Masstransiscope: Restored and Reconsidered
You might be riding the Q train into Manhattan—gaze shifting between the words of the paperback in your hand and the feet of the passengers facing you – when, something catches your eye. It’s not in the subway car. Beyond the window, somehow, you see a moving image. It began as a red dot, then encircled by a green-orange strand of what might be spaghetti, exploded into a writhing nucleus of color and settled out into a momentarily calming horizon between sea and sunset sky. Then blackness… And it’s back! A box becomes a boy becomes a folding and unfolding accordion, giving way to a spaceship soaring parallel for a few seconds with the train.
The work, dubbed Masstransiscope, was originally installed in 1980 in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station in Brooklyn by the New York-based artist Bill Brand. It was inspired by the zoetrope, a popular19th century optical toy that was first developed in China almost two thousand years ago and marked an important step in the development of early cinema in modern times. Much celebrated upon its initial installation, however, Brand’s piece was gradually effaced with grime and graffiti until its images ceased to move and were eventually erased altogether. Miraculously, in 2008, Masstransiscope got a second lease on life. With the help of many a magnanimous supporter, Brand was finally able to remove all 228 hand-painted panels from the metro station and restore them to their original rainbow resplendence.
As I rode the Q train through the spiffed-up Myrtle Avenue Station, I was left wondering with everyone else: “What have I just seen?” But the nature of the question might have been a little different for me than for the disaffected secretary to my right or the little Indian girl to my left—both of whom hadn’t noticed the piece until I pointed it out. In their case, the surprise was the piece itself; the shock of a moving picture outside the subway window, followed by the natural curiosity of what it was, how it got there, and how it works. I, on the other hand, was left wondering, “Why those images?” Why a spaceship? Why the accordion like figure? A noodle…really?
Even if it wasn’t meant to be a noodle, it sure looked like pasta! And with a relatively anonymous piece like this, who was to say either way? After watching the installation a few times, I was no less delighted by its apparition but increasingly put off by its actual appearance. Which brings me to a question that I believe is significant to our appreciation and appraisal of so much of contemporary art, whether on the gallery wall or one’s daily commute, the big question of this little article: does form suffice for content?
While I am duly impressed by the piece’s conceptual underpinnings, its execution leaves me unmoved. The idea could have lent itself to so much – both visually and narratively, but in my eyes it ended up looking a bit too much like a toddler’s cartoon from 1970s public television.
It’s true that Bill Brand had a very good idea. Indeed, a number of companies thought so too—like and BMW and Columbia Pictures, who subsequently put up ads based on the same concept in Tokyo, Boston, and even New Jersey. Considering the corporate renditions against the independent artist’s, however, I can’t help feeling like perhaps the former have produced art works comparable to, if not more interesting than, Brand’s. Just across the Hudson in New Jersey, for instance, there’s a trailer for the Denzel Washington thriller The Taking of Pelham 123, which is incidentally set on a moving subway car. While I have little interest in the movie itself, the innovative trailer makes for a pleasing subway spectacle worth the seconds that the images flash by. Clearly this is a highly effective advertising campaign, but it is also a visually interesting experience in its own right.
Remarkably, Bill’s initial idea for the piece was a sort of film-buff’s take on the campaign that Focus Features would initiate decades later. He wanted the Myrtle Avenue station to serve as the site for an on-going installation for which he would paint and install a new set of panels each week. Any given sequence would represent a single scene from an old movie, so that after a year or so, commuters could actually watch an entire film. Brilliant! But far too ambitious to be attempted.
In a recent public lecture at the New York Transit Museum, Bill explained a bit about the genesis of the more manageable content that ended up as the Masstransiscope we now know. He said he was particularly inspired by Diego Rivera and his massive Rockefeller Center mural, Man at the Crossroads (1933), which was subsequently destroyed for the artist’s refusal to paint over Lenin’s portrait. Brand liked how much the artist tried to pack into one picture—capitalists in one corner, the cosmos in the other. “These grand ideas—I tried to abstract them.” The audience pressed him further for an explanation… “Well I’m not sure what the image is. It’s really up to your interpretation.” Somebody in the second row called out “It’s like birth and death!” “Yeah,” Bill responded with a smile… “It’s everything.”
I was not convinced. I asked about the style of the work—had he taken inspiration from children’s drawing, perhaps? Not particularly, he answered. But he had quickly come to realize that bolder graphic designs were most effective…in essence re-discovering cartoons. Fair enough, who doesn’t love a great cartoon! Art history on high is surfeit with the influence of popular cartooning—Murakami being just one very recent darling of the critics to highlight this crossover in artistic vocabulary. But as I see it, cartooning might not have gained much influence in either popular or elite circles if it looked like the images of Masstransiscope.
I’m no less elitist than Adorno, but I think that if the culture industry can actually execute an artist’s idea better than its originator, then there’s no reason for the outcome to be denigrated simply because it is made for the market. This is certainly not to say that Masstransiscope should be plastered over by the highest bidder, as there’s no arguing with the fact that it’s a significant and original piece of public art. Still, Masstransiscope’s restoration gives an occasion for me to ask whether the very clever piece, like so many in the art world today, was really realized in a way that means much of anything at all.