A new kind of documentary puts hard-to-pin down New Yorkers front and center, and you are welcome to become part of the mosaic portrait. A free interactive experience in the center of Manhattan invites visitors to join The Living Portrait of NYC, which uses audio recordings, film footage, open source data, live performance and a survey to show and ask, How are New Yorkers living their lives? The free experience is open now through September 27.
The question is timely as we come out of an unprecedented pandemic period of disruption, isolation, racial reckoning, economic upheaval and transformation. What happened? Who remains? What stories do we tell about ourselves and New York City? This documentary installation highlights the resiliency New Yorkers take pride in, even finding a way to include the infamous subway pizza rat. There are many surprises and delights here, selected from open source data and the input of New Yorkers from as recently as August. Your participation in this documentary experience can be passive: the dimly lit installation rooms grant visitors a sense of anonymity while viewing digital screens and even live performance.
The Living Portrait of NYC is an initiative of Citizens Financial Group, which commissioned RadicalMedia to create the experience. An award-winning documentary multimedia company, RadicalMedia’s many acclaimed productions include the Academy Award-winning documentary, Summer of Soul, directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. This project echoes its interactive series for PBS, American Portrait, which marked public television’s 50th anniversary during the pandemic and used crowdsourced storytelling to answer, “What does it really mean to be an American today?”
What’s the Living Portrait of NYC Like?
The Living Portrait of NYC is a free, documentary experience that shows how New Yorkers are living and feeling now. This is not a selfie-driven, Instagram feed provider, but it does have a hashtag (#LivingPortraitNYC) and concludes with photo booths, including an ADA-accessible one. Whether you are a NYC visitor or just visiting, the experience is about you and the 8.8 million people surrounding you. It’s suggested to allow 15 to 30 minutes to experience the installation. The presentation is high-tech and slick, but the snippets of real New York voices and performers, plus nearly real-time feedback, provides some hometown warmth.
The short entranceway is reminder of how New York City can feel like 8-million-plus stories that flash by before you can bookmark any. Real newspaper headlines scroll the walls and ceiling, calling out quirkier New York City events in a neon glow and news-ticker style typical of Times Square; some are also translated into Mandarin and Spanish.
Data Tells a Story
Room 1 displays data and infographics on how we work, play and think. If you take an anonymous survey on a touchscreen panel, you can receive instant feedback on how your personal outlook compares to other attendees of The Living Portrait of NYC. The statistics and percentages chosen are presented in a fun, binge-worthy way, and every source is available to factcheck via a QR code onsite.
Eavesdropping and Performance
Room 2 begins as a sort of sci-fi eavesdropping experience. Stark beams of light emanating from the ceiling delineate 15 spots on which to stand. It’s like a fantasy for anyone who has wanted to use Star Trek’s transporter. The light beams themselves as well as visitors bathed by them looks stunning, but the experience is meant to be auditory. Once under a light, you can listen to a recording of three to four New Yorkers telling you how it is. The interviews are very recent: between May and August 2022, journalists met people in parks, museums, coffee shops, transit stations, and at public events to interview them about topics ranging from career, love, and success to loss and commute struggles.
Stay in Room 2 until lighting effects cue you to move to the front of the room, where a short, live performance takes place two times per hour. The spoken word artists, dancers, and musicians are drawn from the five New York City boroughs. They range from street performers to headliners of The Nuyorican Poets Cafe (La Bruja) and Broadway (members of Freestyle Love Supreme). See the list of performers.
Images from bodega cats to the subway’s morning, noon, and night rush hours are part of the video collage on four walls that captures 24 hours in New York City.
The last room has three photo booths, which also ask you to answer questions about yourself (they vary). You can opt to download your portrait, which will includes short statements based on your responses. Across the room, you’ll see large projected portraits of other attendees.
The Living Portrait of NYC Details
WHEN: Now through Tuesday, September 27, 2022; Hours: 12-8 p.m. Last entry: 7:45 p.m.
WHERE: 29 West 23rd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues), New York, NY 10010
This installation is free, with advance reservations required for a timed ticket. The maximum capacity at any given time is 200. Visit livingportrait.nyc to make a reservation and learn more. It’s a pleasant area of the city to wait before or after your entrance: Madison Square Park is a block away to the east.
The Living Portrait of NYC is a project of Citizen Financial Group, which since entering the NYC market in 2022 has been meeting with and supporting community groups at the local level in all boroughs, including in Manhattan’s Chinatown, The Bronx, with the Ukrainian community in the East Village, with workforce development groups in Queens, and more.
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