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.

Visit Bill Brand’s blog or website to see more about the restoration effort.

Moving Pictures will be an occassional series on the far reaches of film as art in the city and beyond.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Filmmaker interviews, just for fun, Moving Pictures, New Directors/New Films, quotables, video

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8 Comments on “Moving Pictures: attaining underground momentum with Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope”

  1. Lauren K. Says:

    I’m so glad it’s back! I had fantasies of trying to restore this piece when I first learned about it in school but somehow never knew who to talk to or how to go about doing it. My loss. Anyway, yay!

  2. prb Says:

    from what i recall, it was clearly visible up til about the early 90s, after which it suffered a massive graffitti attack which rendered it unviewable.

    perhaps they can add a “musical roads” audio track to the train on that section too, (like they have in japan on some highways)


  3. An interesting interview outtake–the artist was telling me that he put up a note to the graffitti world when he put the piece up, and for a while it was honored. Also, that the work has a kind of respect within that world. Honestly, when I first noticed it, I wasn’t sure if it was officially sanctioned or not.

  4. Arthur Ryel-Lindsey, Film Society of Lincoln Center Says:

    And regarding the “musical road.” The phenomenon has recently made it over to these shores — http://cbs2.com/local/William.Tell.Road.2.822008.html — with success like a high school band playing Philip Glass. I don’t think we can expect to hear it in a subway tunnel near us anytime soon.


  5. […] Read the filmlinc blog’s interview with artist Bill Brand […]


  6. Stunning! Thanks Michael 🙂

  7. Bryso Says:

    There was a Target ad from the Holiday season 2001 (?) that employed this technique and was visible from the Path trains into Manhattan from Hoboken, I was worried it would become a common technique like the static cling stickers I remember from the same period…

    Thank goodness it hasn’t taken the underground by storm.. I appreciate the one-off nature of this project. And his recognition of the tunnel graffiti culture.


  8. Excellent. The Museum of Modern Art posted this link on Twitter. I’ll have to find and excuse to head over to the B/Q trains soon.


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