An abandoned subway station in Brooklyn might not be the first place you look for a lesson in primitive filmmaking, but that's where you'll find one. Riding on the B or Q trains from Dekalb Ave to Manhattan commuters looking out the window where usually only rats and mole people are spotted are treated to a fanciful installation by artist Bill Brand called the Masstransiscope.
The Masstransiscope is based on the same premise as zoetropes -- a cylinder with slates in it that reveals images that appear to be moving when spun. Zoetropes were essentially toys for children, but the principle is what made early cinema possible. Brand took the idea and transformed the abandoned Myrtle Ave subway station into a giant zoetrope that trains ride through. The speed of the car creates the illusion that the images of blocky primary-colored shapes dancing and a rocket launching painted behind the slats are moving. Much better than glimpsing a rat.
Brand first installed the Masstransiscope in 1980, but over the following 28 years the project fell into disrepair -- besides regular wear and tear, the panels were covered with grafitti. Last year it was refurbished -- by Brand with help from ShelterExpress/MetroClean Express in Long Island City and with volunteers from NYU, Alice Moscoso and Miwa Yokoyama -- much to the delight of those stuck inside dingy B and Q cars.
Brand tells us that the idea for Masstransiscope came to him years before he was able to bring the project to fruition. "Since the 1970's I've been interested in early cinema and pre-cinema as a way of thinking about the moving image in terms outside the mainstream -- to explore the 'paths not taken' by commercial cinema," says Brand. "I'm certainly not the first person to see a connection between looking out a train window and watching a movie. But riding the subway and seeing the light flickers as the train passed by structural pillars I started imagining making a movie by placing images in the tunnel."
But Masstransiscope is, after all, in a subway tunnel, and exposed to all the rigors that entails. "I always wanted to restore it whenever it was damaged but hadn't had the ability. In the early '80s I maintained it myself as best I could but I couldn't keep that up for long," he says.
Over the years Brand has been able to contemplate one of the most important elements of the piece -- how audiences react. "Masstransiscope seems to be taken as a personal, private experience even though it exists in a public space," he says, citing what strikes him the most. "It is an artwork that is not framed by the authenticating power of an art museum and it is not an advertisement that is asking the audience to buy something. It is unannounced in the tunnel so those who know it or discover feel like it is just for them... and it is!"
On Saturday June, 13, Brand will be giving a talk at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn about the Masstransiscope. The Transit Museum is itself a piece of history, housed in an old subway station dating to the 1930s at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights. After learning a little about the installation, the best thing to do is to see it, of course. And that is the next stop, where Brand himself will take the group on a ride immediately following his talk.