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Times Square is perhaps the world’s most famous intersection, the zenith of commercialism defined by flashing billboards (advertising everything from the latest Netflix original to Kardashian-endorsed jeans), pulsing music, the signature red steps, big-brand stores squashed between those flouting kitschy souvenir shops, and an eclectic mix of Elmos, Incredible Hulks and Princess Elsas eager to draw tourists in to pose with them for a (generously tipped) photograph. But what you might not expect is that Times Square is also a hidden home to avant-garde art.
Max Neuhaus’s modestly titled Times Square is a sound installation located beneath a grate on a pedestrian island at Broadway under 45th and 46th streets.
Often nicknamed “The Hum,” Times Square is a never-ending loop of droning, out-of-this-world noises. Imagine a didgeridoo or the lonely whistle inside a subway station combined with the rattling of machinery, and you’ll be in the right ballpark. Tourists can only stumble upon the piece if they listen carefully enough to distinguish the white noise of the subway rumbles, taxi horns, and shrieks of delight that define Times Square.
This unique facet to the iconic crossroads was installed in 1977 where it remained until 1992. It was later reinstated in 2002 through a collaborative project between the Dia Art Foundation, Times Square Street Business Improvement District (BID), Christine Burgin, and MTA Arts for Transit. The sound piece was installed, and remains, without any signage as Neuhaus wanted visitors to “take possession of it as their own discovery” which could not happen if it was clearly labelled as the well-known artist’s creation. Hence, Times Square can be seen not only as a piece of modern art but as a social experiment. Would anyone notice this unusual din, which would be striking almost anywhere else, in a hub of commercialism, entertainment and tourism in a city filled with notoriously busy people?
For fans of Neuhaus, who was born in Texas in 1939 and died in Italy in 2009, this installation won’t come as a surprise. The artist had a rich history with music, having toured American and Europe in the early ’60s as a percussion soloist. He even invented several early electro-acoustic instruments before creating multiple, anonymous sound projects. Neuhaus dotted his sound pieces around New York City in places like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), Jay Street subway station, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Clocktower. More of his creations appeared overseas in countries such as Austria, Italy, France, and Germany. In all locations, Neuhaus hoped his work, which focuses on the sense of sound, would add a new dimension to a visitor’s experience and help define the space in a different way.
And so Times Square lies, ready and waiting for those who are willing to discover it. It sits in plain sight – or rather, plain sound – under an almost unavoidable section of pathway, yet only a tiny portion of people each day will notice it. For those who do, it’s a personal revelation that will add a unique flavor to their time in New York. Will you be one of them?