July 6, 2000
By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL
New York's Chaos Inspires Web Art
New York, New York, it's a digital town.
anhattan has been a muse for countless
authors, artists, musicians and filmmakers. Now, as several recent projects
demonstrate, New York is also inspiring digital artists, who are using
the Web's multimedia capabilities to combine text, graphics, audio and
video into interactive cityscapes.
The Web site's up, but the server is down.
(with apologies to Comden and Green, lyricists for "On the Town")
For "Crossroads," launched
Wednesday on the Turbulence.org digital-art site, the
artist Annette Weintraub has created an impressionistic version of Times
Square. Scrolling text, animated collages and short films simulate the
kinetic energy and shifting moods of the urban locale once known as the
"crossroads of the world."
|"Crossroads" by Annette Weintraub presents
the real version and the Hollywood version of Times Square.
To assemble the site, Weintraub scoured libraries for vintage postcards
and pictures, which she supplemented with her own digital photographs.
She also used footage from "Squared Times," a 1967 effort by the late filmmaker
Rudy Burckhardt. But the site's primary material is its audio. In 15 areas,
with titles like "Just Off the Bus" and "Smith's Bar," actors narrate short
tales from the naked city.
The result is an evocative homage to a Times Square that no longer exists,
having been replaced over the past decade by a sanitized theme park. In
a phone interview, Weintraub said, "Something new is emerging, and at some
point it may be interesting, but what people remember is really gone."
And what people remember, Weintraub asserted, has been heavily influenced
by what they have seen in films such as "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "On the
Town" and "Sweet Smell of Success," in which Manhattan becomes one of the
Even though "Crossroads" focuses on Times Square, Weintraub said, "It's
actually a piece about how film has affected our perception of reality.
My memory of the way the city has appeared in films is very different than
what it really was." To make her point, the site's 15 areas also include
audio clips of the filmmaker Lee Ellickson discussing how movies like "Midnight
Cowboy" have affected our vision of the city.
"Crossroads" is Weintraub's first work since 1999's "Sampling
Broadway," which was selected for the Internet area of the 2000 Whitney
Biennial exhibition. As in her earlier works, "Pedestrian"
(1998) and "Realms" (1995), Weintraub uses New York as
an entry point for larger aesthetic issues.
Weintraub, a Brooklyn native who teaches electronic design at the City
College of New York, said that urban locations hold a natural appeal for
new-media artists. "The two major metaphors for the Web are the page and
the space," she said, "and one logical extension of the space is some sort
of organization that's like a city."
Weintraub said a city's complex architecture and population density
make it inherently photogenic and theatrical, which is why so many films
have been shot in New York. As those images have taken hold in the popular
imagination -- in part due to the influence of film -- they have started
to resonate in new and interesting ways. That adaptability, Weintraub said,
makes the city "an almost ideal media environment," whether the medium
is film, television or the Internet.
Marketa Bankova, an artist in Prague, said she created "New
York City Map" on the Web because she found that films did not adequately
convey the experience of being in Manhattan.
In an e-mail exchange, Bankova related how she had missed New York after
visiting it five years ago. "I had begun to work with the Internet, and
I was looking for information to remind me of the city. I had seen maps,
weather reports, restaurant menus, news reports, but none of it had brought
me the feeling of standing on Broadway and listening to a black man playing
jazz, the sounds of the sirens -- the energy."
She continued: "Only a few films reminded me of the city. Then, I saw
two documentary films about Manhattan and I was disappointed. It looks
like the most important thing in New York is the Statue of Liberty or some
other tourist attraction. I found some other things to be more beautiful."
With a grant from the Czech Foundation for Contemporary Art, Bankova
was able to return to New York last August. For three months, she explored
the streets, armed with a digital camera and a digital audio recorder.
"I had problems with people when I was taking pictures of them," she said.
"I was surprised no one in New York wanted to be photographed. If someone
agreed, then they wanted money or stood in an unnatural position with a
Bankova persisted, learning tricks to outwit her subjects. Her interactive
map now contains more than 200 pages, each with a still photo and an ambient
audio clip, but without any geographic signposts. The site can be travelled
from East Side to West Side, from downtown up or by following the erratic
route of a bad taxi driver.
The Internet's interactivity is ideal for building a virtual city, Bankova
said. "All those streets reminds me of a labyrinth of Web pages," she said.
"And it is living -- I can react to people who visit it and send me e-mail,
so it is like a city with its citizens."
The author Thomas Beller also uses a virtual map of New York as a navigation
device, but his is firmly rooted in reality. "Mr. Beller's
Neighborhood" is based on satellite photographs of Manhattan. The city
has been divided into nine sections, and each neighborhood has red dots
marking specific locations that are linked to stories by Beller and a few
others about events connected to each spot.
In an e-mail message, Beller said he has not yet launched the site,
but that its basic structure had been up for about three weeks. He added:
"Launched is not the right word, at any rate. It suggests up and out, a
rocket ship going into space. My direction is the opposite. I'm burrowing,
digging, dusting off. 'Mr. Beller's Neighborhood' is an archeological site
as well as a Web site. It's a narrative that sprawls in many directions,
and it is a work in progress."
Beller is soliciting contributions for the site, which he is updating
every other day. "Work is coming in from the famous and the obscure, the
living and the dead," he said. "Of course, the dead are of a bit more interest
than the living, in purely literary terms, but then that's usually the
In a note on the site, Beller, the author of the novel "The Sleep-Over
Artist," writes that the city, as seen from above, is densely packed and
"tighter than it ought to be, self-regarding, almost haughty."
"But there are also spaces and valleys and all sorts of incredible looking
crevices that immediately evoke Manhattan of days gone by," he writes.
The artist Gary Simmons also uses up-to-the-minute
technology to summon memories of old Manhattan. In "Wake,"
a project commissioned by the Dia Center for the Arts,
Simmons photographed nine empty ballroom-dancing spaces in New York, then
selected a song to accompany each shot.
But it is impossible to view each photo in its entirety; moving the
cursor on the white screen reveals only a few parts of each image at a
time. Like the era they depict, the photos fade away and cannot be recaptured.
Other Web-based works related to New York include Wolfgang Staehle's
"Empire," a regularly updated Webcam image of the Empire
State Building that pays homage to Andy Warhol's landmark experimental
film of the same name, and Maciej Wisniewski's "Turnstile
2," which collects data from the Internet as if it were passing through
a subway gate.
In "On the Town," Chip sings of hearing that New York could be seen
"in all its spreading strength and power" from atop the Woolworth Tower.
Before you go there, though, check out the view from atop the Internet.
arts@large is published on Thursdays. Click here
for a list of links to other columns in the series.
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Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability.
Matthew Mirapaul at email@example.com
welcomes your comments and suggestions.