Philadelphia's Newest Art Venue: The Amtrak Corridor

A series of murals asks rail commuters to "think about this space that they hurtle through every day."

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Steve Weinik

Murals are often specifically designed to stop busy city residents in their tracks, forcing them to pause and, for a change, really take in their surroundings. Spread out along five miles of rail corridor, the latest project from the City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, by Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse, is intended to do just the opposite.

Over the past two weeks, Grosse has used bright colors to transform seven sites between downtown's 30th Street Station and North Philadelphia Station. Using the train as a central vehicle, psychylustro is meant to be seen in motion.

This stretch of track into downtown sees 34,000 riders every day, including travelers heading to and from New York on Amtrak plus commuters on two lines of SEPTA Regional Rail and one New Jersey Transit line with service to Atlantic City.* The installation, curator Liz Thomas says, is intended "an experience that asks people to think about this space that they hurtle through every day." The moving trains allowed Grosse to play with a wider number of variables: the viewer's perspective will change based on which direction they're traveling, how fast the train is going, and which track the train is using. The goal, Thomas says, is to create "a beautiful disruption into a daily routine."

The view from inside a moving train.

The installation also asks travelers to think more critically about the history of this stretch of Philadelphia, which includes sections of downtown and huge swathes of formerly industrial neighborhoods. The sites include the sides of an occupied office building, an old railroad trestle, and an abandoned warehouse, which once housed a textile factory but now has trees growing up through its collapsed roof. The brilliant colors -- vibrant whites and oranges on that warehouse side -- draw attention to these contrasting pieces of Philadelphia's past.

Grosse and her team will finish the final installation at the end of this week. Over the next few nights, they'll put the final touches on a stretch of dangerous track where it's only safe to work during the brief hours of post-midnight lull when no trains rush past. Once installation is complete, viewers will be able to get more information on the project through special cards placed in Amtrak seats and a dial-in line that will give more information about what they're seeing.

A train moves past the side of the warehouse.

Over the next months and years, what they're seeing will almost certainly change. Grosse and her team, which included two German assistants and six Pennsylvania artists who have worked with Mural Arts before, used indoor paint without any sealants to protect them from the elements. The hot pink will disappear first, washing off the dirt and trees on which it's painted, while the bright orange could linger much longer on the old textile warehouse.

This peeling, fading paint will offer just another way, Thomas says, that viewers will be able to reflect even further on the changing nature of the neighborhoods along Philadelphia's rail lines. The sights you see out the train window might seem monotonous, but there's real variety there: nature and buildings, land owned by the railway and private property, blocks on the rebound and ones in disrepair. Not all sites they had originally wanted worked out, and the sites they have used will continue to change, as will the way visitors and neighbors react. "The beautiful thing about working in public is that you’re working in public," says Thomas. Psychylustro's ethos, then, drives home that "you can’t control the world."

Below, see more of the process and installations:

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All images by Steve Weinik for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the New Jersey Transit line serves Trenton. It serves Atlantic City.

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