“Masstransiscope,” a piece by the artist and filmmaker Bill Brand, can be glimpsed from northbound Q and B trains nearing the Manhattan Bridge.
By RANDY KENNEDY
Published: December 31, 2008
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.
Bill Brand in his Manhattan studio with prints of his zoetrope.
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.”