Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chaotic space

There is an episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" in which the crew enters a region known as "chaotic space" — where sensors don't work, space shimmers, and unknown forces communicate using words plucked from the mouths of random individuals.

When I was in New York last weekend, I stumbled across an art installation that reminds me a bit of that episode.

The discovery was accidental: With an hour to kill before catching a bus at Port Authority, I decided to walk over to The New York Times building, which is right across the street from the terminal. I had never seen The Times building (which I have since learned is new), and I wondered whether they ever offer tours. After a nice security guard informed me that they do not, I wandered around the lobby a bit and spied a long orange passageway lined with what I thought were little plaques.

I went over for a closer look and was surprised to see that, though there were dozens and dozens of them, they were blank.

Then, without warning, they snapped to life, spitting out all kinds of seemingly random words.

This installation is called "Moveable Type 2007." Created by UCLA statistics professor Mark Hansen and New York-based artist Ben Rubin, it is composed of "vaccuum fluorescent displays, copper and steel cable, custom software, [and] two grids," according to a sign at the site.

The grids are situated on two long walls that face each other, each holding, I would guess, about 250 panels. Every minute or so, the panels update with information culled from The Times.

Sometimes each panel displays a question.

Other times, each panel shows a statement.

I found it easy to get transfixed by these panels, wondering who uttered such statements as "I was a rodent at the time, dying to be human," and "We have a few white people, not so many, but they're very nice."

Also provocative are the questions. I would like to know the answers to, and context of, queries like "Isn't there something nice, a lot cheaper, on Lake Michigan?" not to mention "Had there been a purpose?" More obvious (but no less fun) was one that popped up a couple of times while I was there: "A little tacky and vulgar, but would you want your steamy tangos and cha-chas any other way?"

The panels tend to go dark all at once, then they start lighting up in different ways. Sometimes the ones at the bottom light up first, and the content migrates gradually to the upper panels, creating a cool rolling effect.

Other times, each panel ignites with a dot of light that begins drawing a map. It's fun to try to identify as many of them as you can before they dissipate.

There are moments where all panels feature a line from an obituary. Other times, all panels display a number, along with a partial explanation of it (like this: "4-pound sea bass" and "1 stand devoted completely to watercress").

There are also crossword puzzle effects.

After writing most of this post, I dug up The Times' own article about the installation. Apparently, it was commissioned concurrent with The Times' move to its current location from its former one on West 43rd Street. It wasn't clear to me whether most of the text on the panels comes from the current day's paper, or whether an equal part comes from The Times' database of older stories, but I guess it doesn't really matter. Interestingly, the installaton also draws on search terms that users enter at The Times' web site,

The Times piece reminded me that there is an auditory element to the exhibit as well. If you had asked me before, I would have guessed that the sound was some nonintrusive music that falls silent a lot but chimes in when the panels begin lighting up. Other than, I couldn't really remember. The Times article identifies the sound as that of typewriter keys, "the lost music of newsrooms." According to an interesting interview the artists did with NPR's "On the Media," the sounds of rotary phones and teletype machines may also lend themselves to the score on occasion.

All in all, if you're wandering around the area in need of diversion, this is a fun one. NY has no shortage of diversions, of course, but "Moveable Type" was one of the more pleasant surprises I had during my short stay.


  1. That line about "I was a rodent at the time . . . " sounded vaguely familiar. Googling it revealed the source: liner notes from an old Voidvoids album (I had the vinyl at one time). From the Blank Generation to "another Gen-X blog." Rock 'n' roll never really dies.


Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.