The New York City subway is bursting with amazing works of art, and while they are all fun to look at, there are some you can directly interact with! One piece inspires you to create a musical duet with strangers across the tracks while another immerses you in sounds created by subway air, and others allow you to engage with the station’s past. We’ve rounded up five of the most exciting interactive subway art pieces that you can enjoy while waiting for your subway to arrive!
You can discover even more amazing works of subway art in our upcoming talk with Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers! In this talk, Justin will revisit favorite works of art and also explore new pieces that haven’t been covered in his previous talk.
Art in the NYC Subway
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1. Reach New York at 34th Street Herald Square
While standing on the 34th Street-Herald Square subway platforms for the uptown or downtown N/R train, don’t be surprised if you hear a spontaneous outburst of musical notes. The sound is coming from that large green rectangular box above the platform. This interactive subway art installation, titled Reach New York, An Urban Musical Instrument, was created by artist Christopher Janney in 1996.
Janney’s creation, which could easily be overlooked as a piece of station infrastructure, is meant to inspire interaction between strangers waiting for their trains. Here’s how it works: When you place your hand in front of one of the sensors indicated by white circles, musical notes ring out on the opposite platform and the lights illuminate. You can go back and forth creating a musical duet from across the tracks!
2. Life Underground at 14th Street and 8th Avenue
Tom Otterness’s whimsical bronze sculptures can be found scattered throughout the 14th Street Subway station at 8th Avenue. Installed in 2000, the installation comprises 130 tiny figurines that can be spotted tucked away in corners and perched atop banisters, posed in various scenes of mischief, revelry, and work. Otterness told the MTA his figures were inspired by the history of the subway, New York City’s urban myths, and New York society. You can see these themes exemplified in the diversity of the statues, from a giant sewer alligator to the police officer figurines and robber baron types with top hats and bags of money.
There are many ways you can interact with the Otterness sculptures because there are so many and half the fun is finding them! You can stand atop a giant pair of feet flanked by a cartoonish elephant and giraffe, have a seat next to a figurine clutching a bag of money, or rub the money bag-shaped head of the figure in the middle of the stairway for some financial luck (then promptly wash your hands!).
3. Framing Union Square at Union Square Station
Artist Mary Miss’ Framing Union Square invites subway riders to not just interact with the art, but also to interact with the past. Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design in 1998, the installation is made up of 125 red metal frames spread throughout the various levels of the Union Square Subway station. These frames direct your attention to remnants of the original station from 1904 and places where original elements once existed, but are now lost to time.
Mary Miss told MTA Arts & Design, that this interactive subway art installation invites the public “to look below the surface, to see a ‘slice’ of the station, its structure, its history.” When you peer through the frames, you will find decorative tiles, signs, and pieces of infrastructure. You may see a mirror that reflects the current station side-by-side with remnants of its past. In some windows, there are historic images and text that call attention to companies and people who worked in the station. It pays to stop and look closely!
4. Memories of Twenty-Third Street at 23rd Street
Like Mary Miss’s interactive subway art installation at Union Square, Memories of Twenty-Third Street at the 23rd Street N/R station calls attention to the history of the station’s location. The glass mosaics on the walls of this station, a series of floating hats, were designed by artist Keith Godard in 2002. Goddard, who once lived nearby at the Chelsea Hotel, wanted to pay tribute to the area’s history as a cultural district known for vaudeville and the Ladies Mile from the 1880s to the 1920s.
The different types of hats represent styles that might have been worn by New Yorkers strolling through the area in the late 19th to early 20th-centuries. The apparent movement of the mosaic hats represents how they may have been blown off by the wind! Goddard was inspired by the fashion of icons like Jim Brady, Oscar Wilde, Sara Bernhardt, Mark Twain, and Lillian Russell. The artist told the MTA, “In addition to bringing back memories of the specific time period and people and appealing to the viewers on a more common level as fascinating hats, this design can also serve as an interactive, playful, and witty landmark. As a diversion, passengers waiting for the subway train might try to picture people on the opposite platform “wearing” the hats they are standing beneath!” You can try on the different styles for yourself like the guests in the photo above.
5. Times Square
Though artist Max Neuhaus’ sound installation Times Square is experienced outside of the subway, it deserves a mention on this list. Most people will walk right over the piece without even realizing they have just stepped on a piece of art that has been part of New York City since 1977. Those who do stop to listen will be treated to a unique auditory experience.
As you walk around different areas of the subway ventilation grate, new sounds emerge. These noises are created by a machine below the surface that amplifies sounds from the various chambers of the subway vent underground. Neuhaus explained, “What delighted me was in fact these short tunnels over here because each one has its own resonance and is a little different in length. The sound that is heard on the surface isn’t just the sound that I’m putting in here, it’s what the sound does to this chamber.” This site-specific sound sculpture is a hidden gem in the center of Times Square, located between Broadway and 7th Avenues (45th & 46th Street).
Uncover more hidden and overlooked works of art in the New York City subway system by joining our upcoming subway art talk with Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers!
Art in the NYC Subway