Commuting is not always the place you think of to bring a sense of wonder into your life. But with the right art intervention, you just might be able to have that rare awe-inspiring moment. Cue the guerrilla project “Uptown Underground” by Ian Callender, incoming Master of Architecture student at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Callender describes “Uptown Underground” like a “glass bottom boat” flipped upside down, with the cityscape of Manhattan at that precise location projected onto the ceiling of subway cars.

Subway riders viewing Uptown Underground
Photo courtesy Ian Callender

“Uptown Underground” was first installed in 2019 on the 6 train, running from City Hall station to 96th Street, before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. As you can see in the video, commuters were compelled to look upwards instead of down at their mobile devices. More than a moving video, the imagery is synchronized based on the movement of the train.

Single-board raspberry pi computers are connected via a peer-to-peer wifi network, which then receives geolocation and train speed data from a cellphone app and projects the imagery from four projectors. “Uptown Underground” was a finalist in the 2020 Media Architecture Biennale in Amsterdam in the category of Future Trends and Prototypes.

Uptown Underground projector on 6 train
Photo courtesy Ian Callender
App for Uptown Underground
Photo courtesy Ian Callender

Callendar told Untapped New York about his motivation for the project and says, “Increasingly I was finding my experience on the subway marked by detachment: in the moments between stations, all urban context would be stripped away, usually filled with the infinite scroll of my cell phone. Imagining what it might be like to be able to look up, to see through the ceiling of the train to the street, and to become aware of the dynamic perspective offered by a moving train, offered a new way to reconnect with and feel grounded within the city. The intervention also offered a meaningful opportunity to create a technology-positive interaction solely meant to augment our urban experience—no ulterior motives, just to offer a new perspective and perhaps a smile.”

New York City transit enthusiasts will especially appreciate how Callender used the 6 train downtown loop that goes through the decommissioned City Hall station to set up the installation. “Kind of the perfect chance for the train to sit empty for just over a minute!” You can ride this loop for yourself and learn about the history of the subway system on this insiders-led tour of the subway!

Abandoned chambers street platform

Underground Subway Tour

Next, check out 5 pieces of interactive subway art in NYC.