There are no signs posted to alert you to its presence, no pre-recorded voices directing your gaze outside. Only if you happen to be looking out the correct side of the train at just the right moment will you see it: brightly colored geometric shapes that appear to be moving, as if an animated movie were playing alongside your subway car.
This mini-motion picture, visible from the right side of a Manhattan-bound B or Q train just after the DeKalb Avenue stop, is “Masstransiscope,” an art installation by Bill Brand that resides in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station. “I was interested in making an artwork that people could encounter in their daily life that was not mediated by the usual filters of the museum, the gallery, the marketplace, or classroom,” says Brand, who started work on “Masstransiscope” in the mid-seventies with permission from the MTA. “The experience of seeing the piece is essentially a private one, even though it takes place in a most public setting.”
The “Masstransiscope,” which was installed in 1980, consists of 228 hand-painted panels that are mounted to the platform’s wall and illuminated by fluorescent lights. Brand conceived the idea for the piece while riding the subway. “Seeing the light flicker as the train passed by structural pillars,” he remembers, “I started imagining making a movie by placing images in the tunnel.” An independent filmmaker with an interest in pre- and early cinema history, Brand based “Masstransiscope” on the zoetrope, a nineteenth-century cylindrical device that, when spun at the correct speed, created the illusion that the fixed images it contained were moving. As with the zoetrope, viewing slits — which Brand made by installing a series of vertical planks a few feet in front of the panels— fabricate this illusion by ensuring the images don’t blur together.
Although Brand tried to keep his piece graffiti-clean and functioning during the early eighties, “Masstransiscope” eventually fell into disrepair and, excluding a brief restoration in the early nineties, was lost to viewers for decades. But thanks to a small grant in 2006, aid from the Arts for Transit program, and a bit of well-timed construction that briefly reopened the Myrtle Avenue stop last summer, Brand— along with volunteers from New York University and a professional cleaning company in Long Island City — was able to clean and repair all 228 panels.
Fully restored in November, it’s once again amazing viewers — as long as they happen to be looking out the window as they whiz past. Click on the still below to see it in action.