Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Finding Art in Transit Arteries

Long before the word "infrastructure" entered the popular vocabulary, I was discovering its meaning in a peculiarly personal and subterranean way. As a child, one of my favorite places to stand was  next to the driver's compartment in the first car of a subway train, staring out the front window as the train hurtled through dark tunnels along tracks that led under the East River, beneath Manhattan's skyscrapers, and occasionally even rose above ground. To experience a train's journey as it climbed a long, slow incline between stations, rose out of the ground into the sunlight, or disappeared down a dark hole in the ground was a cheap and easily renewable thrill.

The mysterious beauty of a subway tunnel

In the late 1950s (after the Soviets had launched their Sputnik satellites and the Cold War became focused on a race to land a man on the moon), a ride on the New York City subway system cost only 15 cents. My best friend and I devised a brilliant scheme which, though it might seem ridiculous to adults, was sure to capture the imagination of any boy our age. Using our trusty subway maps, we spent many hours fantasizing about how we could ride the entire New York subway system for only 15 cents!
  • Of course, we had absolutely no concept of how long it would take to visit 468 stations along 209 miles of subway routes.
  • Nor did we think about when, where, or how we would be able to go to the bathroom (what's a pay toilet?).
  • We certainly hadn't given any thought to sleeping, bathing, or eating.
  • But we were full of enthusiasm for our nifty little adventure.
Our grandiose project crashed and burned the moment we learned that the ride from Howard Beach to Far Rockaway required an extra fare. The whole idea had been to ride the entire subway system for 15 cents. Now our plan was completely ruined.  Phooey!

Our fascination with a netherworld that, for many people, was out of sight and out of mind was captured in one of Jule Styne's less fortunate musicals, 1961's Subways Are For Sleeping. In the following clip, Carol Lawrence leads the cast in "Ride Through The Night."

Subways Are For Sleeping took its inspiration from a series of stories in Harper's Magazine about homeless people who slept on trains as they rode around New York City through the night. Back when I was in the throes of coming out, I remember asking a much more knowledgeable friend how I could meet other gay people.  "Just look around and see who you're attracted to," he replied.

That answer didn't offer me much help. "Have you seen who's riding the D train at 1:00 a.m.?" I asked him. Several months later, when I nervously inquired about what to expect during my draft physical, he replied "Relax, it's a romp and a frolic. Besides, you might meet someone you like!"

A wealth of art and architectural beauty can be found beneath many cities. Many travelers find themselves in awe of the geometric grandeur found in the subway stations of Moscow's Metro.

Others prefer the more contemporary forms of artistic expression on display throughout Stockholm's Metro.

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One of the oddest documentaries I've come across in quite a while is Timo Novotny's haunting video essay, Trains of Thoughts, which was screened at the 2013 DocFest in San Francisco. Backed by a wonderful musical score by the Austrian band, Sofa Surfers, Novotny travels below ground in some of the world's most famous subway systems.

In some cities, his fascination is with the public art that is visible within the subway system (whether it be the poets and buskers on the platforms of the Los Angeles Metro Rail or the palatial interior decor found in some of Moscow's subway stations).

In others, it may involve the contrast between the architectural symmetries to be found throughout every subway system and the masses of humanity from Hong Kong to Vienna that depend on mass transit every day.

In the following interview, Novotny explains why subways offer a special sociological fascination for him as a filmmaker:

As I watched Trains of Thoughts I found myself haunted by the film's visual richness (especially those segments that would appeal to someone who spent so many youthful hours riding subway trains) yet frustrated by the translations of Novotny's conversations with riders which interfered with the more interesting visuals. Watch the above clips (and the following trailer) and see for yourself:

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There's a certain kind of urban explorer who is part architect, part archaeologist, and part art historian. In some situations, the same person can be part anarchist and part thrill seeker. Sometimes the goal is to pierce the mysterious facade of a transit facility that has been removed from public access. At other times, it may be to investigate the inner workings of public infrastructure or act as a curator of the urban underworld.

Two videos examine this phenomenon using radically different documentary styles.  The first takes a highly respectful look at a Tube station along the London Underground that is no longer in active service.

The second was made from a much more rebellious perspective. Steve Duncan is the kind of urban explorer whose work sometimes redefines the term "armchair adventure." You'll be quite glad you're sitting comfortably in your home while watching Duncan deftly duck down sewers, nervously hike through subway tunnels, and climb bridges with the kind of curiosity that could kill someone with less experience.  Nimble as a goat and fearless as a cheetah, his lean athletic body and strong sense of balance frequently come in handy. On Duncan's website, he explains that:
"As an urban historian & photographer, I try to peel back the layers of a city to see what's underneath. From the tops of bridges to the depths of sewer tunnels, these explorations of the urban environment help me puzzle together the interconnected, multi-dimensional history and complexity of the great metropolises of the world."
With the help of videographer Andrew Wonder, Duncan's 27-minute short film entitled Undercity takes viewers on a tour of New York City secrets that no Gray Line bus tour could ever match. Enjoy!

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