Archive for Arts for Transit


The sounds of a gentler commute

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The art installation at the new 96th St. stationhouse has been designed by Antenna Design and Urbahn Architects.

The New York City subway system is not known for its gentle sounds. Rather, the screech of metal on metal, the incessant whir of air conditioners struggling to work, the feedback loops produced by sub-par public address systems and the constant exhortations to “stand clear of the closing doors” provide a dissonant soundtrack to our daily trips underground.

What if, though, our wait for a train wasn’t marked by the rush of an express but rather the chirping of crickets and the sounds of the good old outdoors? Can art in the subways actually serve to calm harried New Yorkers? If the MTA gives its approval to an Arts for Transit plan, the new stationhouse at 96th St. and Broadway set to open late next year will feature a soundtrack of sounds from nature and other elements designed to slow down frantic straphangers.

Michael Grynbaum, new transit writer for The Times, has more on this unique installation:

By the fall of 2010, when construction on the station is expected to be complete, subway riders will enter an arched glass-and-steel structure housing an exhibit that is a striking contrast to the traditional tile mosaics and sculptures that populate the underground rail system.

Nearly 200 stainless-steel flowers will hang 12 feet above the turnstiles, mounted in staggered patterns across seven ceiling beams. The flowers, weighing about three pounds apiece, will be allowed to sway slightly, creating the effect of a shimmering garden levitating above the stairways that lead down to the platforms.

The nature noises, which are pending final review by the authority’s staff, would be focused by directional speakers on small areas of the station, allowing riders to “walk through” the sounds.

The modern garden and its accompanying soundtrack are a tribute to the geographic provenance of the 96th Street station, which was built in 1904 in a neighborhood known as Bloomingdale, after a Dutch word translated as “vale of flowers.” Although the station now sits amid rows of high-rise apartment buildings and noisy intersections, the hilly area was once known for its picturesque natural landscape.

“The installation is a memento of nature past, so that subway riders may be reminded of a time before the area became an urban neighborhood,” the designers, Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa, wrote in an introductory note.

Now, before New Yorkers not used to change in their morning routines get all bent out of shape, the two designers — working under the name Antenna Designs — are veterans of the subway system. They have designed the R142, R142A and R143 cars currently in use on various Transit lines, and for better or worse, they produced the MetroCard Vending Machine designs as well. They promise that this new exhibit will fit in perfectly.

Before the MTA can sign off on it, they have to ensure that the chirping crickets are ADA compliant. The sounds can’t be too loud so as to block out important — and not-so-important — public address announcements in the station, and the visually-impaired must be able to hear the MetroCard Vending Machines’ automated instructions.

Still, with a sound installation in place on the B/D/F/V platform at Herald Square, this latest proposal is probably heading for approval. After all, we could use a few more crickets in New York City anyway. A screaming siren and the screech of brakes aren’t the most comforting of sounds.

Categories : Arts for Transit
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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.

Click for a video of the Masstransiscope and an old quote that still rings true.

Categories : Arts for Transit
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The 86th St. station on the West Side IRT has long been decorated with mosaic versions of paintings. While the third graders’ art at 59th St. have long been removed, these tiled paintings at 86th St. still give the station a more artistic feel. Today, Times reporter Martin Espinoza chats with some of the artists about the origins of the paintings and what these drawings mean to them 20 years later. It’s a nice New York story about some good that came out of an Arts for Transit program.

Categories : Arts for Transit, Asides
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More on the South Ferry art

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In my illustrated tour of the new South Ferry terminal, I talked extensively about MTA’s $1 million Arts for Transit investment in the new station. Today, The Times talked with Mike and Doug Starns, the 47-year-old, Brooklyn-based identical twins responsible for the decorations, about their vision for new stop. They talk about the trees, the map and the difficulties of working with fused glass on a subway station-sized scale. Check it out.

Categories : Arts for Transit, Asides
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From the subways to the airwaves

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Last week, Music Under New York — the MTA arm responsible for many subway performers — held their annual auditions. (I wrote more about MUNY last year.) The auditions were a rousing success, and now one lucky performer will hit the NPR airwaves, just not, ironically, in New York. The Bryant Park Project is holding a vote: Pick your favorite MUNY audition tape. The winner will get to play a set live on the airwaves on a show WNYC has opted not to carry in New York. [The Bryant Park Project via SubwayBlogger]

Categories : Arts for Transit, Asides
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When the Washingotn Post published the Tom Toles cartoon above on July 3, a few loyal Second Ave. Sagas readers e-mailed it to me and noted how the idea can apply to the MTA also. The MTA, often more concerned with putting on a pretty face, spends money on luxuries instead of on more frequent service, some might contend.

I’m particularly intrigued by the notion here that station art may come at the expense of more reliable travel and service. In my opinion, station art and the MTA’s Arts for Transit programs are positives. They beautify stations that may otherwise may appear dour and depressing. The cost outlay is minimal compared to the amount the MTA spends on station upkeep, and scraping the program wouldn’t automatically provide the entire city with frequent service at all hours of the day.

Every weekend, when Friday rolls around and these weekend service advisories mount up, we complain about the the slow and hard-to-follow service. While I agree with others that service has seemed less-than-exceptional lately, I don’t think the answer to the MTA’s service woes is to scrap the Arts programs. The answer, instead, lies in securing adequate funding for the system through the congestion fee. As the odds of that worsen, we’ll just have to deal with a system strained to its economic limits.

And now your weekend service summary: New changes on the Q; still no 4 service between Brooklyn Bridge and Atlantic Ave.; and the West Side IRT express trains are running local. As always, everything else is here.

Safe travels this weekend.

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Someone let the musicians out. Music Under New York takes to the streets. (Courtesy of the MTA)

We’ve had some serious weeks around here at Second Ave. Sagas. Resignations and track worker safety make for somber posts. But today, we’re all about music because it’s time, once again, for the Music Under New York Auditions.

All day today, from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, musicians will take to the stage an in effort to win one of the coveted spots in the Music Under New York program. The MTA announced this morning that over 70 musicians and musical groups will take to the stage during the seven and a half hour gala with poet Bob Holman, the self-proclaimed Ringmaster of the Spoken Word, serving as emcee.

The Music Under New York program is either a great way for musicians to reach an audience or, if you’re trying to navigate through the passages of the Times Square labyrinth, a major annoyance. Either way, it’s a welcome addition to the subway tunnels, and 2007 marks the program’s official 20th birthday. (It began as a two-year pilot program in 1985.)

As part of Arts for Transit, the MTA’s award-winning arts program that is supposed to increase the attractiveness of the otherwise-drab subways, Music Under New York licenses over 100 musical artists of varying genres and styles. According to the program’s Website, MUNY holds open auditions once a year, and the five-minute time slots feature some highly competitive artists and a tough slate of judges.

“A panel of professionals,” the Website reads, “consisting of representatives from the music industry, cultural institutions, MTA station operations, fellow musicians and others, judge each of the five minute performances based on the criteria of quality, variety, and appropriateness for the mass transit environment.”

The lucky ones who pass the audition gain acceptance into the program. They receive one of those personalized banners with their name that sanctions the performance and permission to play in one of the designated Music Under New York locations.

If you’re around the Grand Central Terminal area today, duck in for a few minutes and catch some of these bands. You’re bound to see something off-the-wall, and while I’m sure some of the musicians are terrible, others are quite qualified. A glance through the list of last year’s crop of new artists accepted to MUNY reveal an urban jug band called Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues, a dance artist going by the name Little Michael Jackson and the Renaissance Street Singers, a group performing early sacred music.

So much like a ride on the subways, you never what sort of eclectic entertainment you’ll come across at these auditions. No matter; it’s gotta be better than a mindless 9 hours in the ol’ cubicle anyway.

Categories : Arts for Transit
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Kill or be killed as you wait endlessly for the Q at Canal Street. (Photo courtesy of 31 Down Radio Theater)

Well, that caught your attention, eh? Someone’s been killed at the crowded Canal Street stop? Well, not quite. I’m sad — or happy — to report that no one was murdered at the underground entrance to Chinatown.

The murder is part of an interactive performance by the public artwork troupe 31 Down Radio Theater called Canal Street. The action takes place in labyrinthian tunnels of the Canal Street Station, and you, the detective-cum-straphanger, are supposed to solve the mystery. For $2 — or less — you too can be a New York detective. Time Out New York wrote about this intriguing work last week:

For all the improvements over the past decade or so, the transit system is still kind of creepy, which makes a new interactive public artwork by the group 31 Down Radio Theater all the more diabolical. With just a swipe of your MetroCard, it puts you in the middle of a murder mystery unfolding in the Canal Street subway.

According to creator Ryan Holsopple, the piece, titled Canal Street Station, consists of a toll-free number you can dial from any of the pay phones there. The voice of one Niki, an archetypally breathy French girl, comes on to say that she’s just committed a murder, and that you need to find her somewhere in the labyrinth of platforms and tunnels connecting the J, M, Z, N, Q, R, W and 6 trains. “Basically, it’s a big game,” says Holsopple, who adds that depending on where you are, you’ll be asked a specific question about that location—maybe for a detail from a nearby mosaic or which train goes to Fresh Pond Road in Queens. You hang up, snoop, then call back with your answer. If correct, you’ll be told where to go for your next call.

I love this idea; I can’t wait to do it, and a few things leap out at me. First, this game relies on the payphones in the New York City subways. Wait a minute, you might be thinking, do those payphones actually work? Well, about a quarter of them don’t work. So part of the game is finding a working payphone at Canal Street. (The other part involves finding one you want to touch. Good luck with that.)

Next, I think this game is best played at rush hour. That Canal Street station is a zoo during the day; why not really go for the “confusing masses of harried commuters” theme that would so enliven the game? You can push against the tide of humanity as you dash from the Brooklyn-bound N/Q platform to the uptown J/M/Z tracks.

So there you have it. You can spend an hour, as the theater troupe suggests, running around Canal Street trying to find out minutiae about the subways in an effort to solve a murder. Test the payphones; test your patience. And have fun. It’s the best $2 or Unlimted Ride swipe you’ll spend this month.

And who knows: Maybe she would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids and your dog too.

To get started, head to the Canal Street station; pay the fare; find a payphone and dial 1-877-OR-WHAT-31 (1-877-679-4283). Canal Street will be in the Canal Street station until October.

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Riders of the Manhattan-bound B and Q trains know there’s something out there. Shortly before the trains go above ground on the Manhattan Bridge, alert riders can spot a glimpse of…something. It’s not a solid tunnel wall; daylight streams through a series of slits in a temporary wall blocking whatever it is that’s there.

Well, that something is actually a very old and long-abandoned subway station. It is an old elevated subway stop at Myrtle Ave. that hasn’t seen passengers since July of 1956, over 50 years ago. While abandoned stations dot the subway system — and alert passengers on the East and West Side IRT trains know where to stop them — the Myrtle Ave. station is unique because it once served as the staging grounds for a work of art:

Two hundred twenty-five hand-painted panels sit behind those mysterious slits. When viewed properly and at the right speed, those panels form a picture. It’s a life-sized subway zoetrope.

But the Masstransiscope has fallen on hard times. Installed in the 1980s by filmmaker Bill Brand, the piece, as any astute rider may notice, is completely obscured by graffiti. Now, Brand wants to restore his zoetrope. Originally installed at a price tag of $60,000 and through the aid of the NEA and the New York state Council on the Arts, Brand estimates it could cost up to $40,000 to restore it, and the MTA’s Arts for Transit program can’t cover the restoration costs.

“Around 1990, we fixed it up,” said Sandra Bloodworth, director of the MTA’s Arts for Transit program. At that time only the light bulbs needed to be replaced, and the MTA received a donation of bulbs. Now, however, the electrical work needs to be entirely redone. Arts for Transit isn’t willing to shell out the estimated $35,000-$40,000 for restoration.

“I need to produce works that will be here 30 or 40 years with that kind of money,” Bloodworth said. Masstransiscope, she added, “gets damaged so quickly. It gets painted over with break-ins.”

While twenty years ago, Brand convinced graffiti artists to tag elsewhere simply by asking nicely, times have changed. Graffiti in the subways is no longer about the art of graffiti; instead, it’s about tagging a name on as much MTA property as possible. And Brand knows he would face an uphill battle to keep the Masstransiscope viewable.

The MTA will coordinate the restoration. Now, Brand just has to raise some money to restore an interesting work of art that would lend some color to an otherwise sluggish ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Hat tip to Brooklyn Record.

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