For our latest mission, 50 Improv Everywhere agents created an art gallery opening on the 23rd Street subway platform in Manhattan. We put up 30 placards next to objects in the space (pipes, electrical boxes, signs, advertisements), transforming them into works of art. The gallery included a bar, a coat rack, and a cellist. Enjoy the video first, and then continue reading for photos, text from our placards, and reports from the agents involved.
Agents Eppink and Small approached me with the idea of holding a gallery opening on a subway platform, and I was immediately excited to make it happen. There has been tons of really cool unauthorized art happening in the subway system lately, including PosterBoy‘s fantastic advertisement modifications. The MTA actually has some great authorized art installations in certain stations as well (the American Museum of Natural History station comes to mind.) Despite these wonderful authorized and unauthorized works, the majority of the stations are pretty boring and display nothing but ads. Well, at least at first glance. We were able to turn the components of the 23rd Street C/E station into works of art simply by adding placards containing art-speak descriptions.
The 23rd Street station has no authorized art, but its advertisements are frequently improved upon by anonymous artists. The station also has tons of quirky things about it, including locked up men’s and women’s restrooms that haven’t been in use for years. It was the perfect spot for our gallery.
Agent Harms runs the coat rack
Agent Good works the bar
Agents Williams, Ace$Thugg, and Perveen
Brick Window (2003)
Metropolitan Transit Authority in collaboration with Unknown Artists
Glass Bricks with Ink marker
This piece inverts the typical window by making it from opaque bricks, set within a larger opaque wall. This opens the dialogue between the lower spaces of the MTA subway and the upper world where sunlight would necessitate such windows. The null opacity of the glass is called to attention by the use of ink markers.
Locked Box #2 (1988)
Metropolitan Transit Authority
This extremely subtle piece reexamines the assumption that art must be visually accessible to be important and identifiable as a creative work. This artist explores the limitless possibilities of the hidden here, allowing the viewer to reevaluate underlying preconceptions, and to recondition the inner mind to work with the perception of the commonplace outer space.
Telephone Line (2002)
Metropolitan Transit Authority in collaboration with Telecom
This homage to the urgency of communication is meant to highlight the recent necessity, from instant to instant, to maintain the potential for instantaneous, world-wide contact from any location, at any time. That a conversation from such a location would be abruptly interrupted by an arriving train suggests the artist’s intent to lampoon the perceived dependence on telecommunication.
MTA and unknown artists
Mixed Media on Metal and Concrete
Describing the irresistibility of natural urges, and situated thematically near the restroom, this drainage grate offers deliverance. Consequently, here lies an indeliable yellow nitrogen stain, as evidence of the passings of hundreds, if not thousands of strained commuters. Each straphanger, surreptitiously seeking relief, has helped create this totally organic, revolutionary art piece.
Textured Glass (1998)
Metropolitan Transit Authority
These simple glass blocks, with their textures turned at angles to one another, serve as a reminder that even in similarity, otherwise overlooked backgrounds have vast differences, and that considered as a whole, those differences create a subtle beauty. The tension between the glass blocks and tiles serves to force the blocks into a separate plane from the surface.
Black Metal Slam Gate with Panic Bar #367 (2004)
Gricelda Cespedes, Assistant Chief Stations Officer responsible for Maintenance; Overseer of the panic bar installation at stations system-wide.
The panic bar initiative, including these fashion-friendly safety bars, was launched with the goal of providing a way for customers to safely evacuate a station in an emergency, according to Ken Brown from New York City Transit’s Office of System Safety. More than 450 panic bar kits have been installed. A total of 1,500 will be in place by the end of the year, in all fare control areas where you can enter or leave a station, where feasible, in the system’s 468 stations.
Electrical Conduit and Fittings, Tile Wall
This work is at once a heroic call to solidarity and a hopeful ode to the future. The diverse collection of pipes, flocking together chaotically from all across the platform, can only burst through the wall once they’ve banded together. Instead of a bright knowable future, however, the pipes – brimming full of power – disappear into the ambiguous dark abyss on the other side of the wall. The viewer is left in anticipation, hoping the newly-assembled coalition can successfully harness the energy within itself on the other side.
Top Chef, Bottom Mystery (2008)
MTA in Collaboration with Bravo Network
The interleaving of advertisements present in the partial removal of outer ads has been a recent trend in modification from platform users. This reveals the mystery of previous advertisements hidden just under the current. The artist implies that the viewer should consider the past placements in this location, stretching back to the inception of the MTA’s selling of ad space in their subways, and the layering of meaning which can occur in such a small space.
You can see all of the artworks and read their corresponding descriptions by clicking through Agent Nicholson’s Flickr Set.
Agents viewing the art
A woman looks confusedly at our bar
The view from across the platform. Note the woman from the above photo is now reading about one of the artworks.
Two men read our poster
Unsure what to make of the bar and coat rack
I was especially interested in how we convinced ourselves and those around us to play the game and to believe, for a couple hours, that these everyday objects were actually art. Agent Small did a fantastic job of setting the tone with the wall text, but everyone who attended the opening was complicit and added tremendously to the collective fiction. Together we were inventing new meanings and alternate histories, all of which could have been entirely plausible explanations for the objects we were examining.
This may seem like a silly exercise, but I think it can be pretty useful! It puts you in a position to re-examine the mundane, imagine others’ intentions, and create new contexts for the objects and ideas you encounter every day. Usually we would just call that “acting”, but in this case, so much of the pretending is internal that maybe it’s not exactly theater? I’m sure there’s an argument for both sides. Regardless, I found the gallery opening to be an exhilarating, tremendously creative experience, and the hundreds of people who passed through, even if they didn’t join, at least encountered a fun, unexpected, disorienting moment.
Read Agent Eppink’s longer write up here on his site.
Agent Small and the Europeans
The three Europeans who stumbled on to the gallery seemed really tickled. They took a picture with our cellist, and asked me which art I recommended. The man was just bubbling with excitement as he went to look at “Caged Women”.
In the course of making the art labels, the mundane stuff of the platform really did become weirdly compelling and beautiful. I wasn’t sure if everyone else would have that experience, or if we would be busy consciously pretending that these random objects were art. In the course of the event, some other friends who came made brilliant observations about the pieces that helped bring my mindset firmly back into of-course-this-is-art, rather than viewing the subway as a collection of quick fixes over time. It’s wonderful how we can decide to create a collective reality, and how it can sometimes catch us up within itself. I’m glad other folks also got caught up in “Wow.. This might really be art!”, and that some non-agents got such a kick out of it!
I’m someone who likes to go to galleries and museums. Before too long, I had convinced myself I was at an art show, and I was allowing myself to be affected by the artwork. Service Changes is a reminder that art can be anything. Art is a state of mind, and if you perceive something as art, then it is. I think it would be hilarious if we got this mission into the hands of a serious art journalist or critic. They might take it very seriously and write a piece on it.
The unsuspecting audience reacted in several different ways. Some of them were confused. Some of them got the joke and laughed. I particularly enjoyed the older European party of 3 who stayed for awhile and took about a dozen pictures. They seemed happy they had stumbled upon some weird wacky New York thing. My favorites were the ones who showed up, got a drink, signed the guest book, looked around, and never cracked a smile. Quite a few people understood what was happening, but didn’t get the joke.
The real highlights of the evening were the interactions with bystanders.
The first notable conversation I had was a discussion about someone’s purchase of one of the works. The piece was a cabinet embedded into the wall. This guy was staring at the plaque, trying to decide if this was all a joke, when I approached him and told him that someone had just bought it. The conversation went roughly like this:
Me: You know, someone just bought this work.
Dude: They bought this?
Me: Yeah, probably for a good sum.
Dude: They bought what?
Me: [gesturing to the wall] Lock Box #2
Dude: They bought this?
And so on.
I was admiring the trashcan art piece when I finished my complimentary cider and needed to throw away my cup. I asked a man standing by if he thought it would be OK if I used the trashcan for my trash. After a long confused look, I explained to him that it was an art piece part of the current MTA exhibit. He still seemed rather confused, but I got him into a small discussion about art versus function. I told him it brought me to a deeper understanding of the piece and its unique quality of being functional art. While I don’t think the man completely understood, we decided it was OK for me to through away my cup.
I witnessed many spectators enjoying the art and postcard explanations with a laugh. Anything that can bring a smile to those traveling underground after a long day of work is an achievement.
One time a train came through and it was long enough for the last car to be near the “gallery” (not all of them were). I watched the people in the car as they tried to figure out what was going on, and the looks of interest and amusement on their faces were fantastic. It didn’t occur to me what effect this might have on people that were not even in the station.
I also thought it was funny when the MTA staff person was trying to get into the women’s bathroom, the door of which we had blocked with our coat rack.
(We apologized and moved the coat rack for her.)
My favorite part was when an older gentleman was walking by one of the art pieces and exclaimed, “That’s a locked box! How is anybody gonna take that home with him! It’s a locked box. That’s not art!” Then he walked off laughing hysterically.
I was standing at the lock box by the underpass stairs when a guy came over and started looking at one of the art descriptions of the Paul Rudd poster. Strangely, when I looked over I realized he was a guy I’d known when I was 14 and hadn’t really seen since. We shared a strange “Oh, my god, what are you doing here moment,” and then he told me that he had literally just come from an art class where he’d gotten into an argument with a classmate over the question, “What is art?”
He walked into the station with that in mind, and so when he saw the exhibit it just made his week because it was exactly what the argument was about. He got almost immediately that it was supposed to be “clever” and wasn’t necessarily real, but liked it even more for that. We walked around looking at all the pieces, he cracked up at every one.
I would have killed to be inside the station-guard-booth when the station manager called. He kept looking over at the “exhibit” so puzzled. He was throwing his hands and I could see him saying “I don’t know! I don’t know!”
I spent two winters as a coat check at a restaurant, which is why I am particularly ashamed to have forgotten to tip Agent Harms, who was the most authentic coat check anyone could have asked for.
I was the coat check guy wearing the tuxedo. I didn’t get to read any of the placards until after the event but I was able to see a lot of great reactions and got in plenty of crowd interaction.
All of the Agents were dressed so nicely for the opening – I’m glad they got to take their coats off and look spiffy for the rest of the crowd. I asked plenty of subway-goers if they wanted to check their coat and they all politely declined. One husband and wife that got off of a subway car told me they didn’t really have time to check their coats as their chauffeur was waiting outside. Most of the other people would then ask me a few questions about the opening: who the artist was, how late the event would be open that evening, who set up the opening in the station, where the art was, etc. I told them that I was just hired for this particular event, gave them the few details a coat check guy like me would know and directed them to the program/flyer. The older vacationing European trio were a big hoot taking pictures of themselves next to everything and trying to figure it all out.
Plus Agent Good (the bartender) and I made $24 in tips! An appreciative crowd indeed.
At one moment a girl was standing right in front of the pay phone close to the gate trying to get phone reception on her cell phone. She moved right in front of my site line of the “pay phone piece.” I just kept staring at the pay phone until she realized she was blocking something, turned around and noticed the art display, and give a “whoa, what’s happening?” look. And then stepped back and noticed all the other art pieces and gallery patrons. She seemed to really enjoy it and until her train came was really self-conscious that she was in the way of some other piece of art.
I think my favorite piece of the evening was the performance art titled “Woman sitting on bench, ongoing.” It was great to watch the people not involved in the mission sitting on the bench watching us watch them. Where did life end, and art begin? Where did art end, and life begin? The people sitting were totally confused. Finally, one woman looked up at the placard behind the bench, chuckled a bit and got up. The look on her face when she discovered that she was a performance artist was amazing!
I think the most interesting result of participating is that it was enlightening to get into the mindset that the pieces were art. Approaching the subway platform that way allows you to appreciate the details that make any public space great. Be it the modified subway advertisements, the clock, or the metal gates that seem to go nowhere (but actually lead to women’s bathrooms).
The reaction of those not expecting to find a gallery showing is one thing, but the enjoyment of the participants was the highlight for me.
I noticed an older couple depart an arriving train wearing formal attire, the woman might have even been wearing a fur coat. They laughed as they noticed what was happening, and then they went on their way, perhaps to a “real” gallery, not out of the realm of possibility.
What I loved most about this mission is that it brought something fun and enjoyable to a place where you don’t normally see many smiles. After thoroughly reading all the art descriptions, I started observing what made the people departing the trains stop and view the art. I found that when someone was reading one of the labels near the exit (the pay phone or the exit door ones specifically) the exiting riders would often stop and read it as well, mostly because they thought it was something from the MTA. After reading, they either figured it out and had a laugh, or just continued on confused.
Cop: You shouldn’t be doing this.
Me: Oh, really? We looked up all the MTA regulations and made sure that we didn’t violate any of them.
Cop: Well, first of all, you can’t be taking photos. That has to stop.
Me: Actually it’s legal to take photos on subway platforms. The MTA discussed banning it a couple of years ago, but it didn’t happen.
Cop: Yes, but you can’t have all these people here. It’s too crowded.
Me: Like I said we’ll be gone in a matter of minutes.
He was nice about it. I thought it was funny that he kept changing what it was that we were doing wrong. Other than putting up the signs (which could be easily taken down, leaving no mark), we didn’t break any MTA rules. It’s OK to dress up, drink a non-alcoholic beverage, and walk around a platform.
We packed up and disappeared. We decided to leave all of the placards up on the walls, continuing the mission for everyone who passed through the station that night. We figured they would be taken down by the next morning. I returned the next day and was surprised to see that 12 of them were still up. A month later 6 remained. Three months later there was still one up in a hidden corner. It’s fun to think of all the people waiting for trains who could have accidentally stumbled onto one of our placards over the past few months.
This afternoon (March 17, 2009) we put up fresh versions of all of the placards. Stop by and look for them if you’re in New York. Remember to dress up.
–Agent Eppink’s write up (includes a digital version of the flyer we handed out to gallery guests)