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Art and the High Line

The Sternfeld Sky


There was a beautiful, Sternfeldian sky above Manhattan this afternoon, and even though I had work to do I grabbed my camera and hit the High Line. There I found the striking Robert Adams billboard that just went up yesterday, which is part of a new outdoor photography exhibit that Joel Sternfeld is curating. You can read about it here, on the High Line’s website. The photo is called Nebraska State Highway 2, Box Butte County, and it conjures the prairie grasses that are in such wonderful abundance now (you can practically smell the cilantro of the prairie dropseed from the street below). It also puts a midwestern highway parallel to Tenth Avenue, which makes sense in a weird way when you consider that “cowboys” rode down these streets beginning in the 1840s.

The High Line is beautiful all the time, but on gray, rainy days, it has a particular magic. Sternfeld told Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the great New York City conservationist, that he only shot photos on days when the sky was a neutral gray. “I wanted it to be clear in the pictures that if there was glory in the High Line, it wasn’t due to my skill as a photographer. By not borrowing beauty from the sky, the High Line itself is what is important in the picture.”  You can read the whole interview here.

So today it was a Sternfeld sky over an Adams photograph. The High Line brings the prairie to Manhattan, and on a rare, rainy, August day, it was a treat to behold.








The Shy Birds of High Line

A quite wonderful thing is happening on the High Line in section two: the birds are really flocking to Sarah Sze’s sculpture.

But they’re shy, at least during the daytime when thousands of people are passing by, sticking camera lenses into their little wooden houses and offering good, old-fashioned New York City food critiques of their bird seed. However, once you approach the exhibit you start hearing this chorus of chirping, and if you look around in the grass and stone mulch you can see them hopping around. I caught this mourning dove today, but there were lots of sparrows too, as well as butterflies who were enjoying the fruit that has been left for them.

I marvel that there’s this habitat just outside my window and am reminded, again, at what “Keep it wild” really means.


Pollyanna Pitches a Fit

My friend Tom says “don’t be a hater” (he has teenagers) and normally I agree but I can’t play Pollyanna any longer. I have to say it: I hate the “talking” water fountains on the High Line. The first time I bent over to take a sip of water I practically smashed my camera when the fountain barked back at me. If it quoted Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (“I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony…”) I might feel differently but this stuff is ridiculous. Honestly, what is this all about? Hydration? Really? I hope no one with a heart condition gets thirsty on the High Line.

I can’t remember a time I was critical of the High Line. Maybe I thought my encomiastic posts would last forever; that is was impossible — or at least really, really hard — to find fault with a place where they manage, day in and day out, season after season, section after section, to get things right. But we lost Stephen Vitiello’s “A Bell For Every Minute” and this is all we get in return?

I’m bringing a water bottle from now on. And I’m dreaming of winter when it’s so cold that the audio track freezes. Or the whole frackin’ fountain is just shut down. “Condemning shadows quite.”



Readers of this blog know that I have been mourning the impending loss of Stephen Vitiello’s “A Bell For Every Minute” exhibit, which comes down on June 20th.  But you can be consoled by a very cool exhibit in the new section of the park — at around 21st Street — by the artist Sarah Sze. There’s a way in which this is a “living” exhibit: there are trays with seeds to attract birds and orange and apple slices to attract butterflies. And the little bird houses in the sky make a nice contrast to the sturdy human abodes that you can see in the distance, through the exhibit — the stately water towers of the Lincoln Towers apartment building and the Empire State Building.

I caught this fella, a house wren, early this morning. If you were a bird, isn’t this where you’d want to be?



The Bells, The Bells Are Calling…

I’m trying not to be obsessive about this, but I have a feeling that many people will look back on the early days of the High Line when the bells rang, minute by minute, and remember that these were the glory days. Or, as Aretha Franklin might say, “the good old days, the good old days.”

I started this post at 7:46, consulted Stephen Vitiello’s “sound map” and discovered that at this moment the bells of Kettles & Co. are sounding.

I didn’t know what this meant so I Googled them and came here, to a website that explains that Kettles & Co. is “New York City’s leading percussion, timpani and celesta global rental service.” This company rents out instruments that I couldn’t possibly describe — “3 octaves of almglocken,” “5-octave Schiedmayer Celestas, Estey Harmonium, Jenco Keyboard Glockenspiel, Pedal Glockenspiel, Bass Chimes for Mahler, Shostakovich and Berlioz,” and many others with equally inscrutable names. On the company’s website you can watch YouTube videos of orchestras using Kettle & Co. instruments.

When I began this post — now ten minutes ago — a “Swiss cowbell” was ringing.

Where else are you going to find this????

The High Line is set to open its new section next month and the blogosphere is clanging. (See 0:54: New York Transit Museum, subway bell.) But no one is talking about what we will lose in the process.

You have six weeks to enjoy “A Bell For Every Minute.” It’s hard to imagine that the good people who run the High Line can come up with anything even close to this remarkably wonderful exhibit.

Go now. It’s 8:10. The bell of Gracie Mansion’s historic clock is ringing.




It’s 5:03: time for the Coney Island Dreamland bell…

Stephen Vitiello’s wonderful exhibit, “A Bell For Every Minute,” goes silent on June 20th.  For me the The Bells has always been a central, defining part of the High Line. Every walk I’ve taken has had the accompaniment of New York’s orchestra of sounds, courtesy of Vitiello. So get there while you can and enjoy it; next month it ends for good.

The artist was kind enough to share with readers of LivinTheHighLine.com his “sound map” for “The Bells of New York.” You can download the pdf here. It lists each bell by name and minute and includes a rough map of New York to indicate the place where the original bell is located.

And now it’s 5:32: not only are the Delacorte Park bells ringing but the animals are spinning ’round the clock, playing their instruments for all the kids to see. Of course the city’s sounds will always be here to enjoy, just not on a schedule that has been organized by an artist.



It Tolls For Thee…


Sad news that Stephen Vitiello’s marvelous exhibit, “A Bell For Every Minute,” will close later this Spring. The folks who run the High Line have a robust program of art exhibits and they’ve created a one-year rule for themselves to keep the programs fresh and new. That makes (some) sense, but it’ll be hard to say goodbye to the Bells.

The exhibit has occupied the 14th Street Passage since June of last year, and it was one of the High Line’s original art projects. “A Bell For Every Minute” is a sort of audio map of New York City. Every minute, on the minute, a different bell from around town rings, from the familiar opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange to the 500 pound bell that welcomed visitors to the Dreamland Pier in Coney Island until it was lost in a fire in 1911. Divers retrieved it from the ocean floor in 2009 and Vitiello recorded it for his exhibit. There’s also a little girl’s bicycle bell, which I always love to hear.

The site of the exhibit – a bleak concrete tunnel – reminded the curator, Meredith Johnson, of a bell tower. While the enclosed space makes a perfect “auditorium” for the multitude of bells, it’s also an open space with all the day-to-day noises of the busy city that surrounds it. Every hour on the hour all fifty-nine bells ring at once.

I emailed Stephen Vitiello to ask if he’s planning to create an online home for “A Bell For Every Minute” and he’s not. The length of the piece plus the fact that it’s so site-specific make it very challenging, if impossible, to reproduce with integrity on the web. He passed along a link to a French website, Palais de Tokyo, where you can listen to a podcast of his “Bell Study,” which Vitiello describes as “a very quiet, processed bell piece that plays in between the louder hits each minute.” So once the exhibit closes this, alas, is all that will be left of “A Bell For Every Minute.”

For me this exhibit has become an integral part of the High Line. Every time I visit I hear a different series of bells, and of course every trip is a new experience because the ambient noises from the city — car horns blasting, kids screeching in joy, cruise ships bellowing, dogs barking, motorcycles roaring, cellphones ringing, rain falling, pneumatic drills howling — constantly reinvent the soundscape. Every minute, in fact.

So make sure you visit before June so you can get those bells in your ears at least once more before they go away.

And if this exhibit causes you to become interested in Vitiello’s work, as it did for me, you can find his website here and a very cool gallery of his audio works here, at “SoundCloud.”


The River That Flows Both Ways

The art exhibit by Spencer Finch, “The River That Flows Both Ways,” is one of my favorite parts of the High Line and today I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before. Again, I thank the camera, which caught something my eyes didn’t see on their own: the reflection of the building just opposite the colored glass windows.

One of the things I love about the High Line is the multitude of windows you see while walking along, everything from cracked, bricked-up windows with bullet-holes on old industrial buildings to the undulating curves of the IAC building. And in the Standard Hotel there’s a “window” cut in the eastern footing of the building that looks onto other windows: Windows on windows. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the reflection of yet more windows in Spencer Fitch’s exhibit.

Another thing I admire about “The River That Flows Both Ways” is the fact that every time I photograph it it looks different. Just like the river itself it can’t be nailed down. It keeps changing depending on how the light is falling, where you’re standing, what time of day it is, what season of year, and what the weather is like.  I find the changeableness of this exhibit oddly comforting because it’s so perfectly reliable.

The Algonkins, the people who first settled in New York Harbor, named what we now call the Hudson (after the English sea captain) “the river that flows both ways.” They were stunned when they first saw it, a river with currents that flow north and south at the same time. You can see it yourself; just stand on a pier or lean up against a railing along the Greenway. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else; it’s just fascinating and confounding.

That’s what Spencer Finch’s exhibit captures: the movement and changing patterns of this great river. You can read about his project here, and see a photo that looks nothing like mine.  I hope the High Line folks make this wonderful exhibit a permanent feature of the park.