Just a Reflektor


Not to get all Empire Records on you, but, IT’S ARCADE FIRE DAY! I am leaving work early to jump in the car and head to Atlanta to dance my ass off in the relative cold of 60-degree weather while wearing a whole mess of sequins and facepaint. I cannot wait.

I last saw them at a “secret” pre-album-launch show in Brooklyn in October. The tickets went on sale just a day or two before the event, and then I lined up with 3000 of my fellow New Yorkers to stand in a raw warehouse space in Bushwick. They basically put tinsel on everything and called it a day, and it was perfect. There was a stage at the front of the room, and the band was announced on that stage, and then the curtain wall nearest me dropped to reveal a secret stage where the band would actually be performing. A fantastic bait-and-switch, although I might not think so if I’d been jockeying for a position around the decoy stage. At the end of the night, a drumline formed following Win Butler’s DJ set, and their beats rang in my ears throughout the cab ride back to Queens, the Manhattan skyline pulsing across the East River.

Now that I’ve been listening to this album for months, I’m excited to enjoy it live again, this time in Atlanta. With even more sparkles.

On Confederate Memorial Day: Regional Memory & Knowledge Production


Monday was a state holiday in Alabama and several other southern states: Confederate Memorial Day. State employees had a paid day off, and in a city where there are many state employees, the downtown district was eerily quiet. Confederate Memorial Day has a murky beginning. Following the American Civil War, towns throughout the North and South began to honor the memory of the war on Decoration Day. They would hold ceremonies, honor surviving veterans, and decorate the graves of those who died during the war. By some accounts, it was a healing day, a chance for Americans from all sides to pause and reflect on the terrible rift that had been the Civil War. Eventually, Decoration Day became Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor the dead from all of America’s wars. Confederate Memorial Day continued in the South, along with other holidays like Lee-Jackson Day and Jefferson Davis’ birthday.


As I have recently joined the ranks of state employees, I had Monday off. It was strange to be out and about on a Monday that the rest of the world — and yes, most of the state — thought was just a regular Monday. I was much more cognizant of the day’s meaning than I am on other holiday Mondays. But, I do not relate to the history of the Confederacy. I spent the day pondering the Civil War, the very existence of anything called Confederate Memorial Day, the production of historical knowledge, and, well… a lot of stuff, some of which is here.

When I tell people about Confederate Memorial Day, the reaction is usually one of shock and disgust. I’d like to step back from the content of the day and think more broadly around the regional production of knowledge in the United States and the way the North and South think about the Civil War. I think that the way we frame Civil War and slavery history in the US is hampering our ability to discuss modern-day inequality in this country.


I am currently learning Alabama history so I can interpret it for the visitors to the museum where I work. It’s been interesting, because I am Northern-bred, Northern-born, and Northern-grown. I am from Connecticut, and have only otherwise lived in Massachusetts and New York prior to Alabama. I am also a white woman, most of whose family immigrated to the US in the years after slavery was abolished here. (Though, that does not mean my family was not complicit in the evils of our country’s complicated racial history.) In school, we spent a disproportionate amount of time learning about Colonial America and the Revolutionary War, because that is the history that feels most important to the soil on which Northerners stand.

Visitors to Boston often walk the Freedom Trail, a literal red line painted on the sidewalk connecting sites of colonial-era importance in the city. But Boston’s didn’t freeze in time once the Revolutionary War was won. It has a rich history full of fascinating events spanning across the decades. The Molasses Flood. The Great Fire. Southie’s Busing Riots. Just a few things off the top of my head. And yet, tourists in Boston today flock to its colonial-era sites, walking a path that was established in the 1950s, one of America’s great eras of reframing history.


Montgomery, Alabama, has a complicated history, and it is one that is worn on its sleeve. Historical markers are all over town, noting the locations of things as mundane as a house Helen Keller visited often (her sister lived there) to sites with such gravitas as the location of some of the city’s several slave markets. The minor league baseball stadium downtown is on the site of barracks that held prisoners of war during the Civil War. The state capitol building was used as the capitol building of the Confederate States of America following their incorporation right here in this city, and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the CSA on the front steps. A hundred years later, following decades of codified injustice (all following more than a century of slavery), African-Americans and their allies marched these streets, boycotted the city bus system, and rallied on the steps of the very same capitol during the civil rights era.

My US history classes spent a lot — a LOT — of time on North America’s 17th- and 18th-century history. We learned and relearned the events leading up to and following our declaration of independence from King George III. And then, with the few months left in the school year, we hurtled through 19th- and 20th-century history at warp speed, lucky to even get to World War II before finals were upon us. I am confident that this was not the curriculum intended for us impressionable youngsters, but I left school with little knowledge of American events after we became the good ol’ US of A, and that includes the Civil War. But why?


History is written by the victors. By those in power. The critique of history as the epic tale of the struggle of rich old white men is so well-known as to feel trite. But I would argue that this power dynamic is also inherent in the preference of certain histories in certain regions. We in the North have this idea that we were the good guys in the Civil War. This is, at its core, an oversimplified idea that does not take into account the North’s then-recent direct participation in slavery, and that ignores the fact that industry in the North relied on the free labor of slaves in the South. Those now-dead mill towns I knew growing up in New England grew in the 19th century on the backs of slaves who were growing cotton down here in the South. Shipping and ship-building, other major New England trades, supported the Triangular Trade. And, don’t forget, there were slaves in the North, though not on the scale of the great plantations of the South. There were also Southerners who fought for the Union, or opposed the secession and eventual war altogether. It is far easier to not deal with these complexities and instead perpetuate — either by actually saying so or through omission — the idea of a black-and-white, good-vs.-evil Civil War.

When we run out of time to cover the Civil War properly in school in favor of glorifying another period of history of which we are more proud, we deprive students of the chance to think critically about a hugely important moment in our nation’s history. I think the lack of serious thought about the Civil War, its causes, and its outcomes in the North leads to a misguided belief that the North is morally superior to the South, even today. It leads to a belief that racial and other bigotry is only a problem faced by Southerners, that we in the North are in a post-racism era, that racism encountered in the North today is an incidental accident rather than the product of systemic discrimination. It perpetuates an ahistorical approach to solving systemic problems. And, it creates a whole lot of bad blood in the South, some of which gets repurposed as pride.


I come from a dead New England industrial town, one known for its poverty, its recent immigrants, its crime, its nothingness. I am lucky to have been born white and middle class, to have become educated, to have left. Even still, I, like most of my hometown friends, have a fierce pride for the scrappy, terrible town where I was raised. The alternative would be to be ashamed of it, which is what outsiders have been telling me I should be for as long as I can remember. I am not saying the former Confederate states shouldn’t reflect on their history and try to right the wrongs of the past. I am saying we all should. I am saying that simplifying history to fit into a primitive good-guys/bad-guys narrative is harmful to our ability to discuss race, economics, inequality, and justice in any way productive way. It damages our ability to administer any sort of reparations. It reduces Southerners to a monolithic population that feels they need to take a defensive stance when it comes to their history, and, therefore, when it comes to the present.

It is very important to be consciously critical of all historic information, because the past is contested territory that is always being co-opted for the present. That is true of Civil War history, too. So, in place of Confederate Memorial Day, I would suggest something different. A Civil War Remembrance Day, perhaps, to be celebrated across our nation, so that we can mourn those who died as a result of the horrific institution of slavery, heal the persistent wounds of the institution and the war, remember those who died in the war even as we think carefully about their reasons for fighting, and try to begin a better, more complete dialogue about our past, present, and future.


Photos: 1) E and me with a giant Abraham Lincoln head in the visible storage at the New York Historical Society. 2) Alabama’s state capitol building. 3) A “Rosa Parks” civil rights era city bus. 4) the plaque embedded at the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office when he became President of the CSA. 5) the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was pastor and where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized. 6) The one-room schoolhouse used by African-American schoolchildren at Old Cahawba, Alabama’s first capital city. 

Happy birthday, New York World’s Fair!

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, which took place in the same park in Queens. I can’t be at today’s festivities (which include the New York State Pavilion being open to the public from 11 am to 2 pm – if you’re in New York City, please try to find a way to take advantage of this RARE opportunity!), but I made a quick and dirty Google Map featuring some of my favorite highlights of each fair. In most cases, I’ve marked spots where you can still see some physical evidence of the item or event, but a few – like the Carousel of Progress & it’s a small world pavilion locations – are just grassy fields today.

I’ll continue adding to this as time goes on (and as I learn the finer points of Google Mapping), but this is a pretty good start if you’re a fairground newbie. A link to the full map, freed from its iframe, is here.

Also, because I am pretending I am at the fairgrounds today, here’s a picture of me with the Unisphere when they had the fountains on for the Queens Museum’s grand reopening last fall.



Today, I am lucky enough to be over on Not Intent on Arriving, a blog run by my friend Kristin. I was thrilled when Kristin asked to include me in her ongoing Wednesday Writers series – it’s great to get a chance to talk about a bit of the why and how behind my internet presence, including this blog.

If you’ve clicked through from Kristin’s blog, welcome! Posting’s been a little light lately, but hopefully you’ll find something you’d like to read. I’ve got some pretty fun posts about Disney World, New York, and Alabama in the pipeline.

Park Benches and Public Performance: The World’s Fair & Beyond

When was the last time you actively thought about a park bench? I mean, beyond, “Hey, there’s a bench! What a wonderful place to take respite from my outdoor activity! I am going to sit on that bench, and sit on it good!”? Benches are one of those objects that we prize for their utility. Yes, they are also often lovely, but that isn’t our primary interest in them. In an ideal world, they are just set-dressing in a beautiful park, and there is always one available for us to use under the shade of a broad-branched tree.

One of my first weekends here, I was taking a walk through our local postage-stamp park when I glanced at a park bench and noticed the embossed mark of its maker on the leg.

This bench hailed all the way from the Nutmeg State! Just like me! Because I am a sucker, I immediately decided it was a sign that I could also find a comfortable home in Alabama, where I could grow lichen all over me, just like that bench!

And then, through the magic of Twitter, the story unfolded:

Fantastic! If there was ever a bench for me to discover, it was this one! This bench was designed and built originally for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, though it is in use in parks around New York City and the rest of the country through today (obviously). It’s a pretty classic park bench. According to the manufacturer’s website, Robert Moses collaborated with Kenneth Lynch himself on the design of the benches, in order to maximize comfort and improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Ms. Sears also informed me that Central and Prospect Parks use the Central Park Settee, also created by K. Lynch and Sons, and they still order them from the company today.

Both the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs were held in the same place in New York City, Flushing Meadows Corona Park. I’ve written about the remnants of the fairs before, more than once. It probably doesn’t surprise you that one weekend just before I moved, on my way to LaGuardia to return a rental car, I stopped off at the former fairgrounds for a last look-see before I headed south for a while. While I was there, I noticed the benches. Because, I am learning, I apparently like benches. Anyway, this is what they look like in 2014:


Those curved legs and that jaunty posture! No other bench has ever shouted “SPACE AGE” at me so clearly. I had walked by these benches dozens of times before without giving them a second glance. This visit, though, I snapped a photo, figuring they were part of the park’s infrastructure that hasn’t been changed since the 64-65 fair.

I remembered seeing a photo of women seated on benches at the 60s fair, and did a quick Google search to turn it up. The photo was shot by Gary Winogrand, and was recently on exhibit at SF MoMA.


If you look beyond the ladies, you’ll recognize the shape of the benches’ legs from the photo above.

Armed with the information about the manufacturer of the 1939 World’s Fair benches, I took to their website and discovered that K. Lynch and Sons also has a 1964-65 World’s Fair model bench, though it’s not clear to me if they designed the ones originally used during the fair or just based their model on those. I did find some info on the materials used in these benches, and about updates made to them in the years since the fair:

All benches for the 1964 World’s Fair were composed of cast aluminium supports with green fiberglass slats. Only 8 of these benches retain their fiberglass slats and all the rest have been replaced with wood, which are fixed on top of and not wrapped around the aluminum knuckles. This changed their ergonomic profile, so sit on each type and see which is more comfortable!

I also found a piece from the NYC Parks Department identifying this model as one still used in parks, but without much further information. I haven’t seen this bench type in any other parks in NYC or elsewhere, but if you have, let me know!

The 1960s bench seems a perfect artifact of its era and for its purpose. The 20th century world’s fairs were future-gazing extravaganzas, and 1960s futurism was all curved lines and modern materials (remember, these benches were originally outfitted with fiberglass slats). Think of the intro to The Jetsons, which originally aired in 1962-63. Everythaaang is curvy, and all those buildings on tall poles remind me of the observation decks on the NY State Pavilion, still standing 100 feet from where I snapped the photo of benches a few weeks ago.

The 39-40 World’s Fair was also preoccupied with the future, but its benches were Victorian in design. In fact, that NYC Parks post actually says the 30s bench was based on a turn-of-the-century design. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of the benches, since they are lovely and still in use all over the place. In fact, perhaps they were based on an older design as a way of future-proofing them; Moses, et al, knew the benches would be in use beyond the end of the fair, and didn’t want them to be immediately dated. We saw similar attitudes in approaches to futuristic theming later in the 20th century, when anyone trying to create a futuristic world went back to 1950s ideas and aesthetics about the future.

I did a little more sleuthing around, and found similar benches in this post about seating at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And, in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Jack Spence photographed what I’m pretty sure is actually a 1939 World’s Fair bench, though it’s missing the crossbars behind the back:


Another photo in that post shows a bench with legs similar to the 64-65 World’s Fair bench. I only wish I’d done this research before my recent trip to Walt Disney World, so I could have been on the lookout for more!

The fact that each fair had its own bench designs, that several of the parks in NYC have their own, and that so many different thematic areas in Disney theme parks have their own seating designs, speaks to the importance of seating in setting the stage for the activities that go on there. In 1964, organizers wanted visitors to the New York World’s Fair to be thinking about the future, to feel like they were getting a glimpse into it, to feel like the Avenue of Progress wasn’t just a street, but a path to the future. So they created a bench. In the area of Disney’s Hollywood Studios where the above bench was found, designers wanted visitors to relax in a picturesque version of the USA where some of their favorite movie characters may have lived. And, in the parks that still use the 1939 World’s Fair bench today, everyday citizens are invited to sit on a picturesque, stereotypical park bench, the kind you see in paintings and in the movies, and enjoy the day. You may not realize it when you’re participating in it, but the design of the bench you’re sitting on – the whimsy of the curved wrought iron, the classic green slats – is probably influencing your park experience in a positive way. By sitting on that bench, you are giving a performance of What it Means to Go to the Park, whether you’re in Central Park in New York City, or Cloverdale Park in Montgomery, Alabama.

New Beginnings: Alabama the Beautiful


 As I write this, I am sitting on the couch with my cat draped across my shoulders, with the window open and sunshine filtering in. It is 11:30 am on a Monday, and I don’t have anywhere to be. I am unemployed for the first time since the dark months immediately following my college graduation 7 years ago, and I’m not quite sure what to do with that.

On January 26, three men showed up and carted off 95% of my worldly belongings. On January 30, I said goodbye to my wonderful coworkers over one last round of drinks at the office. On January 31, I boarded a plane bound for Montgomery, Alabama with the other 5% of my worldly belongings. And here I sit.

Seven months ago, my husband took a job that brought him here. We loaded the car with about 50% of his worldly belongings, including 2 cats, and drove him down here over the course of two days. Then, after a week of getting him settled, I boarded a plane back to New York City.


 I had an intoxicating Summer and Fall in New York, meeting people, sharing ideas, enjoying exhibitions and cultural events. In the dizzying pace I set for myself, things like writing fell off my to-do list, because reflection was too complicated, because I had too many thoughts and feelings and experiences to convey. And then, the cold and grey of Winter set in, and E came up to visit for two weeks over the holidays, and we rung in the new year without ever really talking about what I think we both knew to be true: I had to choose my personal life over my professional life and move to Alabama while E finished out his fellowship.


 It was a decision I had been avoiding, because quitting my job and upending my life meant relying on someone outside myself, trusting that I would be able to figure it out at some point. It felt like I was betraying a part of myself, and my place in the sisterhood. I was paralyzed by the knowledge that I could get hurt in the process. But, hey, eventually (hopefully not for a while yet) I’ll just be dust in the ground and all my potential for hurt and for joy and for experience itself will be spent, so let’s go live somewhere where the seafood looks different from what I’m used to.


So, I’m in Alabama full-time, with an emphasis on exploring a new place (as always) and investing in things and activities that will enable me make good choices once we’re back on the move in June 2015 (this is a new one for me). My furniture is scheduled to arrive this week, after which I’ll finish settling in and get back to writing and sharing and trudging through the backlog of REALLY AWESOME STUFF that I’ve been up to in the last seventh months. In fact, just yesterday I stumbled on an everyday object here in Montgomery that led me on a path right back to my beloved New York world’s fairs of the 20th century. The world is a strange and mysterious place. And I am, truth be told, pretty stoked to get to know a new-to-me part of it.

The Beta Release of the Cooper-Hewitt’s New Collection’s Portal Lights Up Their Collection

There is lots to explore in the beta release of the Cooper-Hewitt’s new collections portal.


First, check out the way the images are displayed. The thumbnails are giant and all square, but when you mouseover, you see the full image in its original aspect ratio (as I’ve done in that image on the right up there). They use close ups to lead the viewer in, trusting them to click on and explore more deeply objects that interest them.


Secondly, there are about a million ways to explore the collection, including by COLOR! Super fun way to remove a barrier to entry that lots of people who aren’t art historians (like me!) experience.

They have detailed a lot of their process (and have released some of their codes) in this blog post, which is a good read: http://labs.cooperhewitt.org/2013/b-is-for-beta/ 

And once you’be poked around on the Cooper-Hewitt’s collections portal, consider checking out the Rijksmuseum’s, from with the C-H folks borrowed pretty heavily. The Rijksmuseum’s collections portal is a fabulous resource, fun to explore, and they’ve made high resolution images of their objects available for download under a Creative Commons license. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection If you haven’t already done so, make sure to play with the Master Matcher tool to find works that you’re a total match with: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/mastermatcher

Open House NY: The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport


Last October, I got to explore the TWA Flight Center as part of the 10th annual Open House NY Weekend, a glorious weekend in the city where architects, private residents, and organizations open their doors and let the public in, in order to raise awareness and appreciation for the city’s architectural landmarks and design treasures. They released the guide to this year’s weekend, and I was delighted to see the TWA Flight Center on the program again.

Closed since 2001, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport is currently empty and now ringed in by JetBlue’s shiny, new Terminal 5.  There have been many attempts to restore and repurpose the iconic space since then, but nothing has quite made it through (most recently, I’ve heard it’s going to be turned into a branch of the Standard Hotel).


The flight center was dedicated in 1962, and is now recognized as a glorious icon of forward-thinking design. The architect, Eero Saarinen, designed the space for efficiency, realizing that the age of mass air travel was upon us. It was one of the first terminals to feature enclosed jetways (the glorious tubes shown in Catch Me if You Can), baggage carousels, a PA system, and closed circuit television. Unfortunately, as time went on, planes got bigger, passenger expectations changed, and the terminal just couldn’t handle the demands of modern airline traffic. When American Airlines bought TWA in 2001, following the airline’s extended financial troubles, the terminal was closed. In 1994, it was declared a historic landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.


I visited the Flight Center on a rainy morning last October, and fell in love immediately. I admit that I didn’t know much about it before trekking down to JFK, but it was absolutely worth the trip. The building’s streamlined, uplifted design makes you want to get in an airplane immediately, and the whiteness of the interior makes you feel like you’re already among the clouds. Huge windows in the seating area allow you to daydream about the destinations of planes you’re watching take off, and the many intimate corners of the terminal recall the romance of mid-century commercial air travel. And those tunnels! I can only imagine how it must have felt to pass through the long, sloping tunnels on your way to an airplane to adventures and exotic locales.


Personally, I was struck by how different modern airport terminals feel compared to the atmosphere in the TWA Flight Center. Granted, a crowd of design dorks are different from a bunch of harried travelers, but still. On a recent trip, I had a layover in Atlanta where I wandered the airport for a few hours, thinking about how all airports feel basically the same, and how the cobbled-together terminals representing different eras somehow all feel like a mall, and a weird, liminal space all at once. When I travel by plane today, I feel transparent, and I can only ever grit my teeth and wait for it to be over. I can’t imagine that waiting for your flight on the luscious red upholstered benches in the TWA Flight Center could have felt that way; a visit to the terminal today is a glimpse into the days when plane travel felt glamorous.


I hope that the Powers That Be settle on a fate for the TWA Flight Center soon. It’s a fascinating building that deserves more than occasional public use. The same way that Philip Johnson commented that enclosing the building by the JetBlue terminal was like tying a bird’s wings, leaving a building created for public use empty and stagnant is like slowly suffocating that bird. Public space should be active in order to remain relevant. And next weekend, you have a chance to activate the TWA Flight Center during the 2013 Open House NY Weekend. I won’t be able to make it this year, but I’ll be thinking of the flight center fondly on Sunday.


P.S. If you like this, check out a few of the other old airline-specific terminals at JFK. Some super cool history and architecture there!

Down South: Roadside Alabama

A quick change of pace and locale. Even though I live in beautiful Astoria, Queens, my husband is currently homesteading in the wilds of Alabama. That makes it sound much more dramatic than it is — he’s a lawyer, and he has a fellowship with an incredible organization in Montgomery. He’s been there since June, and has settled in nicely. The pace is slower, the air is thicker, and the sun sets a little earlier than up here, which is to say that he’s pretty pleased.


Montgomery’s riverfront on the Alabama River.

We drove E down to Alabama when he moved: 17 hellish hours in a tiny car over two days, with two drugged out cats in the backseat. It was one of the least fun things I’ve ever done. BUT! We did get to do one awesome thing, and it’s all thanks to one of my favorite websites, Roadside America. If you’ve ever been on the website, you know that it’s an amazing wonderland where you can learn about things like the World’s Largest Ten Commandments or Trundle Manor.  And, when we were dragging all of his personal effects down to Alabama the Beautiful in my tiny, beat up Hyundai Elantra, we used it to find Foamhenge.


Foamhenge is a roadside attraction located in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It is, as the name suggests, a full-size replica of Stonehenge made entirely by one man, completely out of styrofoam. The foam is painted with a faux stone finish, and there is a fiberglass wizard keeping watch over the whole site. It. Is. Amazing. And when you’re six hours into a road trip where the cats won’t stop meowing directly behind your head, it’s even better.

My last trip to visit E was over Labor Day weekend, and I was there for nearly a whole week! We had a pretty jam-packed agenda of stuff that E wanted to show me after spending a month and a half getting acquainted with the place. One day, we drove up to Birmingham to visit the inspiring Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and see some of the nearby historic sites. On our way back, I got to thinking that we must be passing some awesome sites that we just didn’t know about because we weren’t locals, and that’s when I found my new favorite app: the Roadside America app!

It can use your phone’s GPS to figure out where you are and recommend attractions in the area for you to check out. Our first stop was Alabama’s Statue of Liberty, a one-fifth scale replica of our copper gal striding above the highway near Birmingham.  Originally built to perch above an insurance company’s offices in Birmingham, it now has its own park near the headquarters for Alabama’s Boy Scouts of America, which is also in an interesting building. Seeing Lady Liberty peeking above the trees almost made me forget I wasn’t in New York. And! Her torch is actual fire, lit by Alabama natural gas. (Sidenote: There are SO MANY replica Statues of Liberty! I want to see them all.)


Our second stop on our drive back to Montgomery was this amazing water tower in the form of a peach in Clanton, Alabama. This sucker holds half a million gallons of water, and is placed within sight of the highway, near an extensive peach and peach-products market. It is a thing of beauty.


As we were getting back in the car after one of these stops, E asked me why I love stuff like giant peach water towers and replica Statues of Liberty. I suppose that I love them because they are completely absurd, but are usually taken totally seriously by their creators. Often, I feel that we’re all falling into that trap — we take our lives, our decisions, our needs so totally seriously, but in reality there is a certain absurdity to this world and to this life, and as humans we’re just lucky that we have brains big enough to notice the absurdity of others, but rarely of ourselves. That sounds really cynical, but I actually really love that about our species. We can impart importance even when we suspect that the test of time will render us all rather absurd.

(Post Script: I just found out about Bamahenge. Rest assured that a visit to this will happen, too.)

Complex Beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters


I haven’t been to The Cloisters in about a million years (scientific!), and Sunday was a glorious early Autumn day in the city, so I figured it was about time to make the trek to Fort Tryon Park. An additional draw was the chance to experience Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, a work I loved at PS1.

The piece is considered Cardiff’s masterwork. She recorded each member of a 40-part choir singing their individual parts of a 16th century motet and plays each recording on its own, dedicated speaker. The effect is gorgeous when you’re standing amongst the speakers, hitting you square in the chest in a way that most recordings of the human voice just don’t. And, as an additional layer of the experience, you can walk to each speaker and listen to the individual parts. I haven’t been to a choir performance in a while, but I don’t think they welcome audience members to walk from performer to performer.


 At PS1, the speakers were arrayed in an empty, white-walled former classroom, with large windows letting light pour in. The work was surprising and interesting, and it was a delight to wander among the speakers after a beer at WarmUp last summer. At the Cloisters, Forty Part Motet is placed in the “Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain.” The chapel is impressive, and has wonderful acoustics, but I actually found the setting distracted from the work. It put it into a religious context that, for someone who does not identify with that religion, made me feel like I should not be enjoying the piece as a work of art, but as a religious work. And it also pushed the piece into the realm of the heavy-handed and, dare I say, a bit cheesy.

That said, I still found the work inspiring, and admit that I probably wouldn’t have made it up to the Cloisters without it as a draw. The chapel was bustling with visitors on Sunday, and the galleries were well-attended. And even though I preferred the experience at PS1, there was some magic in hearing strains of the music filtering through the labyrinthine rooms and courtyards of the museum. It was a reminder of the lives many of the objects on display at the Cloisters had before they were in a museum, when they were in use, and that is a powerful thing.


Forty Part Motet is the first contemporary piece to be shown at the Cloisters, which itself deserves more thought than I am qualified to give it. It will be on display at the Cloisters until December 8, and is definitely worth the long subway ride to northern Manhattan. After you visit, consider jumping on the M4 bus for a scenic ride down to the Met, same-day admission to which is included with your Cloisters ticket. (A slightly stranger spot to visit near the Cloisters is the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, where the remains of Mother Cabrini, who was canonized in 1946, are displayed.)