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A huge public art project is transforming the wintry night of midtown Manhattan. Projected onto the walls of buildings, giant moving images of five New York City night workers carrying out their nocturnal journeys, waking up, getting dressed, going to work, until they merge with the city in a moment of unexpected ecstasy. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Before the moment when Doug Aitken's public art project, "Sleepwalkers," was unveiled this week in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg called it.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): Fun, fascinating, and best of all, it is free of charge, whether you're asleep or not.

ADLER: But when he gave the signal to turn on the switch, everything became quiet. Slowly, as you stood in the darkness, your eyes could track five characters, three at a time, on three different screens, a bike messenger, an electrician, a postal worker, a businessman, an office work - all of them played by well known actors, including Donald Sutherland as the businessman, Tilda Swinton as the office worker, and Seu Jorge as the electrician. The complex project is produced jointly by the Museum of Modern Art and Creative Time, an organization devoted to art in public spaces. And as you watch, you see both private moments and odd intersections. Anne Pasternak is the president and artistic director of Creative Time.

Ms. ANNE PASTERNAK (President, Creative Time): You see them waking up. They take a shower. They have their coffee. So all of the sudden you might see all these different coffee cups for each of the different characters. And so there are a lot of similarities and tendencies throughout all of the five narratives.

ADLER: Doug Aitken, whose work has included documentary video and film, says the project began as he was walking around New York City alone.

Mr. DOUG AITKEN (Artist): It's like very lonely (unintelligible) and kind of, you know, looking at the buildings, looking at this very vertical city, you know. And it's an incredibly foreign place when the buildings have shut down and the offices have closed, and I just started to look at the skyscrapers and to imagine them communicating with each other and a kind of dialogue taking place.

ADLER: "Sleepwalkers" was shot in all five boroughs. Peter Eleey is the curator for Creative Time.

Mr. PETER ELEEY (Curator, Creative Time): The best part about this in some ways is that it's a silent film and the soundtrack really is just the sound of the city around us that we hear every day. The piece ends up, in that way, harkening back to some of the early films of the 20th century that dealt with the city as a kind of symphony, as a collection of rhythms and movements.

ADLER: So even though the characters are never on the same screen at the same time, small actions connect them, the movement of an arm, the picking up of a glass of juice, a similar hallway. Aitken says the city is like chaos theory.

Mr. AITKEN: It's a kind of river of individuals and at times the currents connect and other times they kind of separate again.

ADLER: Toward the end of each 13-minute cycle, each character goes through a transformation. They enter an ecstatic dream state quite remote from their mundane work - spinning, dancing on the top of a cab, twirling a lariat, playing a violin, almost melting into the city rhythms. Anastasia Frank(ph), a passerby, says she just spent a frustrating day at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the characters in the film remind her of the bored workers at the DMV.

Ms. ANASTASIA FRANK: I love that he transformed that whole boredom into this artistic dance of potential, like the future violinist or the whirling dancer, making the mundane somewhat beautiful. It makes me feel better about my day.

ADLER: Another viewer, Lizette(ph), stands on the street across from the museum as cars stream by. The same five narratives are projected sequentially on one building wall. Donald Sutherland tap dances on a taxi roof. She notes the connection between art and the city.

LIZETTE (Viewer): And the shot up of him standing on the hood of the cab while the cabs here are driving by; that was really like, it was just great cinematography and it was like a great powerful shot.

ADLER: Anne Pasternak of Creative Times says public art has the power to encourage us to think about our surroundings and to rediscover our sense of place. And since you can't really see the total exhibit from one place, Doug Aitken is hoping that, for the next three weeks, people will walk around, becoming the co-editors of his visually arresting images. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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