Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A series at the New York Transit Museum invites artists to make work inspired by the city’s trains and buses.
Twice a year, the New York Transit Museum—housed in a decommissioned station in Brooklyn—hosts an evening of site-specific performances and installations that draw inspiration from the city’s web of bus, train, and subway lines. Previous iterations of PLATFORM: Creative Musings on Mass Transit have featured gifs projected into the unfolding blackness of an abandoned subway tunnel, and hand-knitted cozies blanketing a turnstile.
The upcoming incarnation, slated for June 22, includes 9 programs spanning short plays, dance performances, and static art exhibits. The performances weave in and out of the museum’s fleet of historic train cars and buses, conjuring a platform even louder and more frenetic than usual.
Skin Deep, a short play by the Pulitzer finalist and Tony nominee Tina Howe, relies on some familiar sights and sounds: there’s a conductor shouting out station stops as the R train creaks its way through Lower Manhattan; there’s a low rumble on the tracks, and a flickering overhead light. This is juxtaposed with decidedly more fantastical elements—in particular, a toga-clad Apollo chasing the nymph Daphne. The subway car is an anchor, says the director, Ari Laura Kreith. “The moment you get in that car, you know where you are,” she says.
But even subway cars that aren’t attended by Greek gods can look unfamiliar if you look closely enough. The photographer Joseph Raskin, a retired MTA employee, trains his lens on the elevated and underground stations; he refers to the city’s tracks and cars as “the sixth borough,” sometimes overlooked even if a rider is a daily visitor. He’s projecting a series of photos spanning four decades in one of the museum’s vintage cars that he recalls riding as a child. He remembers the doors hissing as they sliced open and closed; the wicker seats; ceiling vans circulating the stuffy air.
It’s fitting that his project is on display in a relic: his project aims to document them. He snapped one of his first photos in 1977, during the last week of service at 168th Street, the terminal stop on the BMT Jamaica Line. He lived in southeast Queens, and he says, “I wanted to go on that train one more time.” Over time, his photos have allowed him to take stock of the synergy between transit growth and commercial and residential development. He’s captured train lines that cut through or above residential neighborhoods. As the stations he photographs are renovated, he says, “these pictures will be out of date”—they’re singular snapshots of a system that’s constantly in flux.
The museum environment—a subterranean station lined with subway cars—is familiar enough. But the theatrics will prick viewers to attention. The choreographer Lacey Ann Moore has teamed up with WAFFLE NYC, a local lightfoot crew, for a mash-up of modern and hip-hop styles. She couldn’t imagine a dance-based homage to the MTA that omitted the iconic “Showtime!” dancers who execute contortions and acrobatics on the moving trains. Moore describes the performance as an “exaggerated subway ride.” Its spontaneity, she says, nods to the way that some riders feel interrupted when they see someone poised to break into dance on a crowded car. “We’re recreating that feeling of, ‘oh crap, what’s going on?’” she says.
The inclination, when faced with a spectacle on the subway, might be to hang back, rather than march into the melee. (When I watched rehearsal, for instance, I initially observed through the doorways and windows before someone gently nudged me into the car.) The museum staff encourages people to step into the action. “The performances are very interactive,” says Chelsea Newburg, the museum’s press aide. “That’s the nature of the train itself.”
The heightened reality created by some of these performances and exhibitions asks viewers to think about a new way of engaging with daily routines. “So many worlds exist on the subway,” says Kreith. “Where is the point at which it becomes unreal?” Sure, there hasn’t been a documented case of a subway rider literally being pursued by Apollo or transfigured into a tree. But, Kreith adds, “there are moments of magic in our daily lives when we look beneath the surface.” And the performances suggest that the magic is below the streets, too.