Volume 78 / Number 8 - July 23 - 29, 2008
Finding the Voice of the Battery Maritime
Photo credit Danielle Spencer
For more than three decades, David Byrne has defied categorization. While he is perhaps still best known as the co-founder and principal songwriter of the legendary rock band Talking Heads (1976-1988), they were just the beginning of his legacy. He has received Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe awards for his music, but his artistic achievements extend far beyond one medium and his groundbreaking excursions into film, visual art, as well as web-based media, have garnered widespread acclaim.
It feels like there is hardly a creative road that cannot stir Byrne’s interest or ambition. He has, as he put it in a recent interview, fallen contently “into a place where [his] role is somewhat undefined and loose.” In the meantime, he is by no means resting on his laurels and remains deeply ingrained in the cultural texture of this particular city. In March, for example, he performed with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson at Speak Up, a benefit concert hosted by St. Ann’s Warehouse to benefit peace in Iraq, and he is currently working (again) on a much-anticipated collaborative album with sound pioneer Brian Eno.
Byrne’s current endeavor, however, fuses his passions for music and the visual arts, manifesting as a public installation of significant scale. “Playing the Building” takes place in the Battery Maritime Building, located below Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, next to the recently rebuilt Whitehall Ferry Terminal. The concept was realized by Creative Time, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “animate and amplify unique spaces in New York City’s urban landscape.”
“Playing the Building” comprises 9,000 sq. ft. of the exceptional landmark building, which was completed in 1909. Once used to accomodate ferries en route to 39th Street in Brooklyn, it is the last remaining East River ferry building that springs from an era when 17 ferry lines shuttled between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since 1938, when the Maritime closed its ferry service, the building has deteriorated. While its exterior has been carefully restored in recent years, much of the interior remains a neglected structure of rusting beauty. When viewed from the water, the Maritime is set off against the skyline of Downtown like a forlorn relic of the past. It is rich in Beaux Arts details, which on the inside occasionally succeed in penetrating the multiple layers of peeling paint, dust and grime. It is a place haunted by the traces of a grandeur long gone and a strong sense of Venetian-esque melancholy has settled in. While Creative Time’s press release points out that a major redevelopment in the hands of Dermot Company and the Poulakos family will transform the Maritime in the near future, it exists as a place of almost otherworldly gloom. In some ways, it is as moody, sad and mesmerizing as a Blues Song and Byrne carves straight to its soul by making the space itself the main focus. More that that, he finds its voice and enables us to make it sing, shout and howl while paying homage to its core.
“Playing the Building” takes place in the Great Hall, the former passenger waiting room, on the second floor. Ornamented with elaborate plaster finishes, large cast iron columns and windows of leaded pattern glass, it was once one of New York City’s grand public spaces. Now, a pump organ, which Byrne has had in his studio since inheriting it from Jean-Yves Noblet’s former print studio, takes center stage amidst a larger audience. Its keys are connected to a series of devices attached to different structural features of the building, such as metal beams, plumbing, heating and water pipes. Each visitor is invited to play this magical machinery, which only by means of wind, vibration and hitting the structure, guarantees the building to offer unique sounds and at times melodic noise. In that sense “Playing the Building” is an environmental sculpture as well as a key element in a social gathering. For a short time, the organ player becomes the performer, sharing the experience of sound with those in the room. Here, pipes become flutes, while the striking of the keys determines the overall rhythm.
As was the case with the original 2005 incarnation as a commission by Färgfabriken, an industrial art venue in Stockholm, “Playing the Building” does not employ microphones, synthesizers or amplification. This is unusual for Byrne, who is known for exploring highly experimental soundscapes. Instead, the setting itself provides Byrne with the appropriate frame for what he has referred to as a perfect “Victorian Steam-Punk technology.” Byrne’s construction ensures that the sounds produced by the building are pure and devoid of any electronic alteration. Even though the organ’s back is left open, revealing to the spectator a series of switches that are reminiscent of synapses, the mystique surrounding the work is undiminished.
We might comprehend the dynamics behind this fantastic device, but who can help but be in awe of how simply Byrne’s work makes clear that music, rhythm and sound textures are omnipresent and constantly hiding in the very structures that surround us. Byrne seems to suggest that, like artifacts in an archeological site, sounds are something only waiting for us to stop and take notice. In the case of the Maritime, they are finally uncovered in the attempt to bring the faded back to life.