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INTERVIEW WITH LISE CARRIGG
THE SUBWAY DIARIES
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Lise Carrigg in May, 1997.
What prompted you to make this piece?
I think I've always had a pretty interesting relationship with the subway system. I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, and we had nothing like it. In fact, when I was little, a couple of times my dad took myself and my brother into Boston, just to ride the subways, and we thought that was so fun. That was a big event and we would just ride around for a couple of hours. And then go out to dinner and go home. So, when I moved to New York and looked at the subway map, I thought, If I could master this, I will really feel at home here. And it really became a symbol of the city for me. And so, I did. Whenever I was waiting for a train, I would stare at the subway map and try to memorize things and to this day, I'm the person who all my friends call when they need to know how to get from somewhere in Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. People at work ask me, "Does the express train stop at Canal Street?"
So, when I was taking this class at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, it was a class called "The Self And The Other," and the idea was to make a personal digital project, which people seemed to rarely do. And I decided to make a project about my relationship with the subway.
Right. When I was at ITP, you get really overwhelmed when you're there. Especially for someone like myself who didn't have, really, much of a computer background. There are so many different directions you can go in and a lot of people really, when they think of computers, think about spinning things, and virtual worlds and things like this. I realized, after a little while, that that just wasn't my thing. I was more interested in the opposite end of the spectrum, which is making something on the computer that is both personal and doesn't necessarily look like it was made on the computer in some way. And so, with a lot of my graphics, I try to make them look like they were cut out of construction paper. I was really influenced by a designer, Saul Bass, who designed a lot of movie posters and corporate logos and just a pretty amazing designer. He did a lot of movie titles, too, for Hitchcock and for Martin Scorsese. And I had always loved his work, so some of it was a little bit of an homage to Saul Bass.
The amazing thing about the project, to me, is that I couldn't have done it except on a computer. This class was really about creating a personal work on the computer. Many people were doubtful and felt like it really couldn't be done, and you couldn't make something that had real emotion or soul on a computer. And I felt like I really succeeded in that. When I was finished, I felt like what I had made really did represent my feelings on the topic.
I took a lot of video on subway cars and when I digitized the video onto my computer, as always happens, I lost a lot of frames. I had drop frames and normally, when people digitize video, they're really disappointed with the results because the quality just can't be the same. The computer just can't handle every single frame, but, in terms of my project, when I digitized the video, I thought that it added this amazing, surreal quality to it, and I loved the dropped frames. I really loved the way it looked on the computer. It represented more of the way that I feel when I ride the trains, because for me, it is a surreal experience. I do have a lot of different emotions on the train and sometimes think that the things I'm seeing are really beautiful, and sometimes really scary, and sometimes I get really claustrophobic. I was able to convey these things because, like you said, I had available to me text, sound, video, graphics, which I wouldn't have had if I had just shot a video or just written a story or something like that.
Right. Well, I'm -- the truth be told -- a pretty claustrophobic individual. And so the fact that I have ended up living in New York City for the past six years . . . sometimes people say to me, "Well, how can you even stand to be here?" And, depending on my mood, some days I think, "Yeah, I really have to get out of here." And, some days I think, "You know, this is amazing. If I can live here then I can do anything." And that's much more of a happy, powerful feeling. And it relates very much to my subway riding in that I'm quite certain I'm not your average subway rider at all. I notice everything immediately. When I get on the train, I notice how many people are on the car. I always know which car on the train I'm on. If I'm at the front or the back. I have become observant to the point where I know that my train, that I ride every day, I know certain places where it almost always slows down and stops. And I've talked to lots and lots of subway car drivers and conductors and I'm really fascinated by the thought that so many people work underground all day, for eight hours at a stretch. I'm just truly fascinated by the subway system in general. I think that it's a thing that a lot of people don't think about, but again, maybe, because I grew up in such a rural area, I just think about how much is going on in New York in general and then how much is going on down there, too. And I know places where there are abandoned stations that you drive through on the 1 and 9 train. And my friends make fun of me and that's fine with me. I know it's an interesting preoccupation.
I put things in the order that I did because I ultimately wanted to make an uplifting piece and I wanted to end on a high note. Although I do sometimes see riding the subways as a kind of scary experience, ultimately I think it's pretty amazing and it's a really neat experience, like you said in my "Lala" section. You know, when you do go over the Manhattan Bridge at sunset and get to see the city and you're above ground -- which is really rare -- you just get a sense of where you are physically, which, a lot of times, you don't have in New York.
Yeah. I had a lot to choose from, but I wanted to pick a day when I saw something beautiful, and I wanted to pick a day when I was really pretty scared. And then, I wanted to end on a note of euphoria and: Isn't this really kind of fun, in a weird way, and: I really wouldn't mind just sitting on the train and reading and listening to music until the end of the line.
For a little while, I did, yeah.
. . . And my moods, and whether or not I had a good ride or a bad ride might affect my mood for the rest of the day. I actually really did go through a period where my claustrophobia got pretty bad, and it was at the same time that I was making this project. I kind of laughed to myself, "Oh, my project is making me worse, because it was forcing me to be aware of my feelings at all times." If I was getting a little claustrophobic, I would immediately think, "Oh, now I'm claustrophobic." And I'd be writing it down and writing about it and, kind of making it a lot worse. So, for a while, I thought, I don't know if I'm going to be able to finish this project because it's making me too aware of some of these bad feelings that I'm having.
During the time that I was making this project and when I was videotaping, I would get out of the train and take another train -- all the time. And I would take really illogical routes, but it was fun because I considered it research, and I rode a lot of trains that I really had never been on before. You know, trains that just kind of go from Brooklyn to Queens, and trains that are mostly in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. I really investigated the difference between the 4/5/6 train line and then a train line like the J/M/Z line, which has a completely different feel to it on the train and in the stations. You know, each line really does have its own personality. But I did get off many, many trains and wait for the next one. And that was fine because that was what I was doing in my project.
Right. Well, I'm still claustrophobic, but the project helped me in that it made me really happy that I was actually able to convey the feelings that I wanted to convey. It made me feel like, Wow, this is a beautiful moment here and this is a scary moment here. So it did help in that way.
No, I was pretty good at hiding the video camera. I also went during the day on trains where there weren't many people. I always sat in the first car. I was a little worried about taking a video camera on the train in the first place, but I asked the MTA if it was okay and they said, as long as you don't stand in a station, and lean out over the platform when a train is coming in, it's fine.
Yeah. I thought so too. But I was actually surprised. I thought that it might be illegal to tape on trains, which is why I asked, and they said that it wasn't.
That's great. That what my teacher said too, who lives in the Bronx and was coming down to NYU every day. He said the same thing. He said, you know, when I ride the subway now, I spend time looking around and trying to think about all the things that you think about, and it's been really interesting. That's definitely a good thing for me to hear.
I would just really like to stress that this class that I took, again, at NYU, taught by Fred Ritchin was really an amazing class. It's called "The Self And The Other," and I think that one of the most interesting ideas to me is this idea that people don't necessarily make really personal projects on the computer. It seems to a lot of people to be a strange thing to do. People make projects for the computer that are about historical events, or the encyclopedia of music, or about dinosaurs, or about something like that, but people very rarely make pieces about something that happened to them, or maybe a loss that they had in their lives. And I think that that's unfortunate because my experience was that it was an amazing tool to convey what I wanted to convey. The rest of the people in my class also did some amazing projects. I think that, as a class, we definitely showed that it is possible once you get over that hurdle of putting something of yourself into this machine. When people are making a painting or sculpting or doing a more hands-on type thing, I think they really feel that it's easier to convey emotion. So that was to me the biggest success of the piece and of the class.
It's called GIRLS ON FILM, and it's a movie review, media criticism and pop culture commentary Web site: http://www.girlsonfilm.com. My E-mail is email@example.com.
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