Virtual Reality

Times Square, New York City

Saturday, June 18th

9:15 PM

75*

 

It’s my little sister’s last day in town after a week-long visit. We spent the day walking around Bushwick, drifting between bakeries and bookshops, watching the beautiful young people. We crossed the Williamsburg Bridge as the sun set, standing in the first train car. My sister held her phone against the front window and took a time lapse of our ride across the bridge. I stood beside her and watched the colors play out in front of me in the sky, and then inside her little screen. The variations in the two window panes refract the light, spreading the switch lamps into ever-diminishing copies, each light a phase diagram of itself, a halo around every headlight flickering between the trusses from the highway. In her world, the variations in the two window panes refract the light, spreading the lamps into ever-diminishing copies, a halo around every headlight flickering between the trusses. She watches the video over and over as we wait belowground to transfer at Delancey Street, sending it to people she loves.

We are riding from Delancey to Times Square just after sunset. Weston brought along his new favorite device, an electromagnetic wave listening device that renders every LED and electric brake on the L train as a band of sound. Its name is Elektrosluch, and it looks like a cross between a taser and a Totoro, a little purple plastic hand-held with two tiny listening ears perched on the top of its head. Since its sides are clear plastic, I can peek into the inner workings, and see the simple loops of wiring, the 9-volt battery, the small circuit board. He waited a long time to receive it, perhaps a few months, as it was being handmade in Bratislava, Slovakia by the “instrument manufacturers” LOM. And now he takes it everywhere, pointing it at lights and walls, unnerving the other train passengers and passersby with its strange form and the strange behavior that its use requires. We share cheap earbuds, two of us at a time listening in to the electromagnetic fields around us. The train comes and it is a revelation: it is nearly silent when stopped at the station, but as it pulls away and gains speed, a layered crescendo emerges and structures itself in layers upon layers of rich, keening noise. The floor hums, the tracks sing, the third rail howls below us at a rising frequency; then, as the train slows into the station, each level fades until all that is left is the constant fundamental pitch of the grid and the sweet shimmer of the LEDs and track lighting in the car.

 

We get off at Bryant Park, walking along 42nd Street towards Times Square. The Chrysler Building is lit up behind us, its tiered crown glowing from within. We are here to show my sister Times Square at night—and to hear it for the first time. We wave the Elektrosluch at the Metro lights, the green walking man on the pedestrian stoplight, a tootling neon ice cream truck. In Times Square, every surface glows. We make our way to the center of it all, a gigantic American flag on the side of the U.S. Armed Forces recruiting station that is made of countless orderly rows of LEDs. We hold the device up to the flag, direct its ears up and down, turn in circles to catch the light from the surrounding screens. From this point, the Elektrosluch is so saturated by midrange frequencies that we have to turn the volume down.  This landscape is alive, a seething ocean of electromagnetic waves. It is washing around and through us in vibrating frequencies that we can render audible, and I realize that we have been slipping—constantly, clumsily, unaware—through these currents of light that can be made to sing.

 

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Just a few days earlier, we walked through the current exhibits in the Tisch Galleries at the Met Museum. In Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, a towering Athena Parthenos and colossal marble head of Herakles ushered us into room that centered around a 1:20 scale model of the Great Altar of Pergamon, with fragments of its gigantomachy frieze and acroteria statuary. A fragment of tatty parchment stood unobtrusively in one corner of the display: the oldest known piece of Homer’s Odyssey, legible but inscrutable, its parchment thin and fringed around the edges, strands of words running across it interrupted.

 

Around the corner, we ducked into a tiny side gallery with walls painted a deep cool blue, lined with tall glass display cases. Along one wall, a video projection showed a two-minute loop of the Antikythera explorations, the first attempt at recovery of the riches of the ancient shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera since Jacques Cousteau’s dive there in 1976. Both from the main exhibit and inside the side room, my eyes somehow couldn’t distinguish the walls from the projection, the glass cases and artifacts in the display from those being unearthed in the video. Divers and submarine 3D-mapping robots swam around the room, across the artifacts, hands dissolving into other hands, reflection indistinguishable from record. I watched the video three times through from various surfaces, letting my eyes drift and refocus as the nubby living surface of the Nautilus Reef rippled along the objects, as the displayed treasures in their cases sank back into the ocean from which they were recovered.

 

Later, we lay back on a big cushion in Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs, and watched a loop of images of vaulted brick ceilings from the Seljuk Turks, some squared, some star-shaped, some fractal, some damaged and repaired, some open to the sky.

 

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