It could almost be a mirage. (Have you had enough coffee? Did you doze off? Maybe you just imagined it…) The colorful animations flow through the windows of the B and Q trains, and the moving picture beckons you to forget the morning commute. Just let your imagination fly through the tunnel. But what is this strange bit of cinema and how did it get there? We tracked down the artist behind the piece to find out.
Bill Brand spends much of his time these days as an experimental filmmaker and preservationist, restoring archival flicks to their former glory. But there is one project that seems to stick with him through the years. He first installed “Masstransiscope” in Brooklyn’s abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station back in September of 1980. Since then, he’s been involved in multiple restoration efforts to keep the piece intact, through years of dirt, grime, graffiti and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The only way to spot the piece in public is to catch the B or the Q train from the DeKalb Avenue subway station in Downtown Brooklyn. Stand on the far side of the train when you get in (toward the wall of the station), then keep your eyes peeled. You’re in for a treat.
According to Bill, “the piece works on the principle of the Zoetrope, a 19th century optical toy.” As you pass by in the moving train, 228 hand-painted panels bring a series of abstract shapes to life for around 20 seconds total. While they feel like a continuous animation, what you’re actually seeing is the panels, all in a straight line, viewed through vertical slits in a large box that spans the length of the whole piece. The enclosure is 300 feet long and sits 5 feet in front of the artwork. Lights illuminate each slit along its surface, bouncing off of the paintings’ reflective material.
The images themselves are open to interpretation. When asked about certain portions of the animation, Bill likes to leave the explanation in the eye of the beholder. “Some say it’s rocketships and some say it’s a squid, but I think it’s all of that,” he says. “And I’m not just being coy. I was interested in creating an image that could be biological, cosmological, fun, playful and have multiplicity in its meaning.” It’s partially for this reason that to really understand “Masstransiscope,” you just have to go see it for yourself. “It doesn’t photograph or video well because those, too, are illusion machines,” Bill says.
“Masstransiscope” began as more of an ethereal dream than a concrete plan. In the early 1970s, Bill was a graduate student in Chicago, where he first began to conceive the idea. “Like anyone who rides in a car or rides the train, you look out the window and you have that experience of thinking ‘this is very cinematic,’” he says. “But riding in the subway, when you have the flicker of the lights and the struts, it starts to look like frames in the flickering of a cinema.” From there, he began to imagine what it would look like if he were to spot a film through the window. Could it be a reality? “Knowing how film works, and being interested in early cinema and pre cinema, I knew there were certain conditions that would create an illusion when done right,” he says. “I could imagine a strobe light that was timed with the train or something that would be like flipcards that might work, but I didn’t really know how I would make it happen.”
Soon enough, he finished school and move to New York, where he started pitching ideas to the fledgling organization, Creative Time (most recently responsible for Kara Walker’s massive sugar sculpture at the old Domino Sugar Factory.) “I was aware they helped artists to do public artworks,” he says. “This all predates the [MTA’s] Arts for Transit Program, so there wasn’t really funding for this, or even the mechanism. I’m sort of the grandaddy of the Arts for Transits projects.”
Though folks can continue to enjoy the piece today, upkeep has proven a challenge. After its installation in 1980, the panels gradually fell victim to vandals and dust. It wasn’t until 2003 that Bill began planting seeds among the art community and the MTA for the first big restoration project. Without funding available, it would take five more years before a call came down the line. “Out of the blue, I get a call from [Sandra Bloodworth at Arts for Transit] saying we have an opportunity to visit the site,” Bill remembers. “There was a new construction occurring above that site, so there was both a physical opening and an opportunistic opening.”
From 2008 to 2012, a freshly cleaned up “Masstransiscope” greeted commuters with its newly restored paintings. Then, in October 2012, came the monstrous clouds of Hurricane Sandy. While the storm knocked out the city’s power, vandals made way into the darkened enclosure and destroyed the paintings. To Bill’s surprise, though, the story had a happier ending this time. The MTA helped push through a speedy recovery for the piece, getting it fixed up once again in 2013 . So be sure to give the whole lot a healthy hat tip as you view it in 2014. This baby’s been through a lot.
The biggest news for Masstransiscope these days is that, soon, folks will be able to own a piece of it for themselves. Bill’s wife also happens to be a skilled printer. “One of the things I did when I had the paintings out [while restoring them] was I took high quality digital photographs of each panel,” Bill says. “Now we’re making fine art digital prints.” Rocketship or squid, it could soon be yours. We’ll stay tuned to Bill for updates.