Q&A with Bill Brand, Creator of Masstrasiscope

Bill Brand fiddles with a model of Masstransiscope in his studio, 1980 (Left). Bill poses in his studio, 2011 (Right).

Bill Brand’s iconic subway tunnel “zoetrope” has been wowing riders for over 30 years. His clever exploitation of the subway’s architecture has been an inspiration for advertisers and other artists all over the world.

Treasures of New York: Art Underground, hosted by Paula Zahn, premieres tonight, June 27 at 7 p.m. on WLIW21 and Thursday, July 5 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

When and where did you first see an advertisement or artwork that seemed to be inspired by Masstransiscope? What was your reaction to it?

There was interest in commercializing the idea from the beginning in 1980 but I guess it didn’t become cost effective until recently. I haven’t actually seen any of the displays. Joshua Spodek, who started Submedia, contacted me early in his process and he has been very generous in crediting Masstransiscope as a precedent.

Bill films Masstransiscope, November 26th, 2008.

Has anyone ever approached you to do another Masstransiscope-like work? Would you consider it?

I’ve never had the chance to do another but I would certainly be interested if I were asked. Of course, I wouldn’t want to do it exactly the same way again. A lot has changed in 32 years!

You are also a film preservationist. What got you interested in film preservation and how does it relate to Masstransiscope?

My films in the 1970’s and ‘80’s extensively used the optical printer – a device for special effects – and I acquired a reputation as someone who could copy home movies and archival footage. Eventually this led me into the world of film archiving and preservation. In 2004 I gave a talk at the annual conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists where I mentioned Masstransiscope as a “film” in need of restoration, and this opened the door to actually restoring it.

HD animation of Masstransiscope.

In the trailer for the blockbuster documentary The Art of Rap which premiered in theaters last week, there is a short clip of Masstransiscope in a New York City montage. Why do you think your installation might have made it in the trailer much less the film?

While Masstransiscope is not graffiti, I think it has long been adopted by young people – and no longer so young people – as a secret cousin.

Artist, Tom Otterness, told Treasures of New York that sometimes when he’s depressed he visits his subway installation on 14th Street because seeing people react to his work can cheer him up. Do you by any chance have a similar relationship to Masstransiscope? Do you at least like to see it every once in a while?

I am always happy when I see it. It looks and feels very different live from the train than it does from a video. Sometimes, I’m the only one on the train who notices it. At other times, it gets a big reaction and that feels good! When I was restoring it in 2008, I wondered how it would be understood now that moving image billboards have saturated the city’s public space. I was gratified to discover that it still works like a secret artwork and that no one mistakes it for advertising.