I try to spend as little time in Penn Station as possible, and I say this having trudged there every Monday before sunrise to catch the Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 190 to Boston for several years. So it speaks volumes that sound-artist Christina Kubisch made me reluctant to leave as she led me and three other participants through Penn on an hour-long walking tour of Midtown. Add to that it was 3pm on a muggy day in August, and this accomplishment was nothing short of miraculous. Kubisch has done Electrical Walks in cities worldwide since 2003; this was number 76, and the first in New York since 2006.
Using custom-made headphones featuring copper coils that transduce and amplify electromagnetic waves, Kubisch invites us to listen to the hidden voice of the city: its electrical grid, anti-theft systems, LED displays, TV screens, ATMs, RFID parking-garage scanners, vintage bodega-window neon Miller Lite signs, cell-phone signal-booster towers, subways, trains, and on and on. What is omnipresent, but usually silent, suddenly becomes roaringly audible.
The walk was full of surprises. A patron at Bank of America informing us that the ATM we approached to listen to was out of service, but that there was another branch around the corner. And in The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards, the sales clerks at Coach and Kenzo looking mildly alarmed as we bobbed in and out of the potent electromagnetic fields generated by their anti-theft systems. Clearly, this was behavior they hadn’t yet encountered from the largely tourist clientele. (Or, perhaps, from the new tenants of nearby Abington House—one of Hudson Yards’ residences—where alcove studios rent for $4,500 a month.) Kubisch, kindly, informing the suited security guards here and at Penn’s time-warp of a Kmart what we were up to, and that they might consider standing outside the system’s “line of fire,” so as to avoid any potential long-term exposure effects. Turns out, Kmart’s antiquated anti-theft system sounded vastly superior to Kenzo’s new, and nearly invisible, system. In general, I found this to be true: my favorite screen in all of Penn was not the wall-length LED display at the end of the newly-renovated waiting area on the 8th Ave side, but the old-school Amtrak/NJTransit Departures TVs housed behind thick, shatter-resistant glass. They remind me of the TV I grew up playing Nintendo on, and generated a rich, warm drone.
Kubisch’s work reorients our bodies in relation to the built environment, playfully impelling us to—and I use these words carefully—dance and cuddle with the city. The urge to twist one’s head, to hunch low and jump up high while passing a large LED display, to caress the screen of an ATM with one’s cheek in order to access a faint layer in a dense sound-texture, is irresistible. The work generates a strange kind of intimacy between human and non-human. Typically, my physical and mental relationship to an ATM is highly prescribed: I stand still, touch its keypad or touchscreen with my finger, and, transaction complete, move on. With the Electrical Walks, however, suddenly the entire city becomes one giant instrument, and we, as both audience and performers, are invited to play it. We see differently; we move differently. The familiar—even the despised—become sites of possibility. I had, hardened New Yorker that I am, dismissed Midtown as pure drudgery; I came away having loved being there.