Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope was installed in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, New York in September 1980. It has been seen by millions of commuters for over twenty-five years. The 228 hand-painted panels are viewed through a series of vertical slits set into a specially constructed housing. The piece works on the principle of the Zoetrope, a 19th century optical toy.
There are no signs posted to alert you to its presence, no pre-recorded voices directing your gaze outside. Only if you happen to be looking out the correct side of the train at just the right moment will you see it: brightly colored geometric shapes that appear to be moving, as if an animated movie were playing alongside your subway car.
This mini-motion picture, visible from the right side of a Manhattan-bound B or Q train just after the DeKalb Avenue stop, is “Masstransiscope,” an art installation by Bill Brand that resides in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station. “I was interested in making an artwork that people could encounter in their daily life that was not mediated by the usual filters of the museum, the gallery, the marketplace, or classroom,” says Brand, who started work on “Masstransiscope” in the mid-seventies with permission from the MTA. “The experience of seeing the piece is essentially a private one, even though it takes place in a most public setting.”
The “Masstransiscope,” which was installed in 1980, consists of 228 hand-painted panels that are mounted to the platform’s wall and illuminated by florescent lights. Brand (29 years younger, above), conceived the idea for the piece while riding the subway. “Seeing the light flicker as the train passed by structural pillars,” he remembers, “I started imagining making a movie by placing images in the tunnel.” An independent filmmaker with an interest in pre- and early cinema history, Brand based “Masstransiscope” on the zoetrope, a nineteenth-century cylindrical device that, when spun at the correct speed, created the illusion that the fixed images it contained were moving. As with the zoetrope, viewing slits — which Brand made by installing a series of vertical planks a few feet in front of the panels — fabricate this illusion by insuring the images don’t blur together.
Although Brand tried to keep his piece graffiti-clean and functioning during the early eighties, “Masstransiscope” eventually fell into disrepair and, excluding a brief restoration in the early nineties, was lost to viewers for decades. But thanks to a small grant in 2006, aid from the Arts for Transit program, and a bit of well-timed construction that briefly reopened the Myrtle Avenue stop last summer, Brand — along with volunteers from New York University and a professional cleaning company in Long Island City — was able to clean and repair all 228 panels.
Fully restored in November 2008, it’s once again amazing viewers — as long as they happen to be looking out the window as they whiz past.
"Attention Passengers! To Your Right, This Trip Is About to Become Trippy"
The New York City subway is full of more or less secret works of art, salvos of illicit shape and color that you can appreciate only if your Lexington Avenue train slows near an abandoned platform or you make a life-threatening spelunk into the tunnels and stumble across scraps of manic autobiographical wall writings painted by a semi-mythical graffiti artist known as Revs.
But for many years, toward the end of a Brooklyn tunnel that leads onto the Manhattan Bridge, an unusual piece of urban art — part painting, part movie, part conceptual experiment — has been kept a secret only through neglect, layers of graffiti tags and fluorescent lights that were broken or turned off.
The work was the idea of the artist and filmmaker Bill Brand, who along with the public art organization Creative Time asked the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the late 1970s, even as the system was beginning to crumble, to let him transform the tracks themselves into art.
He wanted to create a mass-transit version of a zoetrope, the earliest motion picture device, by constructing a long slitted light box alongside a subway track with a series of paintings inside so that, when a train passed, riders experienced the illusion that the painting was moving.
“I think it was such a preposterous idea that no one bothered to say no,” Mr. Brand said Wednesday of the work, which he christened with the back-to-the-future Latinate title “Masstransiscope.” “So they just kept having the next meeting — and then we built it.”
Though millions of riders saw it, by the mid-1980s, despite Mr. Brand’s own efforts to keep the artwork maintained, it had fallen into awful shape and for almost two decades — except for a brief resurrection around 1990 — was either dark or was seen only as a strange, illuminated mess of spray-paint outside the subway window.
But in the last several months, with help from a grant and the transportation authority’s Arts for Transit program, Masstransiscope is once again playing to carloads of audiences on Manhattan-bound Q and B trains as they leave the DeKalb Avenue station and head toward the bridge. Over the summer Mr. Brand, with transit workers, volunteers and professional sign cleaners in Long Island City, retrieved all 228 hand-painted panels from inside the light box and began the laborious process of de-gunking them.
By early November, with no formal ceremony or even a news release from transit officials, the lights were flipped back on, and Mr. Brand’s bright, trippy, mostly abstract forms have begun to move and morph (if the train from which you see them is not crawling “due to traffic up ahead,” as conductors like to say).
“It’s a beloved piece,” said Sandra Bloodworth, the director of the Arts for Transit program, which has installed hundreds of permanent works of art throughout the subway since 1985 by artists as prominent as Roy Lichtenstein, Elizabeth Murray and Al Held. “Bill’s work happened before Arts for Transit even came about. And that’s why it really is a part of New York history. It was a little glimpse of what could come, if you will.”
Mr. Brand, who is also a film archivist, said he began to think about a subway zoetrope while riding trains as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After moving to New York in the mid-1970s he began to experiment with ways to create one.
“I was so naïve,” he said. He initially conceived of a much more ambitious project, using blownup photographs to create a virtual film strip behind the light-box walls. He wanted to change the images regularly, making a movie, in essence, that subway riders would see only in little segments of 20 seconds or so, like a crazily attenuated version of the serials that once ran in theaters.
He came to understand that the images behind the walls needed to be bright and hyperactive to resonate in such a short time, so he began to think of the work as a moving painting. But his basic ideas — of reversing the motion-picture paradigm by having the images stay still while the viewers were in motion; of creating what he thought of as a movie that viewers would see a few seconds a day but repetitively over many years, a “decades-long movie” — remained the same.
“One of the main motives for making Masstransiscope was to find out for myself — as someone who makes obscure films that not many people watch — if it would be different to have a mass audience,” said Mr. Brand, who for several years in the early 1980s used to take an M.T.A. key that “someone slipped me” and descend into the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station where the light box sits to clean and repair the piece himself.
“And what I discovered is that it really isn’t all that different,” he said.
Except, perhaps, that he cultivated unlikely fans like Lou Corradi, a subway conductor who saw the piece several times a day for years in the early 1980s and loved it so much that he tracked down its creator. “So many passengers used to question me about your project, and I had no information to give them, sorta like when they asked about service delays! (wink),” Mr. Corradi wrote in an e-mail message to Mr. Brand in 2007, after spotting the darkened hulk of the project on a subway trip.
In a moderately crowded car on the Q line on Wednesday morning, most of Mr. Brand’s potential audience, truth be told, did not notice the rebirth of Masstransiscope. A Russian woman was slowly addressing postcards with pictures of the Manhattan skyline, while a man near her rifled through a Target bag filled with crumpled utility bills, and a woman next to him was thumb-typing a text message so that she could send it as soon as the train emerged onto the bridge.
But Mr. Brand said he loved the idea that maybe only a few riders per train, or even one, daydreaming out into the tunnel darkness, caught sight of the piece.
“Even though it’s a very public work of art, it ends up being very personal,” he said. “It’s like it’s everybody’s little secret.”
He added: “When my ego is low, I do like to find teenagers on the train and make them look at it.”
ABOUT BILL BRAND:
Bill Brand’s experimental films and videos have screened extensively since 1973 in the US and abroad in museums, festivals and independent film showcases. His feature documentary Home Less Home has been seen worldwide on television and was featured at major film festivals including the Berlin Film Festival and New Directors/ New Films Festival. His 1980 Masstransiscope, a mural installed in the subway system of New York City which is animated by the movement of passing trains, is a widely regarded work of public art. In 1973 he founded Chicago Filmmakers, the showcase and workshop and until 1991 served on the Board of Directors of the Collective for Living Cinema in New York City. He is currently an Artistic Director of Parabola Arts Foundation which he co-founded in 1981. Bill Brand lives in New York CIty and is Professor of Film and Photography at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Since 1976 he has operated BB Optics, an optical printing service specializing in 8mm blow-ups and archival preservation for independent filmmakers, libraries, museums and archives. www.bboptics.com
Tagged: , New York , NY , Brooklyn , Q train , subway , Masstransiscope , Bill Brand , hand-painted , panels , zoetrope , geometric shapes , art installation , Myrtle Avenue , MTA , optical illusion , Arts for Transit , tunnel , urban art , Creative Time , artist , artwork , public art , moving image , navema
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Presenting very simple frame which we ignore in our daily life. From your busy schedule, please give your 5 min to this frame and I request you to sit back and think “how wonderful giving is”