On a large pedestrian island at the dead center of Times Square is one of the coolest works of art on the face of the earth – a masterpiece of acoustic installation that runs non-stop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is encountered by an average of 1,000 people per hour.
I recently checked it out four times over the course of about a week – not that I originally planned to go more than once, but I was so hyped after my first visit that I just kept coming back every time I was in the area, and each time staying much longer than I had planned.
A couple stats of my own calculation: how many billboards can I see from this spot in a single glance? …85. How many corporate chain stores are adjacent to this small pedestrian island? …10. How many people stop to take videos or pictures or just to gawk, from directly on top of the work, in a given 15 minute period? …30-50.
How many people, in all four visits combined (about 2 hours total), realized that this piece exists?
Max Neuhaus' Times Square is to me, among many other things, a ballsy statement about information overload. Installed under a subway grate on the pedestrian island south of 46th street between 7th Ave. and Broadway in Manhattan, it ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from 1977-1992, and was reinstalled in May 2002. When I first visited, I purposefully avoided learning anything more about the work than simply how to find it, and ideally my suggestion to anyone who hasn't been there is to stop reading this now and go check it out for yourself first, as you will surely have your own impressions.
What comes from underneath that grate could be described as a simple metallic drone, basically unchanging but extremely dynamic, especially if you move around the site. Max described it as "the after-ring of a large bell." Although the sound is clearly not normal street noise, it is also not unusual enough to cause the average passer-by to do a double-take. It's loud enough to be heard clearly (at times almost overwhelmingly so) if you know to listen for it, but if you don't, it's likely not loud enough to pull your focus from whatever might already have hold.
That last fact was what immediately blew my mind and also what makes for possibly the best people watching in all of New York – there doesn't seem to be a single person who happens upon this spot who's focus isn't already completely occupied, and it's endlessly fascinating to watch them notice everything but the work of art they are standing directly on top of. Tourists and locals alike are on phones, staring up at the billboards, taking pictures, hurrying past, selling tickets, distributing flyers. Times Square is a work of art that is content not to compete with the hundreds of things that are already grabbing at people's attention from every direction.
I'm sure I've also walked over the spot unknowingly dozens of times, but once I became aware of it's existence, I found the effect to be marvelous. The warm, richly harmonic texture (reminiscent of early electronic music) envelops me like a cocoon. It gives the whole surrounding panoramic monument of corporate advertising banality a strange, other-worldly glow. It has a calming effect that turns the volume of everything else around it down (no small feat) and switches my mind's technicolor photographs of the scene into monochromatic negatives.
It occurred to me how a great work of art can, instead of becoming obsolete or dated, seem to actually change meaning over time. Times Square in the 70s and 80s must have given the piece a much more sinister feel, a foreboding sense that one is observing creeping danger from within a protected shadow. Today, installed in a new context of whitewashed corporatism, it's just as powerful in its capacity to shine a black light on a person in a not-completely-accurate SpongeBob SquarePants costume or a perfectly photoshopped naked torso on a 50x-larger-than-life-sized billboard.
Although the work is supported and maintained by the DIA Museum, it is completely unmarked at the site. Maybe part of the original motivation for leaving it unmarked comes from an anti-establishment mindset, but I think the anonymity of the piece also makes a wonderful and generous statement about the ownership of a work of art. Without any acknowledgement of himself at the site, Neuhaus is essentially giving artistic credit to anyone who may happen to discover it accidentally. Not only does that person "own" it in the sense of the work being public and free to visit at any time of day or night, but that person might even feel that she discovered something no one else knows about. In an era where being the first to "share" something on Facebook or Reddit or Tumblr imparts a superficial, shallow authorship of the item (usually without the permission of its actual creator), Neuhaus' gift to anyone lucky enough to discover his work without foreknowledge of its existence (by leaving his own artistic credit off the site) is wonderfully generous and way ahead of his time.
Here's a cool video about the reinstallation in 2002 at Max's site (although I highly recommend seeing the work in person first if at all possible!): http://www.max-neuhaus.info/audio-video/
Check it out, and don't be afraid to listen close!