Category: ART & DESIGN

All mapped out

A couple of years ago I purchased an original 1974 New York City Transit Authority Subway map, the kind that comes folded to fit into your pocket but when unfurled makes for a beautiful framed addition to one’s home. I won’t tell you what I paid for it, but let’s just say the same amount of money if converted into swipes of my MetroCard could have bought me several trips to Brooklyn and back on the N train. It may seem ridiculous to drop a significant sum of cash on something that was once handed out for free at every subway station, but this particular map has, over the years, earned a special place in the hearts of graphic design fans, cartographers and commuters alike.

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting the map’s creator, Milanese designer Massimo Vignelli, at the Museum of the City of New York. Vignelli had gathered with other “celebrities” of the subway map world for an exhaustive panel discussion entitled The New York City Subway Map – Form v. Function in the Public Realm. Looking like a doyen of style who’d stumbled into a convention for math professors, Vignelli, now 79, recalled how in the late 1960s, not long after he’d opened his studio in New York, he was approached by the city’s Transit Authority to redesign its subway map, which at the time was in desperate need of a graphic update. Around the same time he also introduced the New York subway’s iconic white on black signage (his original of black on white proved too easy to deface). Vignelli’s new map debuted in 1972, and represented a radical departure from its predecessors, in that it abandoned the timeworn convention that the underground map should echo the geography of the (overground) city.

map 1972

Elaborating, Vignelli went on to explain eloquently the difference between a map and a diagram, and how his design was a functional diagram that did not need to double as a map representing the city streets. As a result, his map is full of peculiarities: the Second Avenue F stop appears East of the First Avenue L stop, the 33rd Street 6 stop is north of the 34th Street EE stop, while Central Park is represented by a truncated grey square. These are “mistakes” that according to Vignelli, matter little. Based on a network of horizontal, vertical and 45-degree diagonal lines, with each IRT, IND and BMT line represented by a different color, Vignelli’s design has, according to its creator, a rare, logical beauty that has never been improved upon.

The MTA has sought for over thirty years to improve upon Vignelli’s map, ever since they ditched his beloved (if at times baffling) concept in 1979. Yet in attempting to merge a street map and a subway diagram, New York’s map has in recent years become an increasingly cluttered mess, incorporating bus transfers, tourist information and all manner of other unnecessary extras which only serve to further confuse the straphanger looking to get from A to B (or to the A or B train). John Tauranac, the man who headed up the map’s redesign post-Vignelli, defended some of his original introductions, including the use of one color for grouped lines, such as the ACE or 123. But with the map’s latest incarnation provoking a chorus of scorn, even he admitted that the design now needs a rethink. Eddie Jabbour agreed, going so far as to produce his own map from scratch. His “KickMap” is a clean, fresh alternative to the existing subway map that he even proposed to the MTA. When they declined his offer he converted the idea into an iPhone app, which has already been downloaded by 350,000 users. But surely we can’t rely on the latest technological advances for such an important element of daily city life. While it’s true that most New Yorkers who navigate the subway frequently do so from memory, occasionally we must venture off our routine routes, at which point that graffiti-covered oversize platform map suddenly proves its essential value.

map 2008

In 2008, Men’s Vogue celebrated Vignelli’s 1972 design with a modern-day update (below), retaining the original map’s abstract elegance while eliminating the abnormalities that caused such confusion. To me it seemed the perfect map for New York City’s subway. The lines and their colors are all recognizable, while Vignelli and his work are currently enjoying a reappraisal. His is the only subway map in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, while his preferred Helvetica is the only typeface to be the subject of a movie. The 1972 map is as much a part of New York’s transport heritage as Checker Cabs.

The reintroduction of a Vignelli-inspired map would provide graphic consistency between the map itself and the subway’s omnipresent signage, which has remained virtually unchanged for over thirty years. Since working with the MTA, Vignelli has been hired to produce similar identities for the subway systems in Washington, D.C. and Milan, as well as for Ferrovie dello Stato, Italy’s national rail network. It strikes me as the last place to embrace function over form, so why does New York, the city where Vignelli made his international name, seem reluctant to reward him with the recognition he deserves?

MoMA

It was exactly four months ago when I discovered I’d be spending the fall of 2007 working at The Museum of Modern Art. I had long dreamed of the opportunity to live in New York City, yet never imagined it would arrive in the form of an internship at arguably the world’s finest Modern Art museum. A heavy application process (including three essays) had ended with a carefully coordinated trans-atlantic telephone interview with a certain Larissa Bailiff, MoMA’s internship coordinator. I was extremely nervous beforehand, and spent that morning researching extensively the museum’s current and upcoming exhibitions. Fortunately, Ms. Bailiff immediately put me at ease, and we settled into a breezy chat which lasted over forty-five minutes. I like to think my British charm and wit over the phone was what secured me the position of marketing intern, as less than a week later, I received confirmation via email that I’d be spending the next three months stateside. I barely had time to obtain my visa and update my iPod before I was jetting off across the Atlantic to confront a healthy mix of the familiar and the unknown.

Having spent the last four years livin’ la dolce vita in Italy, how would I cope when suddenly tossed into the ultimate modern metropolis that is Manhattan? Quite well, as it turned out: all those years spent studying the city combined with intensive previous visits had earned me something of an honorary self-taught degree in Newyorkology, and I felt confidently able in dodging such infamous New York pratfalls as subway navigation, the delicate art of tipping, and the correct pronunciation of Houston Street.

It seemed like an eternity before I finally had to go to MoMA on Monday morning. In my eagerness I had arrived spectacularly early, and spent almost an hour reading in Central Park before I was due to meet Ms. Bailiff and the other interns. When I arrived at the entrance to the Cullman Building on 54th Street I was informed by the receptionist that the other interns had elected to go to Starbucks. Putting aside my usual boycott of the Seattle-based coffee giant I walked over to Sixth Avenue where I met three other interns — from Connecticut, Los Angeles and Paris. I was surprised to discover such an international bunch — something had told me I’d be the sole Brit. Instead nearly all of North America and Europe was represented. I was relieved to find all the interns smart and instantly likeable, yet I felt a bit like a reality show contestant meeting my competition rivals. I suppose this would make Larissa Heidi Klum. Larissa in person was as I had found her to be on the phone: warm, friendly and a very entertaining speaker, to the extent that a side career in stand-up comedy would not be out of the question.

After our welcoming talk and initial introduction I met my supervisor Julie Welch, who immediately struck me as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actress Annette Bening. Julie gave me an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the museum before introducing me to the rest of the marketing team, including marketing coordinator Zoe Jackson and director Peter Foley. She then showed me where I’d be working: a tiny cubicle the size of a phone booth (but without the windows). When Peter suggested to Julie that I’d go crazy in there she gave me the option of sharing the back office with three other interns. But for some reason I chose to stick with the private cubicle, despite its lack of space. I took off my jacket and got down to work.

Though I never quite got over the fact I was spending most days sitting feet away from all those Picassos and Pollocks, it wasn’t long before I began to feel more at home within the field of marketing, a feeling which was enhanced when I attended our weekly marketing meetings. These would generally last under an hour, but I was fascinated to learn first hand of the department’s operations (as well as interdepartmental gossip). One day Zoë gave a report on her visit to Tate Modern, and it was interesting for me to hear how the Tate’s marketing department compared with that of MoMA. I was also amused to hear my colleagues’ take on their London counterparts, and it seemed odd to think I was on the New York side of things. Peter was an impressive director with a sharp sense of humour. I admired his absolute support for his department and the confidence he showed in forcing his opinion for the good of the museum.

By this time Julie and I had begun working closely on a guerilla advertising project, for which we held a meeting with two of Downtown’s hottest young media talents. They were “humbled” to have been contacted by MoMA and enthusiastically bombarded us with ideas, from posters to a MoMA blog (which they felt I should write). It was from this meeting that I began to expand on the MyMoMA idea, a concept I’d originally toyed with before my arrival in New York. MyMoMA is essentially a two-fold idea: 1) a fun, alternate MoMA brand designed to introduce the museum to a younger audience, and 2) a prepaid card with which a larger proportion of the city’s inhabitants could gain regular entry to the museum. I created a marketing outline for MyMoMA, including possible advertising techniques. The guerilla media project never got past the concept stage, and it was frustrating not to be able to follow it through. That’s something I soon learned about MoMA: as cool as it may appear from the outside, in reality it’s also a big business, and ideas must go through everyone from curators to directors to trustees themselves before you see anything happen. While I think the department was generally satisfied with my performance, I don’t feel like my work challenged me enough, and nor was I given the opportunity to show my full potential or range of skills. Of course much of this was due to the relatively brief three-month period of the internship itself.

Perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of the experience was the friendships that came about among myself and the other interns. Even Larissa said we were an especially terrific bunch. We’d all meet once on a Tuesday for our intern lecture, which each week focused on a different department within the museum. One week we were even granted an audience with museum director Glenn D. Lowry. I asked him why the museum was so expensive yet only stayed open until five o’clock, a question to which he seemed unable to provide a satisfactory answer.

I’d often meet my fellow intern buddies for lunch at Remi To Go or coffee at Zibetto Espresso Bar, while an ever-expanding group of us began to enjoy regular evenings at parties in Chelsea or bars on the Lower East Side. I would have ideally liked to have taken more advantage of the various perks offered by the internship, but somehow my plan to visit every New York museum on my days off was never fully realized. My volunteer work for NYC CultureFest and PERFORMA 07 kept me busy, as did frequent trips to West Virginia and Florida. I was probably too caught up in the excitement that living in this remarkable place inevitably creates. I often felt overwhelmed after work when having left the office at 5:30 I was suddenly faced with an entire city at my disposal. Some nights I would walk all the way back to my East Village apartment simply for the pleasure of being on the street, taking it all in.

The internship provided me with a truly unforgettable experience and made me the envy of almost everyone I’ve ever met. I learned a lot about MoMA, museums, marketing and working in the United States. It helped me focus my career in a more specific direction, and confirmed my suitability to this particular field. I met some great people, and the whole thing just flew by, as I knew it would. My long-term plan is to remain in New York, and a great deal of passion, patience and dedication is required in order for that to happen. Yet even if I do one day work in Manhattan again, nothing will ever quite compare to the feeling of strolling down Second Avenue and jostling with New Yorkers aboard the V train up to 53rd Street, where my very own midtown office — OK, cubicle — was waiting just for me.

PERFORMA 07: A first-hand review

Through a colleague at MoMA, I’d become aware of something called PERFORMA, a performing arts foundation founded by Roselee Goldberg. I was offered the chance to volunteer for this year’s month-long biennial, PERFORMA 07, and without a real job and lots of extra time on my hands I said yes. At a meeting at the PERFORMA office I was gifted a red PERFORMA (you’ll have noticed by now that PERFORMA is always written in capitals) tote bag and assigned to assist with various projects, performances and what I guess they used to call “happenings”.

Allan Kaprow invented the term in the 1960s with his 18 Happenings in Six Parts, a redoing of which I went all the way to the Deitch Gallery in Queens to witness, though frankly I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’m sure it’s a lot more enjoyable if you’re high out of your mind (or if it’s 1966), but to a 21st century audience the whole thing felt very dated and silly.

The next day I went to Washington Square Park to help set up a giant game of mahjong — you know, that sort of Chinese version of dominoes. This piece was conceived by He Yunchang, China’s most renowned performance artist. Of course, as China’s most renowned performance artist, He insisted on performing completely naked. So after we’d spent all afternoon lugging a thousand painted breeze-blocks from the Judson Memorial Church into the park, the artist appeared wrapped in a sheet, which he soon abandoned in order to play the game. I became roped into playing since we were short in numbers, but since I’m not a renowned performance artist I was allowed to remain fully clothed. After about twenty minutes a somewhat amused NYPD showed up and He Yunchang was asked to put his jeans back on, after which the crowd which had gathered quickly dispersed.

The next day I joined a group of students (and artist Zack Rockhill) in Cooper Square to construct an open-top rectangular igloo using enormous blocks of ice. This was a challenge which was overcome by teamwork and an overwhelming desire to go get some coffee. But everyone agreed the end result was quite beautiful.

The next day I was back at MoMA to assist a backwards march through the museum lobby, as a hundred or so pensioners, children and other people with nothing better to do on a Sunday made their way from East 68th Street to Times Square. Miraculously no-one was hit by a cab, though had they been they’d have struggled to garner my sympathy.

At the Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery on Hudson Street I was asked to attend the opening party of Ulla Von Brandenburg’s La Maison, in which 8 millimetre footage of an old French chateau is projected onto a dark sheet within a maze of brightly-coloured sheets. The whole thing was so dull that one visitor mistook the messy area backstage as part of the exhibit. I was reminded of that David Sedaris story where the guy calls his pile of dirty laundry “an interesting piece”. Fortunately, I was handed the task of tending bar, which proved to be a highlight — if I wasn’t getting any money I was damn sure gonna get me some Grolsch.

Afterwards I squeezed into hip Lower East Side nightspot The Box for Sanford Bigger’s The Somethin’ Suite. Apparently Erykah Badu and Lou Reed were there but I missed them both. That weekend I witnessed another bizarre performance, this time at The Atrium at 590 Madison Avenue. Spider Galaxy was the work of Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, in which a grown woman dressed as a brightly-coloured bird skips and flaps around a wooden “spider’s web” stage for ten minutes before flying/running off in the direction of NikeTown. I sat through this nonsense twice before also running off in the direction of NikeTown.

After all this volunteering and sitting through tiresome drivel it was about time I got my own back, and was thrilled to be given the chance to play the role of “heckler”, in Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street. In what was my off-Broadway debut, mid-way through the performance I was required to lead a bunch of “angry” audience members on-stage to confront the dancers. After the show I ran into Mikhail Baryshnikov for the second time in a week as he exited the theatre for the second time in a week (I’d also spotted him days earlier on East 4th Street as I waited for my laundry).

The finale and after-party were held at the Hudson Theatre on Tuesday, although after three weeks of PERFORMA I was more than glad I had tickets across Broadway to see Brazilian folk-singer Caetano Veloso, which I am pleased to say was the best performance I’ve seen this month.

Guernica

On April 26th, 1937, twenty-four Nazi German fighters bombed the small town of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. It was one of the most brutal attacks of the Spanish civil war — the estimated number of victims range from 250 to 1,600, and hundreds more were injured. Appalled by this latest attack, Picasso was propelled into action. The artist had already received a commission from the Spanish Republican government to decorate the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. The shocking attack on Guernica now provided Picasso with a perfect subject matter, and on May 1st, just days after the bombing, his first sketches were made.

Picasso was a strong opponent to the struggles which gripped Spain, and as he worked on his mural commented: “The Spanish struggle is the fight of reaction against the people, against freedom. My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. How could anybody think for a moment that I could be in agreement with reaction and death? In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”

The panel in question measured 3.5 metres (11 ft) tall and 7.8 metres (23 ft) wide, dimensions which even exceeded those of Picasso’s studio: the canvas had to be positioned sloping backwards, and its highest points could only be reached by attaching a brush to a long stick while standing atop a ladder. His mistress at the time, Slav photographer Dora Maar, would form a photographic record of the entire creative process. In creating Guernica, Picasso chose to omit the cause of the massacre, representing only the death and carnage that remains. The scene is dominated by a horse and a bull — important symbols in Spanish culture — while human figures scream in pain and weep over the victims. The work has all the immediacy of a newspaper report, and in opting for monochromatic tones Picasso invokes the gritty realism of photojournalism.

Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris International Exposition, where it quickly gained the controversial attention Picasso had hoped to stir, especially when placed amongst other more staid works celebrating technological advancement. Although a personal response to a particular event, Guernica would soon be appreciated as an allegory of the horrors of war in general. The painting was the setting for peaceful anti-war vigils during the Vietnam war and is now often used as a symbol for the Basque nationalism movement.

Picasso refused to allow the work to return to Spain until the country became a republic, and Guernica spent most of the thirty years which followed the Paris exhibition touring Europe and the United States. The painting now resides at the Reina-Sofia Museum in Madrid, after returning to Europe in 1981, following the fall of Franco’s regime. (Picasso had insisted the painting shall not be return to Spain while the dictator was in power.) Guernica was reluctantly bequeathed back to Spain by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, where it had once formed the centrepiece of a Picasso retrospective which opened six weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland. At this time, Picasso was continuing to work in exile in Paris, where German soldiers would occasionally be sent to search his studio. One day, an officer noticed a reproduction of Guernica lying on the table, and enquired to the artist casually, “Did you do this?” To which Picasso, not one to forget, quipped, “No, you did.”