Art(s) in transit: Technology, aeshtetics, and the art of urban transformation in NYC

Van Silcen Avenue, Barbara Ellmann (MTA 2009)

In his posthumously published Arcades Project,1

Walter Benjamin describes the emergent rivalry in the 19th century between the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts: between art and technology. Technological innovation and reproduction transformed the architectural and sensual experience of time and the social, economic and material forms of the modern city. Blurring distinctions between engineer and artist, technology took-up residence in the faculty of the imagination, radically transforming the social worlds of Europeans in the 19th century: Relationships to landscapes and nature where transformed through railway travel and the photography; Cast-iron balconies elevated users to the ‘rings of Saturn,’ a world beyond the confines of the previous epoch’s infrastructural imagination. Within this framework, technology emerges as more than banal reproduction and mechanization: It is poetic, affective, and capable of reconfiguring how we imagine intimate and public worlds. Technological systems constitute the look, feel, and experience of urban modernity. Infrastructure is thus not only a question of technology but of aesthetics.

Fred’s soup cans, South Bronx, Martha Cooper, 1980

In January 2013, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York added the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) “Help Point” to their permanent collection. By this time, however, the MTA was no stranger to the world-renowned arts institution. The MTA’s metro-card vending machines previously graced the galleries of MoMA in the 2011 exhibition “Talk to Me.” Coinciding with MoMA’s relocation of subway design into the locale of Andy Warhol, Jackson Polluck, and Mark Rothko was the launch of the MTA’s Arts for Transit App, a program that prompted the New York Times to declare that the subway is New York’s most “underrated art museum.”2 By 2013 the subway has become a museum as much as it has become an object for the museum. This statement, however, might be misleading, for the art gallery and the street in New York have never been that far from one another.


Blade - Martha Cooper

Blade, Martha Cooper, 1980

Almost four decades before becoming New York’s most underrated art museum, the subway was a veritable moving gallery for the emerging art form of graffiti. Subway cars functioned as an extension of the street for its writers, a gallery that came to all New Yorkers without a reservation or admission fee. In the 1970s and 1980s, pieces were the product of hours spent sketching designs in black books, the mechanization of aerosol can technology, and timing. The most elaborate pieces were created under the cover of night at the MTA’s rail yards where young artists would take advantage of the trains’ stationary status to make pieces that covered part of or spanned multiple subways cars. One of the greatest pieces storied to have existed – but taken out of commission before the train could leave the yards – was the “Bicentennial Train,” painted by CAINE, MAD 103, and FLAME ONE, made specifically for the country’s 200th birthday on July 4, 1976. The piece was longer than two football fields (11 cars) and ten feet high.3

Stop real crime

Lee,” Henry Chalfant, 1979

Graffiti was a technique in its own right and simultaneously an art praxis of youth from specific racial and economic backgrounds whose fiscal and material infrastructures were deteriorating as rapidly as the city’s subways. To the extent that the MTA was a public space, it was almost exclusively a particular shade and class of public space in the 1970/80s. Drawing attention to an urban system and city suffering from years of neglect, young artists capitalized on the opportunity to transform their public transit system, arguably launching one of the greatest art movements of the 20th century. Graffiti was a practice of self-expression and social critique, but it was also a mode of intervention – if not one of the primary actors, intentionally or not – calling attention to the decaying infrastructures of the city. Many subway cars with elaborate pieces were disbanded by the MTA and subject to high-pressure “buff washes” that blasted the trains with abrasive chemicals to remove the paint (as was seemingly the fate of the bicentennial train). This was the era of ‘Arts versus Transit.’


Art [vs.] Transit, Martha Cooper, 1980

Note: The “vs.” was cleaned off the window between the two windows.

The redevelopment of the subway and the institutionalization (as well as policing) of graffiti worked hand-in-hand over these decades, for as much as the art movement’s singular ephemerality was accomplished in part by techniques of the MTA, these young artists were drawing attention to a system – as well as an entire city – in shambles. Even in light of the MTA’s extreme publicity and security (at one point using attack dogs at train yards) attempts to eradicate both the practice and pieces of graffiti, by the early 1980s graffiti artists were beginning to gain recognition in the art world, showing not only on trains but in traditional art galleries. It is notable that around this moment that the MTA began to change their approach to art in the subway. While not curbing the policing of graffiti as vandalism and defacement, in 1985 the MTA initiated its own foray into the institutionalization of aesthetics through the creation of the Arts for Transit Program (AFT).


Cops in the train, the Bronx, Martha Cooper, 1981

Deferred Maintenance


Contextualizing decades of fiscal and operational neglect, the current Arts for Transit Program director Sandra Bloodworth characterizes the deterioration of the subways as a specific outcome of World War II era allocation of funds towards highway and automobile development at the expense of public transit.4 “Subways,” Bloodworth states, “became unfashionable [and] deterioration set in, culminating in the 1970s with New York City on the brink of collapse. Subways were also deteriorated, they were crime ridden they were grimy…trains broke down constantly and they were defaced with graffiti.”5 The crime and paint-ridden subways were seen as a sign of societal deterioration, if not an all-out direct cause of the system’s breakdown.

Urban fiscal collapse culminated in technical and aesthetic breakdown. “Deferred maintenance” characterized decades of the MTA’s practice of passing the burden of maintaing the system to the future. The culmination of years of deferral result in a $200 million dollar deficit for the authority in 1979. In 1981, almost one quarter of trains were out of service and average commute time would sometimes be four times that of 1901.6 Coupled with the widespread perception (and experience) of the subway as dilapidated and crime-ridden – captured in such stories as that of the “subway vigilante,” Richard Goetz who, upon being confronted by four Black boys with screwdrivers as weapons demanding his give them $5, pulled-out a gun and shot each one of the boys in December 1984.7 As MTA historian Mark Feinman writes, “between the Goetz case and the uncontrollable graffiti, the subway became a symbol of New York City’s inability to control crime.” Popular representations of the subway as hotbeds of urban vice were epitomized in pop culture and film, such as the now cult-classic film The Warriors (1979).

Steps to improve the technical and social conditions of the subway began with securing funding that could be used to carry-out station and track repair and replace many of the MTA’s defunct subway cars. The MTA also experimented with “graffiti control trains” between 1982 and 1985. These trains painted all white were put into service around the city to determine which routes were more likely to be tagged.



It is certainly the case that the coupling of mechanical and aesthetic repair went hand-in-hand during the transitional “Jekyll and Hyde”8 period of the 1980s. By 1988 graffiti had been almost completely removed from the subways – the result of copious coatings of graffiti resistant paint that would break-up the petroleum-based compounds that aerosol paint was made of. More frequent subway car washes, as well, contributed to this process, along with the $8.3 million funding for the “Clean Car Program.”9

Art as public good

105th Street Station

East 105th Street, Michael Ingui (MTA 2009)

The resurgence of the city began with this renewal.

-Sandra Bloodworth, Arts for Transit

Graffiti ramped-up the MTA’s commitment to aesthetics as central to renovating their system in the 1980s, however the roots of publicly-funded (especially federal) uses of visual art – compared to maintenance or graffiti removal programs – as a mode of infrastructural development goes back to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s. The WPA famously employed artists, musicians, writers, and other creative workers in conjunction with construction of numerous public buildings and roads. The Public Works of Art Project oversaw large-scale mural projects depicting local histories throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The MTA, however, has a particular historical commitment to the co-constitutive relationship between aesthetics and infrastructures, which Sandra Bloodworth, the current director of the Arts for Transit program, reminded her audience of in a recent TedX Talk she delivered entitled “Re-Creation of Public Spaces.” Quoting a 1899 memo written by William Barclay Parsons, chief engineer who oversaw the construction of the first inter-borough subways lines in the early 20th century, Bloodworth emphasizes Parsons’ vision of a subway where ” […] all parts of the structures where exposed to the public sight shall be designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as to their efficiency.”10 There was a mutual desire for beauty of efficiency and appearance: In order for the subway to function at its full capacity, aesthetics and technology have to work together.

Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, Robert Wilson (MTA 2009)

The notion of art as a public good, within this historical context, was augmented through federal WPA programs that insisted that infrastructural spaces not only be beautiful, but meaningful and relevant to the communities they served. It was not, however, until the 1980s that commissioning artists and artworks for transit authorities was explicitly mobilized by both federal and local transit agencies across the U.S. In New York City, in particular, the resurgence in interest in public art projects was undergirded by the Percent for Art legislation that former mayor Ed Koch passed for the city in 1982, requiring city building projects to spend anywhere from 0.5%-5% of their total construction budget on art.11 It is within this context that curation and public art (not only aesthetics) becomes integrated into the arsenal of urban renewal techniques. In contrast to artwork like graffiti, both tags and larger pieces, that were experienced as markers of an urban epidemic in the public imagination, public art was controlled and managed – securing safety and freedom for patrons of the MTA.

Reflecting on capacities for art to transform the experiences of riding public transit, the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) in 2006 describes art projects as doing “much more than adding an essential human dimension to transit — they assuage community concerns about disruption of transit construction, improve passenger comfort and safety, and reinforce the spirit and identity of cities and towns.”13 Citing case studies from around the U.S., the FTA describes how arts projects helped assuage communities “fearful about the gentrification and crime that [new transit] projects might bring to their neighborhoods” and, furthermore, that public art can be used as a tool to help residents “cope with change.” That is to say, public art can do more than enhance public space: It can advance a more far-reaching role in the social and economic revitalization of urban neighborhoods. Public art projects demonstrate how communities can use public art to deal with conflict “creatively and constructively.”14 It is in this sense that we see, once again, how the well-being of the public and of its infrastructures are entangled within one another, producing the capacity for the experience of safety, and the freedom that accompanies it, for a system’s ridership. This is art in its political capacity, facilitating change and fostering social good, at least in the eyes of the ‘authorities.’ To be sure, graffiti encompassed its own politics as well, albeit the continuum of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ seems rather limited considering its legacy and staying-power as a fine art and urban art form.

Diagram of aerosol paint can (left); Subway “buff wash” (right)


Art for transit, publicly funded and commissioned art, is distinct from art made in the studio or on the street. Art as a public good and community resource is the result of collaborations between artists, engineers, and materials. All of these aspects distinguish public art for transit as distinct from other contexts for art-making, but it is the latter part, materials, that is pivotal. As the AFT states, “we encouraged artists to use durable materials – ceramics, mosaics, bronze – materials that would last hundreds of years (like the original artwork in the subway),”15 and this is certainly the animating ethos of the AFT’s projects. In contrast to the ephemerality characteristic of graffiti, the MTA’s aesthetic is one of durability. “Vandal resistant material,” specifically, was an organizing principle of early collaborative projects between artists and engineers. One early example of this is of the MTA’s collaboration with Laura Bradley in 1989 on redesigning entrance grilles for subway stations to address the $60 million the MTA was losing annually to fare evasion.16 In a similar vein, projects such as Milton Glaser’s Untitled, 1986 work at the Astor Place station employs the use of terra cotta and mosaics to create a series of enamel panels that both complements the historic motifs of the station – beavers that represent the Astor fur traders – and embodies the material durability of the history of the Astors.17

Railings with medallion design (FTA 2006)

Artist designed grille (FTA 2006)

“Bringing that which is above below” reflects AFT’s commitment to creating art installations that reflect local histories or the environment above. Examples of this are abound in the AFT’s projects: The Coney Island amusement park ride “Cyclone” is monumentalized in the undulating steel, ceramic tile, granite, and fiberglass station structure called Wavewall at the New York Aquarium subway station;18 at the Church Avenue station in Flatbush mosaics representing the Caribbean culture of the neighborhood above adorn the platform19; in Manhattan, glass, stone, and marble mosaics that depict rock outcroppings, tree roots, and pipes that adorn the walls of a subway connection corridor underneath Bryant Park (42nd Street).20 These are but few of the many AFT projects that incorporate past, present, and future into the rehabilitation of the subway stations they are located in.

Bryant Park

Under Bryant Park, Samm Kunce (MTA 2002)

Designing the Urban

While the exteriors of subway cars are no longer the moving gallery of an (ironically, in this context) ephemeral art form, the MTA maintains a robust connection to the arts, visual and performing, through AFT which curates the experience of art on the trains. AFT enables art to exist and circulate through the subway and bus systems in a different way than the graffiti of the 1980s did: In this epoch, art is circulated through a particular mechanism of curation constructed upon the doling-out of permits for performance, didactic materials labeling and explaining art installations, juried competitions for visual art, and glass frames that contain and protect artworks within various subway cars and buses. AFT in this regard uses curation – processes of jurying, selecting, and contextualizing the production of art works – as technique of not only urban renewal but urban design.

Submissions for artwork are subject to numerous reviews by a selection panel of five members: Two representatives from neighboring museums and cultural institutions, one artist, an Arts for Transit representative, and the project architect along with community representatives who are invited to participate in an advisory capacity.21

In this regard, public art does not work the same as it does in a museum or a gallery, especially in terms of the creation process. AFT creates a distinct form of aesthetic experience: One where curation coupled with technological engineering creates pieces of artwork for display within the subway system and facilitates the ongoing viability of a public transit system that carries almost 7.5million riders every workday. The materials and the system in relation to one another coalesce as media and mediators of works of art. It seems to be no accident that ‘Urban Design,’ encompassing all the above mentioned factors, is the newest phrase tacked on to AFT’s moniker.

Talk to MeThe extent to which technology and aesthetics are enfolded upon one another is most aptly articulated in MoMA’s recent ‘uses’ of MTA works. MoMA’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me about the communicative dimension of design reflects what was the emergent relationship in the late 20th century between urban infrastructures and aesthetics/design. As their curator’s note:

Whether openly and actively or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us. Tangible and intangible, and at all scales—from the spoon to the city, the government, and the Web, and from buildings to communities, social networks, systems, and artificial worlds—things communicate […] New branches of design practice have emerged in the past decades that combine design’s old-fashioned preoccupations—with form, function, and meaning—with a focus on the exchange of information and even emotion […] Designers are using the whole world to communicate, transforming it into a live stage for an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.22

Following on the heels of Talk to Me the MTA’s “Help Point” was acquired as part of MoMA’s permanent collection and included in a follow-up design exhibition in 2013 Born out of Necessity. The exhibition showcases not only how design responds to human needs, but how designers work towards crafting design solutions to problems of technological/infrastructural failure – material and social – that do not yet exist. It is, as the New York Times wrote in their review of the exhibition, an exhibition that compels visitors to “project [themselves] into situations where these things might come in handy.”23

Help Point

Help Point, MoMA

Most New Yorkers and millions of tourists rely on the subway system to navigate the city. Help Point Intercoms, currently installed at the 23rd Street and Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall subway stations along the Lexington Avenue line, aid in relaying travel and emergency information. The integrated microphone and speaker provide direct contact with security personnel twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and the compact design is resistant to vandalism and breakage. A blue light identifies the device, providing a sense of safety and security in a manner that is not obtrusive during everyday activities but is recognizable in an emergency.24

The future orientation of this exhibition is marked, yet it is worth noting how fluid relationships between past, present, and future have pervaded the infrastructural imaginary of the MTA from as early as 1899 (despite the fact of a marked shift in the 1980s). If design talks, then the MTA’s “Help Point” might state that it imagines a future where access to a 24-hour security and navigation system can provide a sense of safety and security resistant to vandalism and breakage while being unobtrusive to the everyday activities of riders. As this exhibition and the first installations of the “Help Point” on subway platforms in 2012-2013 makes clear, the fantasy of the social and technical infrastructures of tomorrow shape the work of designers and users today. Thus, we see the future of urban design telling us a history of the present: Whether that story is one of “human growth, social change, and expanding capacity,”24 or the failure of society to provide adequate care for its people and infrastructures, it seems clear that questions of governance, perhaps now more than ever, are contingent upon and tangled-up within the work of art, aesthetics, and design.

Rendering of a proposed art installation at the 96th and Broadway Street Station (NY Times 2009)

 by Monica Patrice Barra


1 Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


3 Austin, Joe. 2001. Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. New York: Columbia University Press.

4 Bloodworth, Sandra and William Ayres. 2006. Along the Way: MTA Arts for Transit. New York: The Monacelli Press.

5 TedX Talk “Re-Creation of Public Spaces: Sandra Bloodworth” (2012)

6 Feinman, Mark S. “The New York Transit Authority in the 1980s.”; “Subway Odyssey” New York Times Magazine January 31, 1982. Ari Goldman.

7 Feinman, Mark S. “The New York Transit Authority in the 1980s.”;

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 TedX Talk “Re-Creation of Public Spaces: Sandra Bloodworth” (2012)

11 Cocuzza, Julia. 2010. “MTA’s Arts for Transit: The Most Public Museum’s Problem of Publicity.” Unpublished,d.dmQ; See also Heartney, Elanor and Adam Gopnik. 2005. City Art: New York’s Percent for Art Program. London: Merrell Publishers.

12 Kelling, George and James Wilson, 1982.”Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” The Atlantic. 1 March 1982.

13 Federal Transit Authority. 1996. Arts in Transit…Making it Happen. Federal Transit Authority.

14 Ibid.

15 TedX Talk “Re-Creation of Public Spaces: Sandra Bloodworth” (2012)

16 Federal Transit Authority. 1996. Arts in Transit…Making it Happen. Federal Transit Authority.






22 Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. “Talk to Me” (2011)



~ by Em on May 5, 2013.

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