Joyful commuting

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Yesterday while riding the Q train into Manhattan, my friend Maggie and I made a joyful discovery! She noticed it first — flashes of graffiti that looked cute, almost childlike. Then as we watched, the recurring images resolved themselves into an animation, a kind of underground zoetrope.

I was too slow with the video camera to catch it, but courtesy of YouTube, you can see it above. A little googling revealed that the work is called Masstransiscope, and was installed on a disused subway platform by independent filmmaker Bill Brand in 1980. Evidently it fell into disrepair, but was restored in 2008.

The piece is pure joy. It has no other purpose than to be a surprising bright spot in a morning commute, an interjection of whimsy into the dark underground. Does that make it frivolous? It reminds me of a post I wrote last summer about public art, which speculated on the purpose and value of art commissioned for communal spaces. The post was a response to an article that disparaged recent works in this field as amusing but “relatively empty experiences,” and in it I argued that joy is a very valid, and indeed, an important purpose for public art.

Recently, I read something that bolstered my conviction on this point. In Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton references a theory advanced at the turn of the 20th century by German art historian Wilhelm Worringer. One component of his theory explains our collective taste in art as a kind of craving for what we lack as a society. In de Botton’s words, a society “would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself. Public art, then, serves a critical rebalancing function, especially in cities. Color, light, and playful forms restore harmony to a dense gray city. Lighthearted art creates moments that break the stress of urban living. Soft sculptures create ease in a hard, concrete landscape. They are emotional oases, and in my view, they are essential to a vibrant, healthy city life.

I think there’s food for further thought here. Some things have no justification on rational grounds. They could seem pointless or even wasteful, but our increasing awareness of the importance of emotion may illuminate their value. What else seems frivolous or unnecessary, but might actually be vital because of its emotional function?

June 20th, 2010


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    Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Diana on June 23, 2010

    great post! makes me want to ride the Q.

  2. cristina on August 17, 2010

    Amazing! free bliss for sleepy commuters!

  3. IAN JONES on January 2, 2020

    I’ll be getting in touch. We’re Developers based in Toronto and also active in the US.
    The Boomer generation trickle is upon us but soon to be a tsunami.
    ‘Everyone’ is complaining about the crisis lack of affordable housing,especially for seniors currently and the exponential crisis gathering steam.
    Governments are strapped for cash to build new social housing and ‘Retirement Homes’ being built by Developers are almost exclusively $4000 to $8000 per month.
    In 2020 we will be introducing on a philanthropic basis, a game changing disruptor new form of Boomer housing from $1300 per month.
    We believe that it will be widely accepted so we registered Copyrights and IP in Canada and the US and beyond.
    Each building is 3 to 6 storey depending on the location demand and will house 120 to 280 ‘Boomers 55+.
    We are also including main floor learning labs and culinary kitchens.
    AND..da da we’re calling it’ The JOY Concept because we want to instil JOY into the residents.
    And that brings me to you..
    I can tell from your website that you have the passion, so I just want to bounce around how to take these buildings up a JOYful notch. Details count..
    As Developers we have to balance all items that go into projects and the architects and interior designers can bring them to ‘Condo level’ but it takes special input to give a project a ‘heart’, especially one that gives residents a new lease on life.
    I’m a Christian and I know what real lasting joy is, but short of proselytizing, I want the residents to come as close as possible through measures like you describe.
    I registered on your site so when I receive your first email I’ll set up contacts then I can elaborate a lot more.
    Have a great (balance of your) evening.
    Best Regards,
    Ian Jones
    BGI Group


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