Moving Pictures: attaining underground momentum with Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope
Recently, my morning commute from Brooklyn to the Film Society took me on the most unusual journey.
Right after my B train left Dekalb Station but before it emerged onto the bridge, I found myself witness to a kinetic explosion of color and shapes. I realized I was looking through a giant zoetrope which was being animated by the movement of the train.
Some sleuthing uncovered the project’s name, Masstransiscope, and its artist, Bill Brand. It was originally installed in an abandoned elevated Myrtle Avenue station in 1980, but obscured with grime in the 28 years since then. After the artist (and New Directors/New Films alum) graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about the project, I learned that the restoration of his project was only completed last Friday. It’s now an eye-popping treat for any rider on the northbound B/Q trains.
First off, I’d like to say that normally my view in the subway is of scratchitti and Dr. Zizmor ads, and so the first thing that I thought when I was confronted with Masstransiscope was what on earth was in the artist’s mind when he came up with this?
Bill Brand: I thought of it riding the subway. I’ve always been interested in early cinema and how the moving image and the train come out of the same technology and mindset, so I was imagining that as I was looking out the window as I was going by.
Do you think the way people respond to it has changed in the 28 years since it was first installed?
BB: Well, the culture has changed so much. Now there are advertisements that function the same the way, so I was wondering if it would still look like a work of art it was made to be. I was happy to see that it’s still giving and not asking.
What happens when you subvert the traditional means of making films, turning commuters into cameras, for instance?
BB: Well, I don’t know if the commuter is the camera; I think that they are the projector actually. I come out of avant garde film tradition and a lot of what motivates us is the idea that the spectator can be active, and that the viewer is not just a passive recipient of what the artist is giving them. This piece is a way of making that explicit. Though most of its life has been in the dark, my sense is that people take this as their piece. Good public art turns around to become owned by the people who live with it.
The fact that the mechanism of the illusion reveals itself when the train slows down and speeds up, to me that was never a defect, it was a part of the piece, and part of the notion that the spectator becomes an active viewer. There’s a kind of reflexivity in the piece, the viewer is both the recipient and a participant.
One thing that tickles me pink is that this piece really resists categorization. Even the restoration has been sort of ad hoc. And I am hoping that the piece will have its own underground momentum.
Moving Pictures will be an occassional series on the far reaches of film as art in the city and beyond.