arts for Transit program.

“LeWitt’s genius comes through in this artwork, which is a major work of precision with its curves and bands in vibrant color that completely fills the space,” MTA Chairman H. Dale Hemmerdinger said. “It will become a landmark and is a great tribute to one of our major artists.”

Sadly, LeWitt is no longer with us to see the piece’s grand unveiling. He died in April 2007, but the artist is enjoying much posthumous success. As his obituary says, LeWitt was known for “deceptively simple geometric sculptures and drawings and ecstatically colored and jazzy wall paintings.” An exhibit of his works, recently named one of the top art shows in the nation, is on display for 25 years at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and LeWitt was very much looking forward to his collaboration with the MTA.

“When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” he said in an Arts for Transit interview a year before his death.

After LeWitt’s death, Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts for Transit and Facilities Design, worked closely with the artist’s family to ensure that his vision would be realized. “This project,” she said, “was filled with challenges, as we prepared several samples of tile and glazes to meet with Mr. LeWitt’s approval and found a facility that could produce large tiles mandated by the design. Working with Arts for Transit, his family and colleagues helped bring the project to completion. It is a very special and unique creation because it is a permanent public installation of a wall drawing, executed in porcelain tile. Usually the wall drawings are executed in paint or pencil based on exacting instructions by the artist.”

While some may criticize Arts for Transit as a superfluous use of money in tight economic times, LeWitt’s piece brings some color and levity to our normally serious commutes. It lightens up a once-dull space and should be recognized and embraced as a leading example of underground art.

Click through for another view. Read More→

Categories : Arts for Transit
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Susie Tanenbaum

Susie Tanenbaum

Arguably the definitive book on musical performance in the spaces of public transportation, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York, by Susie Tanenbaum, presents an insightful and fascinating portrayal of the culture of music that has existed for decades in the stations of New York’s subway, adroitly drawing research techniques from urban anthropology, sociology, social history, cultural studies, constitutional law, political theory, urban planning, folklore, and urban ecology. Earlier this week I met with Ms. Tanenbaum in her office at Queens Borough Hall and had the opportunity to ask her about Underground Harmonies and the work she has been doing on behalf of local musicians and artists since the book’s completion.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Underground Harmonies was published. Are you happy with the book’s reception?
At the risk of sounding cliché, writing Underground Harmonies was an absolute labor of love. It meant a lot to me to be able to write about subway music as this incredibly special public space phenomenon, one that makes a difference to countless people as they go through their daily urban routine, one that legitimates the subways as a cultural venue, one that places value on subjective experience, and one that encourages people – complete strangers – to communicate across ethnic/racial boundaries without the need for advertising or other corporate packaging. It’s gratifying to know that UH was the first book written about NYC subway music; 15 years later, I’m thrilled to get contacted from time to time by researchers (like you) and documentarians.

Do you think it had an effect on conversations about public transportation and the arts?
I’m not sure I can gauge UH’s impact on conversations about public transportation and the arts. In January, I was invited to speak at a national transportation conference, and I was told that this was the first time the association (with membership in the tens of thousands) had organized a panel on arts in transit. Maybe work like mine, and yours, will become more relevant as transit experts and mavens pay more & more attention to aesthetics. The Know Your Rights Guide that I wrote after the book, in collaboration with City Lore: The Center for Urban Folk Culture, which is now on City Lore’s web site, may have had a greater impact on conversations between subway performers and police.

Have you noticed any changes in the situation of live musical performance in the New York subways in the past fifteen years?
The truth is, I don’t spend as much time in the subways as I did in the 1990s. But my own impression, and that of some of my friends, is that there isn’t as much live music in the subways as there used to be. If not, why not? Maybe it’s because subway music is no longer a novelty, and musicians have moved on to other venues and callings. Or maybe it’s because many transit police officers are still under the impression that the MTA’s Music Under NY members are the only ones who have a legal right to perform underground, so they (the transit police) shut down the freelancers. In reality, all performers, whether freelance or MUNY, have a constitutional right to perform in subway stations. Steve Zeitlin from City Lore has been getting a lot of emails lately from freelance musicians who say that the transit police have told them they’re not allowed to perform on subway platforms. Unless the MTA/NYCT rules were amended recently, this is untrue.

It’s strange…. Rudy Giuliani was a bully, obsessed with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s “broken windows theory” and determined to render our public spaces orderly by clearing out any meaningful human activity. But Mike Bloomberg is quite different. He really values public art, and in the summers he organizes these vehicle-free Saturdays to encourage people to come out and engage in all kinds of spontaneous play. Is this a situation where the sentiments of the folks in charge haven’t trickled down to what’s happening on the ground in the subways? Is it a situation where the priorities of the NYCT (getting people from point A to point B) conflict with the priorities of the Mayor & the MTA (making public spaces hospitable)? Or is it a situation where spontaneous play only matters when the city schedules a day for it – in other words, does the city still either not trust or not care very much about spontaneous, freelance street and subway performances?

How did you initially get interested in musical performance and doing an ethnographic study of people in the subway?
I enrolled in the Urban Studies Master’s program at Queens College-CUNY in the late 1980s, mainly to study with Dr. Roger Sanjek, an urban anthropologist who was doing fieldwork at the time in Elmhurst and Corona, Queens, the epicenter of the new immigration to New York at the time. Roger and his team were documenting the relationships between long-time residents and recent immigrants, and I deeply appreciated his approach to understanding the multiple layers of race relations in our borough and city. I arranged to do an independent study with Roger and, for reasons that remain unconscious to me, I wanted to explore how traditional music helped new immigrants to settle into their new society. After a few attempts at visiting particular communities in this part of Queens, Roger asked me why I don’t write instead about the guys I’d become friends with who were playing music in the subways. I’d been getting to know the members of Antara, one of the first Andean bands underground. I took Roger’s advice, and with guidance from another professor, Candance Kim Edel, I continued my fieldwork for the next four years. It became my Master’s thesis, then Roger helped me to get my work published by Cornell University Press. I’m still good friends with some of the original members of Antara.

If you were to republish the book today, what changes would you make?
Truthfully, I don’t think I could write the same book today. For one thing, transit police officers and NYCT employees probably wouldn’t grant me interviews as they did back then. Whether it’s post-911 security or a general trend toward bureaucratizing & controlling information, it seems our government agencies prefer not to have researchers document the subjective experiences of their employees. I really hope I’m wrong about this. In any event, if I were to write the book today, I would certainly include copies of the questionnaires that I used (the New York Times criticized me for leaving them out!). I’d love to know if people have suggestions on what else to include in a book like this!

What other projects have you been working on since you wrote the book?
In the 1990s I worked as Program Director and later Associate Director of the Jackson Heights Community Development Corporation. Among other things, I started LACE, the Local Arts Collaborative & Exchange, a network of 60 – 100 visual, literary and performing artists. Together we organized exhibits, concerts, readings & Open Mics throughout western Queens. Several of the members & my co-organizers were subway musicians. Currently I work for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, and two of my areas of responsibility are immigrant and inter-cultural affairs. I plan cultural heritage events with various religious and ethnic communities in the borough, and I organize cross-cultural dialogues, which still often incorporate music. I really enjoy bringing people together across cultural lines and creating spaces in which they build relationships; to me, this is a quiet but meaningful form of political empowerment, one that I actually get to do out of a political office (because I have a wonderful boss who is an integrationist and a veteran of the civil rights movement)! On the side, Steve Zeitlin and I are in touch with subway musicians and we’re hoping to revive what we call our Street Performers Advocacy Project. I’ll keep you posted on that.