RIDERS on the TRAIN Curator’s Statement

RIDERS on the TRAIN Curator’sStatement: Nance Davies Boston, MA November 2009

‘One always catches the world’s train on the move’ (1) Louis Althusser

Seven am. The empty subway station slowly fills with figures – balancing hot coffee with swinging bags. Newspapers emerge from folded arms, and cell phones open to the constant conversation. A voice rips through the silence ‘Attention passengers – the next train is now approaching’. The doors hiss open, swallow the swarming bodies, and close again as the train tunnels into a dark subterranean space. Inside, eyes are averted as bodies shuffle to find their equidistance between each other.

A cacophony of sounds envelope the riders – the groaning and clunking of wheels on tracks, the screeching brakes, the hissing doors, the intrusion of official announcements, the crying babies, and the mindless babbling of cell-phone users. This is the soundtrack of the ride.

An unwitting community is unveiled here. A community of mass transit riders who learn to navigate the tricky boundaries between private and public space by retreating into their inner worlds. Artists and writers within this group often function, simultaneously, as listeners, audience, and participants in their own narratives. All capacities are collapsed into one in the layered time and space of the subway ride.

In this pervasive sensorium, these artist/riders coax the poetics from the personal. They sketch, examine, record, collaborate, and – some of them – interact with fellow riders. They delve into new technologies of mobile communication mingling high and low technology. In this respect, they “sample” their ride while generating an aggregate experience of mass transit. Exploring a diversity of lenses and media, they forge new neural pathways through video, sound art, photography, web-based interactivity, performance, installation, and writing.

While the contributors to the exhibition ‘Riders on the Train’ attempt to immerse the audience into the ersatz mobile community they participate in, they also present a unique opportunity to elevate the mundane daily routine of riding the train with their rich and intimate inner lives that thrive, although silently, during the ride. These commuter-artists have taken what was once a repressed necessity of their daily lives (a means to travel physically from one place to another) and reframed their experiences by making art, sound, and poetry. Within the context of this show, every mile of motion that might be discounted in the necessary of the journey becomes the life of the journey itself.

The ‘Riders on the Train’ Exhibition seeks to frame this temporary time and space of locomotion as a fluid and generative place for imagination. Artists and writers, who ride mass transit, explore these experiences – and the result is an exquisite coalescence of alternative neural pathways laid paralleling a collectively well-worn track. A shared system emerges from this synaptic dance of trains, bodies, and imagination.



From the moment they enter the station and throughout the trip, riders are scanned, recorded, instructed, transported, and relocated by a tightly organized, impersonal, faceless system. Caras and Escalara, two video projects by Manuel Vazquez, reveal choreographed crowds of people moving slowly through the dark, ambiguous subway stations in Madrid. This operatic, dramatic choreography – balanced with surveillance and a voyeuristic quality – gives the work its tension. Vazquez investigates this ubiquitous surveillance and the paradox of the public space as commuters experience loneliness and similarity, anonymity and scrutiny. This work alters space and collapses time.

Tracking, a collaborative video-sound installation by DM (Denise Marika and Dana Moser), was shot and recorded on subway trains in Berlin and Boston during the summer of 2009. This multi-media piece explores the “politics of people moving through space, a human traffic pushing through the emergent apparatus of location, observation and control….reflects on the condition at the borders separating people from places and events, the threshold where layers of impediments and barriers multiply”.

Jeff Morris transforms the contradictory experiences of mass transit – through a counterpoint of sound and video in Harmonies (They Spin). The title is an anagram of “Riemann Hypothesis,” one of seven mathematical mysteries that are part of the Millennium Problem challenge (offering a $1 million prize for each solution). It suggests that there is an underlying order to the distribution of prime numbers, which otherwise seems to be unpredictable. Morris suggests we surrender to this form of high control – the seemingly ungraspable condition – through an act of faith. His work, sourced from trams in G√∂teborg, Sweden, presents pairs of opposites – noisy versus pitched timbres, regular pulses versus freely sweeping gestures – the harmonious and the dissonant.


How does the collective condition of mass transit affect how we move together? Large groups of people, moving through social space, demonstrate what has been defined as ‘Swarm Intelligence’ or ‘Flocking Behavior’(Notes 2) Transit riders navigate and negotiate a shared physical, mental, and emotional space through carefully coded interactions. Cell phone Photographers (see names in Notes 3) in this exhibition ‘shoot their ride’ – as they stream along with the masses of commuters – watching for the idiosyncratic, the spontaneous, and the serendipitous. These artists record the narratives of their commutes with a matter-of-factness, as if making notes or quick sketches – diary entries of their day. Just as quickly as they are shot, the images are sent off to networks of friends similarly engaged. In this way, the cell-photo immediacy serves the escalating desire to connect in an increasingly isolated world. Cell-Photos exist as DIY ephemera – tokens of a life lived on the run often instantly dispersed and shared. This may be a way to take control of the ubiquitous bombardment of visual information – to ‘talk or shoot back’ through framing, capturing and releasing.

Alexia Mellor & Sarah Banasiak’s Esbee Enterprises & Mellor Management, The T Project was performed with the intent of highlighting the interface between technology and communication – using nostalgic, out-dated technology -and to engage with fellow commuters. Referencing the history of performance art and ‘Fluxus’ tactics in particular, Mellor and Banasiak posed as business women who worked their nine to five day performing a commute, riding as many lines of the subway as possible. Bringing along trusted “laptops” (typewriters), “instant messages” were sent to and from each performer (using screen names and IM lingo), which were relayed by fellow passengers passing the folded messages down to the other person typing. Where technology has endeavored to unite people through efficiency, interaction was invited through the use of a nostalgic, out-dated technology.

MTA Improvements: #11 – In another nod to ‘Fluxus’ interventions, an action by the performance duo Harvey Loves Harvey situated the pair outside a NYC subway, handing out flyers to commuters, for a proposal made at the turn of the last century for a ‘fictional gondola cable car to run above 14th Street. As part of their 14 Actions for 14th Street (in ‘Art in Odd Places’, NYC 2009) this project offered a vision of New York as it might have been, had different decisions been made in the past, and encourages a delight in seeing the everyday in a new and unexpected way.

Marc McNulty records, mixes and ‘performs’ the train live in the gallery – which is situated inside a train station. The passing trains underneath rumble and vibrate the space as we listen – creating a conflation of past and present ‘sound-time’ zugzeit is a thirty-minute trip that transposes the aural and transports the listener. Sound artist Scott Hall’s London Underground and video-sound artist Henry Gwiazda’s Butterfinger both offer short field recordings of subway sound ambience by way of passing trains and commuter conversation.


You are presented with a few minutes to do nothing. You could read. Or, as a number of riders find themselves doing, you could spin fictional narratives through a layering of space and time – weaving together the ‘somewhere’ with the ‘everywhere’ through parallel protagonists and hybrid identities.

Zehra Khan draws rats in relationship –interacting, clustering, traveling, carousing, and killing time. These little creatures ‘infest’ the installation space as they appear and disappear scurrying desperately across the gallery surfaces. Drawn from sketches made while riding the train, Khan acknowledges the shared natural histories of humans and rats as she spins a fiction of this parallel relationship where humans and rats swarm, compete, and survive in these endless cycles (4).

Cyber-poet Jason Nelson invents a surreal world in his interactive web-piece, traincreature where a tunneling train, people, and text provoke, prompt, and propel each other as they disrupt and dissect an urban landscape. Viewers are drawn into the drama as they nudge the train creature to reveal hidden passages to unfolding video snippets.

Endosymbiont (within together) (5) a complex interactive being – lived in the Axiom Center and in the trains passing underneath the space during June and July, 2007. This complex symbiont – a metaphorical biological cell – fed off the sounds, vibrations, and electromagnetic fields of passing MBTA Orange Line and Commuter Rail trains as they passed through Green Street Station. Human interaction reshaped conditions within the cell, affecting the cell’s functions, and draining the cell’s energy, through the use of motion detectors, light and pressure sensors, cameras, video projections, lighting, sound, fans, motors, and other electronic instruments.

In TRAiNSposition, a video-sound piece by Nance Davies, a subway train and rider are transposed and fused into a nested neural pathway – firing sensory signals and intermittent synaptic spasms. The rider is, at once, both transported and transporting. The sound track is composed of various train sounds – recorded, altered, transposed and mixed.

Sherry Karver photographs transit riders and invents stories about the characters she captures – their fears, secrets, desires, and unrealized paths in life. These short, third person musings are then embedded in the skin of the photomontages.


For some ‘riders’, a non-linear narrative of transit life is absorbed and recorded through the sensing body.

Sounding Underground, an interactive web piece by Ximena Alarcon, explores connections between urban life and the ‘intangible presence of the sublime’ throughout the subways of London, Paris, and Mexico City. Her project examines these underground transport systems that determine paths for, and are the catalysts of, real and symbolic migrations; the infrastructure involves us, changing both our perception of space, time, and collective memory by listening while traveling.

Metaphoric objects, text, and voice melt together in Sarah Rushford’s contemplative video-poem Seen and Unseen. Images of commuters and trains pass through glass bricks – fluid and ambiguous – and speak of the ‘beauty of circumstance and the strangeness of incident’. In Seen and Unseen there is a higher power at work, not through a god, but through humanity and working of the world itself.

Music for Circumstances: MBTA Orange Line: Forest Hills to Oak Grove, an immersive sound piece by Ben Chaffee, layers sound and time. Riders experience the work while riding the MBTA Orange Line in Boston listening [via mp3 player] to both a layered, mixed recording of the ambient frequencies of the train, previously sampled and – simultaneously – the current ambient sounds of the train – which complete the mix.

Marianne Fourie shoots the subterranean train. Her digital camera frames light sources in motion and extrapolates information resulting in what she refers to as ‘misreadings’. She likens this process to the human process of trying to understand the world while in a state of constant flux. Her photomontages others and returning allow a prolonged view of a reality that is transient and intangible. With similar intentions, Lia Chavez’s Going Places, shot while riding the fast train from Geneva to Lusanne, Switzerland, immerses the viewer in the phenomenological experience of the ride and the bombardment and blurring of visual information passed through to quickly to apprehend.

Erik Conrad’s performing object ‘kinaesthetic double-double’ captures the embodied experience of riding the train. Conrad recorded the forces exerted on his body during a specific subway journey (from Porter Square to South Station in Boston) by logging data with an accelerometer. These movements are ‘played back’ by a motor mounted inside a Styrofoam coffee cup – causing it to wobble to and fro in a corner of the gallery – grinding urgently – as if it were reliving the journey.

Jesse Malmed shot more than twelve hundred images from the window of a bus while living in India to create IN3DIA // MEMO-DROMA. He describes his process as ‘an exercise in the emergent field of memo-dromalogy. Images are ‘melded and morphed with one eye perceiving progressive acceleration; the other eye perceives a distancing, concretizing return to recognizability’.

Pulling Forward is the result of Stephen Cady’s evening commute home while a grad student in Chicago. He recorded the receding imagery of successive train platforms as his train traveled through the dark landscape. Interested in shared perception, he invited public response to the video footage to amplify the meaning through collective vision. He gathered the words and imported them into a simple software that output random sequences.

Francois Xavier de Costerd imagines a high-speed train ride through the French countryside as a meditative journey in his video ‘Le Marche Terre – MarketPlace Earth’ – a metaphor for our own psychic flows. Traveling at such speeds we are zoomed into the future resulting in, as Jean Baudrillard warned, an inability to understand our current reality.

Colleen Alborough and Joao Orecchia’s video-sound-poem Between, fast and disorienting, explores how the daily movement through Johannesburg’s city space infiltrates the interior world. Ethan Ham’s Infinite Subway is – just that. 2 seconds of looping animation that drives home the experience of an endless repetition of a closed system.


Some riders step off the typical commuting treadmill and examine the spaces in between. Nita Sturiale’s Stations of a Commute is a series of 14 audio tracks designed to be listened to during an urban commute away from our life’s work and our families. This time of separation often produces guilt related to our need for ‘reciprocal altruism’. We are offered a ‘meditation’ break from the noise and chaos of city life and, by naming this condition, we may alleviate the pain and guilt.

Henry Gwizda explores ‘the poetry of the everyday in his video – sound
animation 4 x’s Around. As passengers on this cycling trip, we return again and again across the same terrain. We are invited to look again for what we may have missed – to look beyond the obvious to the little spaces in between. Gwizda subverts the deadening banality of repetition to re-purpose the experience as one that becomes a meditation on the everyday lived material reality.

Andrew Sempere, on the other hand, skips the commute all together in his Working from Home, a short video documenting his dog’s eye view of daily movements throughout his house while the subway sounds background the space.


Transit riders who write also grapple with both the private and the public conditions of this social space. They absorb the ride and reveal their journeys through poetry and prose.

Jeremy Hight, a writer, poet, text artist, and inventor of ‘locative narrative’ in 2001, grew up near railroad tracks as a child and has commuted throughout his adult life in LA and San Francisco. In ‘Poem’ he frames the sole remnant of the long-gone passenger trains in southern California – the rusting rails still embedded in old city streets – as the ‘metal veins’ of the city.

In her poem Ruggles, Leora Fridman ‘de-familiarizes’ familiar words, exploring their potential to both enclose and enliven a space or an interaction. As she revisits the transit stations she has grown up with, she encounters repeated memories and built significances. She notes that these continue to be built upon with each successive encounter – addressing the same spaces with new words and situations.

Poet Gordon Fearey remembers his ride affording him the ability to concentrate and focus easily on whatever he was reading or writing with the end of the trip – often – a rude awakening. In his poem Tracks, a commuter’s passage through the train space echoes events in his life.

Poet Sarah Goodman describes her commutes as ‘the freedom to observe being carried all that way, with several hours for my mind to wander through familiar landscapes that nevertheless transform daily’.

Colette Schumate-Smith identifies with a monarch butterfly’s difficult struggle to navigate while Jonathan Powell regrets trading his city life for the lifeless predictability of his car-bound suburban route.

Kennedy Center Award-winning play-write Kamarie Chapman explores the loss of privacy, safety, and control through the encounters of five mass transit riders.
Her one-act play Scenes from a Bus is a strange hybrid of dysfunctional group therapy session and Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist play No Exit.

Ultimately, the intent of this project is to materialize an otherwise silent and invisible experience. The riders in this exhibition exist as a part of an atypical, temporary community shaped by social and personal circumstances and a convergence of structure, chance, and chaos. This project does not assume to create community – but rather to make visible, a kind of ‘already-existing- community’. Perhaps art that reflects and critiques the conditions of this mobile space will offer an emerging, collective definition of the mass transit experience – where the rider is – at once – transported and transporting.

As we jump on this moving train – we begin to see the metaphors emerge between this looping, linear system of controlled mobility and the patterns
developing in the way we map our lives. The fragmenting and isolating spaces of our mediated lives become ‘places’ we will map on our own terms as we pass through. Maybe a renewed social connectedness and empathy for one another will arise through this collective awareness and voicing.

‘RIDERS on the TRAIN’ is an [interdisciplinary] art exhibition exploring new relationships between artist, audience, site, and context. Drawn from an international call for submissions, these artists and writers explore ‘the private within the public’ experience of mass-transit in Sweden, Australia, South Africa, India, Switzerland, NYC, London, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, LA, DC, Portland, and Boston. Curator: Nance Davies


Denise Marika and Dana Moser, Henry Gwiazda, Sarah Rushford, Stephen Cady, Jesse Malmed, Nance Davies, Andrew Sempere, Francois de Costerd, Scott Hall, Marc McNulty, Dylan Mortimer, Zehra Khan, Ben Chaffee, Jason Nelson, Sherry Karver, Marianne Fourie, Lia Chavez, Yuri Stone, Helene Zuckerbrod, Marian Berelowitz, Lisa McCarty, Katherin McInnis, Jamie Waelchli, Guy Telemaque, Gary Duehr, Susan Bregman, Carolyn Lewenberg, Harvey Loves Harvey, Alexia Mellor and Sarah Banasiak

Jeremy Hight, Kamarie Chapman Leora Silverman Fridman, Sarah Goodman, Gordon Fearey, Colette A. Shumate-Smith, and Jonathan Powell.


1. Louis Althusser Ecrits philosophiquers et politiquers, Ed Stock, IMEC, 1995, p.557.
One might argue that this statement by French philosopher Louis Althusser is even more relevant today than ever before. In the speeding subway train, the uber control of mass transit authority, the crush of mobilized commuters traversing and cohabitating public space, the chaotic and random sequences of events, and the mediated ‘real’, we find multiple correlations with our hyper-accelerated and mediated lifestyles.

2. ‘Swarming’ is based on the study of collective behavior in systems that are not centrally organized such as those of ants, birds, fish, bacteria, and, more recently, human; interactions between agents have led to the emergence of global behavior resulting in collective methods of problem solving when certain conditions are present: multiple interactions, positive and negative feedback and amplification of fluctuations. ‘Flocking’ demonstrates emergent behavior governed by simple rules: separate [avoid crowding neighbors], align [steer towards average heading of neighbors], and cohere [steer towards the average position of neighbors].

3. Cellphone Photographers: Yuri Stone, Helene Zuckerbrod, Marian Berelowitz, Lisa McCarty, Jamie Waelchli, Guy Telemaque, Susan Bregman, Carolyn Lewenberg,

4. Hans Zissner ‘Rats, Lice, and History’ [1] …[T]he natural history of the rat is tragically similar to that of man … some of the more obvious qualities in which rats resemble men–ferocity, omnivorousness, and adaptability to all climates … the irresponsible fecundity with which both species breed at all seasons of the year with a heedlessness of consequences, which subjects them to wholesale disaster on the inevitable, occasional failure of the food supply…. [Gradually, these two have spread across the earth, keeping pace with each other and unable to destroy each other, though continually hostile. They have wandered from East to West, driven by their physical needs, and–unlike any other species of living things- -have made war upon their own kind.

5. ‘Endosymbiont’ artists: Jerel Dye, Jake Lee-High, Sean O’Brien & Fred Wolflink; Curator: Dana Moser


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