Welcome to the Masstransiscope blog

18 09 2008

Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope was installed in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, New York in September 1980. It has been seen by millions of commuters for over twenty-five years. The 228 hand-painted panels are viewed through a series of vertical slits set into a specially constructed housing. The piece works on the principle of the Zoetrope, a 19th century optical toy.

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17 responses

18 09 2008
bill

Please comment or ask Bill Brand questions.

19 11 2008
Sarah

So this is set up in an abandoned subway station? Was it originally/is it now MTA-sanctioned or more of a guerrilla op?

5 12 2008
bill

Hi Sarah,

Masstransiscope has always been in the unused (transit prefers this term to abandoned!) Myrtle Ave Station. I initiated the project in the 1970’s and proposed it to Creative Time. We worked in cooperation with the MTA Arts for Transit folks from the beginning but the project predates their percent for arts funded programs. The funds and in-kind donations were all raised by Creative Time but no effective mechanism for maintenance was ever put in place. So it has been mostly in disrepair for the past 20 years. Still, the piece has always had somewhat of a guerrilla ethos to it since it never fit into any established category for public art and even today, the restoration has been accomplished with underground tactics even though MTA was again cooperative. It took my own initiative – several years of effort – and support from a many behind the scene enthusiasts to bring it back to life. Its existence is still not very official.

19 07 2010
danilocvejic

It’s too bad it doesn’t get more attention. I remember when I was a kid coming home from Brighton Beach,I saw just the Myrtle Av mystery stop,the conductor never commenting on it.The station so low lite like there was a brown out ,seemed like such a God forsaken place.

19 12 2008
The Raddest Public Art I’ve Seen In a Long While | Overthinking It

[…] More on the project and it’s creator, Bill Brand, can be found here. […]

2 01 2009
molly shoelace

i’ve seen it a bunch of times in the past week. i had heard about it and intentionally went to see the show. and what i loved most was that no one on the train was aware of it. i saw a few nearby passengers catch sight of it and watch, mystified and happy, and then go back to their private subway business. it is a very special secret.

after unearthing the old panels, did you consider redoing it entirely? or adding on to it? were you surprised at seeing your old work again?

3 01 2009
Bill

Hi Molly,

I never seriously considered redoing the piece and I didn’t know if the original would be recoverable. But I did anticipated damage from the beginning and I protected the painting with graffiti proof sheeting. It was, after all 1980, the height of NYC graffiti culture! But I was worried that after 20+ years the spray paint would have made some kind of chemical bond with the protective plastic and the original would be lost.

When I got the first panel out of tunnel I took it to MetroExpress/ShelterClean and they gave me their top graffiti experts and their high powered equipment. In half a day we partially clean half of one panel and did a fair amount of damage to it in the process. There are 57 panels, so cleaning was clearly going to be a problem. I took the test panel back to my studio and spent the next few months experimenting with solvents and paint removers until I found one that worked. We ordered about 10 gallons of the stuff and went to work on it over the summer. It only only took us a couple of weeks to clean all the panels completely.

There were probably 20 or 30 layers of spray paint on the images. I was terribly excited to see the paintings underneath. The workers were as into it as I was and they transformed from professional graffiti cleaners into art restorers. I had some volunteer professional film archivists working too and I think they enjoyed transforming form art conservators into graffiti cleaners! I really appreciated everyone’s careful attention to the laborious detail of the work. Needless to say, I’m very happy each time I get to see it in action from the train and hope it will be maintained for many years.

6 01 2009
Miss Goldberg

I was born in South Brooklyn. The very first week Masstransiscope was installed, I got to see it through the windows of a Q train. It was like a great secret. I would tell friends about what was coming up on the ride and they wouldn’t believe me until we sped by.

Now I take the B or Q every day to work. Even before this week’s NYT article was published, I began to notice Masstransiscope again. I wish I could say it was because I was looking for it. But no ! It was because every single B/Q train conductor makes a halting stop right in front of the art display and sits there for about 45 seconds. The train conductors must have been ordered to do so by the B/Q supervisor. As you know best, the display is meant to be seen from a speeding car, not at an abrupt stop. The passengers only see narrow vertical slivers, not the moving rocket. Can you please educate the B/Q supervisor not to stop the train in front of Masstransiscope? It’s annoying because it defeats the concept of the art display.

6 01 2009
Bill

Dear Miss Goldberg,

Thank you so much for your wonderful memories. I’m glad you can enjoy the
piece again.

When I designed Masstransiscope 30 years ago the trains even then always slowed down and stopped as they still do today. So, I designed that feature into the piece. I actually like that the illusion breaks down and you can see the slits and the static paintings behind them. That was, in fact, part of the concept. So don’t be angry with the conductors! I also like that you can get on the train at the front, middle or back and the train will slow down at a different point in the animation. In order to design the images, I built a working model with a dial that made it go fast or slow or even stop so I could see what the image would look like under all circumstances. You can see a video of the model in the top video clip above.

I am so pleased to hear from you. I remember in the early 1980’s that there was a guy who carried a saxophone and wore a green hat with pingpong balls on the end of two antennae. He would announce to the train that he was from outer space and that his ship crashed and that he needed money to repair it. Then, to prove he was for real, he told the riders to look out the window and he’s play his sax with the images. I don’t know if he made any extra money this way but I always thought it was cool!

Keep spreading the secret!

6 01 2009
Miss Goldberg

Wow ! The YouTube video surprised me because I realized I have never seen the entire piece–starting at the first frame. I always catch on toward the end and watch until the rocket launch. I still say it is better viewed fast, mostly because I always board the same car. (I think all rush hour riders do.) That means every day my train car comes to a stop at the same art frame.

The best thing about Masstransiscope in the year 2008 is that most riders–except for me–keep their eyes glued to text messaging. Even 30 years later, I am still reading my book!! When you read, you look up now and again. That’s when I notice what’s out the window. I can’t help smiling to myself about how times have changed. In the ’70s, it was either read your book, sleep or look out the windows.

It’s funny how when you discover things as a kid, you never think through how or why something was created. Being grown now, I was very shocked to learn there was an actual person behind this ! It never occured to me that transit art would require any engineering. (It’s funny because this week I watched the 2008 dvd documentary Man on Wire about the Frenchman who tightrope walked between the Twin Towers. I remember this event, too, from a young age. I never gave any thought to the complexity behind that, either.)

II don’t know if you read the Dec.16 article Times about an MTA pilot program: Coca Cola ads wallpapering all subway windows. Passengers cannot see out the windows except for a couple pin prick holes. I know you are an artist, not a politician but is there any way you can stop this from happening on the Q/B line? If the MTA expands this to all subway lines, it will be impossible–or at the least very difficult–to view Masstransiscope.

I just wanted you to know how fun it is to have my reading or daydreams interrupted by a runaway mosaic. Yours is the only art I get to see M-F. I will try not to get too irked at the conductors but I can’t promise anything. :)

10 02 2009
randy

Dear Bill,
I have been traveling on this train line for 42 years when it was the D, QJ, M, QB… Imagine my thrill when my daughter pointed out your work one beautiful morning. It brought a smile to my face and made the start of my day that much enjoyable. Hopefully every now and then people will look up just in time to see your wonderful installment.
Thank you for your effort and for persevering and bringing it back to us city folk.
Randy

10 02 2009
Bill

Dear Randy,

Thanks for your appreciation and thanks to your alert daughter for noticing it!

Best,

Bill

29 05 2009
Dean Bianco

Hi Bill,

You have enriched the lives of so many commuters with your Masstransiscpoe, and I am fortunate to be included as one of them. And we are very grateful that it has been restored, allowing countless first-timers to be delighted with this inspired art piece.

Masstransiscope was launched in 1980. But I clearly remember seeing a more primitive zoetrope years before yours was installed in roughly, if not exactly, the same place. I believe it had existed from say the late 60’s/early 70’s until yours was completed. Question: Did you ever see or hear about this zoetrope? Perhaps you were associated with it or, if not, were you inspired by it (assuming you indeed see it) to create a vastly improved version of your own? Or is my account news to you?

Thanks for replying!! You will solve this long puzzling mystery!
Dean

20 01 2010
Yujin

This is seriously cool!

8 08 2010
Amanda

Bill,
I love telling people about your work. I have seen times when I have made videos of your work and someone would see me and say,”I have been riding this train for years and never knew those lights were there.”
This is a best kept secret in NYC. My husband and I lead mission teams here and I love it when they travel this route so I can tell them to be sure and watch for this beautiful moving art.
Thanks for lighting up the subway in an enjoyable way.
Amanda

10 08 2010
Pam

I’ve always see this amazing and intriguing artwork every time I’m on the train leaving Brooklyn. So thankful that it was restored two years ago for all to cherish throughout their lifetimes. Very beautiful and awesome!

30 09 2011
Daniel Paluszek

What’s going on with the Masstransiscope? I’ve noticed about half of it out on my daily commute to Manhattan everyday. Are there plans to get it back to 100%? I’d hate to see it fall back into disrepair…

Or maybe I’m just inquiring on how to volunteer and get into an abandoned subway station. lol

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