Art in the Subways, Zoetropes, and a Public Art Opportunity for Columbia Students!

Art is literally everywhere in New York; that’s one of the great things about this city. In addition to the seemingly endless number of theatres, galleries, museums, and music venues, there are buskers, street art (or as some would call it, “graffiti”), and art is even an official part of the most unglamorous of New York institutions: the subway. In the 1980s, the MTA began the Arts for Transit program, as part of a larger rehabilitation of the subway system. There are now more than 200 works throughout the MTA system, including Long Island Railroad stations, bridges, and tunnels. The program includes all of the mosaics, stained glass windows, and sculptures you see on various platforms in the city, but it also includes the Music Under New York program, which auditions, hand chooses, and book musicians for performances in the subway; and the lightbox program, which showcases individual and curated photography exhibitions in several stations around the city. The Arts for Transit program includes works by some of the most renowned artists of the modern day: Jacob Lawrence, Nancy Spero, and Roy Lichtenstein.

One of the most notable and infamous pieces within the program is Masstransiscope, created in 1980 (before the Arts for Transit program even officially existed) by artist Bill Brand. The piece consists of over 200 painted panels that sit behind a slitted wall on the platform of an abandoned station, creating an animated cartoon when the subway goes by. The idea for the piece came from a popular 19th century toy, the zoetrope, which produced moving images by mounting pictures inside a turning cylinder, a kind of spinning flipbook. After several years of popular service just north of Dekalb Ave. on the Manhattan-bound Q and B lines, Masstransiscope fell into disrepair, the victim of graffiti artists and budgetary constraints. But when interest in the piece was renewed, Brand decided to explore the possibility of restoring it.

When Brand initially conceived of Masstransiscope, before Arts for Transit had been created, he turned to the MTA for permission to use their space, but turned to different organizations for help with funding: Creative Time, a non-profit group started in 1974 that funds public art around the city (their most recent project, Key to the City, ended on June 27), and the National Endowment for the Arts. When the time came to restore the piece, Brand again found the MTA hesitant to invest in such large-scale repairs. Brand secured a grant, and set to work, dismantling and moving all 225 paintings, removing by hand the graffiti and grime veiling the pictures, and finally reinstalling the piece. I had a chance to see Masstransiscope last week on my way back from the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, and it is really amazing. The colors are vivid, the animation compelling, and, most magically, few people (if any) notice it as the train goes by. The two women standing closest to me noticed it because I shouted, “There it is!” as we went past, but no one else batted an eye. It ends up feeling like your own little secret, if not a figment of your imagination.

A highly evolved descendent of Masstransiscope is now on display in the Bryant Park station at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. Created by entrepreneur, artist, and three-time Columbia graduate Josh Spodek (‘93CC, ‘00PhD, ‘06MBA), in collaboration with four students from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Bryant Park in Motion uses the same concept as Masstransiscope – a linear zoetrope – but with seriously updated technology. Gone are the hand-painted panels and slitted wall; in their places are photographic images on a computer screen, and a specially designed screen that achieves the same effect as the wall that sits in front of Masstransiscope. The idea that would eventually lead to Bryant Park in Motion occurred to Spodek during grad school: what if you stretched out a zoetrope, so that the images were running straight, instead of circular? That way, the images could run indefinitely, as opposed to the completely definite end that a circular zoetrope has. If the images could occupy a longer space, the animation could be longer, allowing for more elaborate stories to be told. But where, he thought, could you place such images so that they moved past people and allowed enough time for a cohesive narrative to be constructed? It occurred to him that subways have endless space for images, and that a subway crowd – a captive audience once they are on the train – would be the ideal viewers for his work. Most importantly, the subway offers a place where instead of the images moving past the audience, the audience would move past the images. Roughly a decade ago, Spodek began developing this new technology, which would eventually be used to put moving advertisements for the likes of Target, Coke, and Dancing with the Stars on the walls of subway tunnels; now he has turned that technology into art.

The story of how Josh Spodek came to have a piece of art in the Bryant Park subway station as part of Arts for Transit is a long one, involving years of fine-tuning the required technology, an unrealized collaboration with the MoMA, and an installation almost ruined by a blizzard. Like Masstransiscope, Bryant Park in Motion borrows valuable space from the MTA, but it was not funded by the MTA. Spodek’s company SubMedia donated the major equipment and technology the piece required, and the manpower and miscellaneous materials came from the NYU studio out of which the student team – comprised of Brett Murphy, Igal Nassima, Eyal Ohana, and Molly Schwartz – worked. In the end, the most important part of the story is that the piece got made, and that it’s been popular since its almost-thwarted installation in early March of this year. Bryant Park in Motion is not like the advertisements that SubMedia creates for the tunnels, but rather like the smaller walking displays they have created for sidewalk and subway platform advertising. It is installed next to the MTA ticket booth, and is not much larger than two tv sets put side by side. There is no signage directly next to it; the sign that proclaims the names of the art and the artists covers an adjoining wall around the corner. As you walk by the unsuspecting artwork, you notice something curious: the images inside the box are moving, but only when you do. People stop regularly to play with the piece, intrigued and perhaps a little confused by what’s going on. Spodek and his team of students created all of the images used in the piece, and they were all designed to invoke Bryant Park in some way: fashion shows, dogs playing, and some abstract images open to interpretation.

Artist Josh Spodek is now looking for a new team of students to help him create new images for his piece, Bryant Park in Motion, and he is extending the opportunity to his alma mater. If you are a Columbia student who would like to participate in this new piece, please contact Josh Spodek at for more information.


Emily Mousseau, GS’10

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3 Responses to Art in the Subways, Zoetropes, and a Public Art Opportunity for Columbia Students!

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