Sounds from Old New York

In the seventy years since it last served as a major terminal for Brooklyn-bound ferries, the Battery Maritime Building has existed in relative disuse, accumulating signs of rust and decay common to the structures and sites of older eras of New York City. But with Playing the Building, a Creative Time-sponsored installation by David Byrne that opened this past weekend in the Great Hall, the building once again comes alive in clamorous sonority, producing a rendition of its own material history played upon its very body. Developing upon a project proposal for Färgfabriken, in Stockholm, Byrne has retrofitted a vintage Weaver pump organ with a bundle of relays and wires, which rise from its backside and spread, like a snaky canopy, over the 9,000 square-foot room. Each note of the organ triggers a particular event and sound in the space: lower keys power motors that vibrate the hall's girders, causing muffled rumbles; middle tones generate flute-like sounds from heating pipes; and higher notes cause spring-loaded solenoids to bang and clang on columns and radiators. The installation thus produces a strangely phenomenal field, all the more surprising given the absence of microphones, amplification and electronics in supplementing the building's performance. Even more importantly, it activates the audience by allowing members to take turns playing the organ. As Byrne remarked, in an interview with Playing the Building curator Anne Pasternak, "It became a kind of social apparatus as well as being an installation. It became a shared communal experience." -- Tyler Coburn

Image: David Byrne, Playing the Building, 2008

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