Every day this month, for three minutes before midnight, some of the giant electronic billboards in Times Square flicker violently in rectangular sequences of black and white. This is not a glitch. It’s test pattern [times square], an electronic piece by Paris-based Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, reworked for 47 screens across five blocks of one of the most iconic and irritating places in the world.
Ikeda is best known for his work with sound art and minimal, overwhelming, synched audio-visual experiences that source raw data and push the boundaries of human perception. It’s among the more abstract picks for “Midnight Moment,” a monthly outdoor digital pop-up by the Times Square Advertising Coalition (TSAC) and Times Square Arts. Past installments featured moving images by political artists, avant-garde pop stars, YBAs, experimental theater directors, and trendy photographers. This is the first time that the program featured a sound artist and included sound–albeit only for one night on October 16th, with the help of 400 rented headphones. The rest of the month, the piece is presented in silence.
I showed up around 11:30 and spent most of the time shuffling inside a roped off pen at Duffy Square, rebuffing passersby who wanted to know if they could get some “free headphones” too. It was a very different experience than the version of the piece at the Park Avenue Armory in 2011. There, inside a massive cavern of a building where the the flickering bars rose up the giant screen splitting the hall in half, I was submerged in darkness, washed in pulses of light and their ticking, clicking, beeping noisetrack. In Times Square, the immersion element isn’t just lost; it’s an intense opposite: Stuffed in loud and crowded cracks between buildings perpetually searing with ads that for some reason continue to enchant generations of tourists.
It began and ended quickly. The headphones clicked on at 11:57. The few Clear Channel billboards that allow this takeover started blinking and shuddering and the track pulsed. People looked up, gleaming, gawking, furrowing their brows, smiling.
The piece felt scaled down in scope, then artificially blown up and stretched to cover ground. It’s a small resized part of a great audio-visual project, surprising when packed into the pomp and business of a public attraction. It was successfully site-specific in context. The piece, after all, is about a particular sort of data. It references barcodes, instant processing of information usually related to commerce and money–quite appropriate for this storied mall “at the crossroads of the world.”
In the press release, Ryoji Ikeda said: “00110110 01100001 01100011 01100011 01100100 01100001 01100101 00110001 00110011 01100101 01100110 01100110 00110111 01101001 00110011 01101100 00111001 01101110 00110100 01101111 00110100 01110001 01110010 01110010 00110100 01110011 00111000 01110100 00110001 00110010 01110110 01111000.”
It wasn’t some grand subversion of the advertising industry, as they are willing participants, but there was something softly ironic about it. By the character and intensity of its abstractions alone, it’s the most uncharacteristic takeover for the space. It’s funny that without the sound, without warnings, test pattern [times square] can be mistaken for a few mystically, meaningfully broken displays. It takes a little effort to feel here, but it is very Ikeda, an incarnation of that raw data that already flows through everything, flowing above and over it all.