Friday, October 9, 2009


Imagine you're a precocious, loudmouthed 10 year old, enamored with the city that you live in and its myriad mysteries. The never-ending speed of its citizens, the spray-painted scarred walls of the subway (this was in 1990 mind you), and the subway itself, with its electronic beeps and boops and its tunnel hugging, bridge chugging path from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Now imagine that in the middle of a routine trip to Grandma's apartment, taking the Q Diamond (RIP) from Ditmas Park, Flatbush to the Upper West Side (with a transfer at Herald Square to the D) all of a sudden there's a flash of light, a burst of imagination, and a brightly colored cartoon strip, coming out of nowhere, bursts onto the walls of a subway station that isn't even there. You're enamored, even though it last less than 30 seconds before it disappears and you're climbing the Manhattan Bridge towards the original burst of imagination that is New York City.
You're 10 years old, you just saw an awesome animated cartoon-strip
thing while on the subway and then its over, and gone again. You look for it on next month's trip to Gramma's apartment, but its gone. You can't even remember which windows it showed up on - the left or the right side - or between which stops on the train. Years go by, you wonder if it ever really existed, or was just a catnap-powered dream while holding Mom's hand on the subway. A decade goes by and you can't even describe it successfully, further removing this phantom vision from the possibility of reality.
Well guess what Virginia. It existed, and exists again, and has a name. Its called the Masstransiscope and is the genius of an artist named Bill Brand. And last night, at the NY Transit Museum, Mr. Brand gave an enthralling lecture about the inspiration, creation, scientific explanation, destruction, and re-installation of one of the most whimsical, energetic, free pieces of public artwork in New York City. Free if you have an unlimited Metrocard, that is.
Bill Brand, an experimental filmmaker and archivist, as well as professor of Film and Photography at Hampshire College was just another young, creative soul in New York City during the deep dark 1970s and early 80s. He became enamored with cartoons at an early age (Woody Woodpecker with Walter Lantz) and how all films are "simply individual pictures that change from frame to frame". We're learning this as Mr. Brand lectures in the screening room of the NY Transit Museum, and hands out small pieces of 35 mm film, to explain the notion of how film works. Next up, a VHS tape, which Mr. Brand violently smashes against the corner of the podium, in order to rip up the tape and pass it over our heads in the audience. Then Mr. Brand kills all the lights and illuminates himself with a high-powered camera flash. We watch as the ghostly retina image of Bill hovers in the air for a second, then floats away - persistence of vision. Its all visceral, and slightly loopy, and does a good job of explaining early films, notably the zoetrope.
We go on learn how Mr. Brand approached Creative Time, the arts organization, with this wacky idea of installing a slow-motion stop-animation cartoon in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway stop on the (nowadays) B & Q trains. To his amazement, they were on board from the get-go. In order to create this interactive film projection, a 300 foot installation, kind of a narrow square hallway had to be installed on the platform of the disused station, with narrow vertical slits in the wall closest to the trains rushing by, and with the painted panels on the back wall. Silkscreened panels, 228 in all, with each one showing a different stage of the animation. Protective graffiti-proof sheer coverings on top of each painting (more on this later). Two vertical fluorescent bulbs framing each of the slits, to light the art as the subway rushes by. Installed and "opened" to the public in 1980, and lasted for 5 years. It looks likes this:

Then Mr. Brand had a family, moved away. Couldn't keep up the upkeep. "Public Funding for 'permanent art' in this country generally means five years" Mr Brand shrugged at us during the lecture. It briefly resurfaced for a few months in 1990, which is when I saw it on my way to Gramma's and it blew my mind. Again, covered in graffiti, vandalized, left for trash.
Until 2008, when construction work on Flatbush Avenue at Myrtle unlocked a gate in the sidewalk which lead to the Myrtle Avenue station, and direct access to the installation. With help from MTA Arts for Transit, and other organizations, including ShelterExpress/MetroClean which helped strip away the years of accumulated paint that coated the panels (but thanks to the sheer coverings, left the animated paint works largely intact), the Masstransiscope was reinstalled.
After Q&A with the artist, the audience of 40 left the museum as a group, and went on a "ride-by" the Masstransiscope. Present in the tour group, Thersea DeSalvio, the artist who painted the original pieces in 1980, and her daughter. Ms. DeSalvio had left the country in 1985, missed the resurfacing of the piece in 1990, and returned to live in NJ. Therefore she hadn't seen her own artist creation since it was first installed in 1980. What a trip! We boarded the R train at Lawrence, rode into Brooklyn one stop and transferred across the platform for a city-bound B. In no time at all we were watching (and applauding) the piece as we whizzed by it (at 7 mph). You too can check out the Masstransiscope. Just swipe your card on a Manhattan-bound B or Q train, sit tight, and wait for the dream to begin. It'll be on your right, after Dekalb Avenue station and before the bridge.

Photographs and Youtube video thanks to Masstransiscope website and artist Bill Brand.