On a sweltering July afternoon, I stumbled out of the 49th Street subway station and into the sun-baked cacophony of Times Square. Tourists, moving in impressive flows from all directions, broke every unspoken rule of sidewalk navigation observed by New Yorkers. I cursed myself as I realized I’d forgotten sunglasses, squinting while trying to make order from the chaos of jumbotron digital ads and bootleg Minions posing for pictures with backpack-wearing families. Someone trying to coerce tourists into buying tickets for a show that evening approached me and asked if I liked comedy. I lied and said no.
Surveying the spectacular bedlam around me, I spotted my mark: a large carcass of a wooden ship beached at the southern part of the square near 46th and Broadway, the ribs of its armature jutting skyward. A public sculpture by Mel Chin, Wake (2018) belongs to an expansive constellation of his works spreading from the Queens Museum to the Broadway-Lafayette subway station (and encompassing a collaborative online sound piece). This ambitious presentation, titled “Mel Chin: All Over the Place,” is produced by the Queens Museum in cooperation with the curatorial nonprofit No Longer Empty. Times Square Alliance commissioned the shipwreck installation, which also included an augmented “mixed reality” element developed with support from Microsoft. Chin engineered and fabricated the sculpture in collaboration with faculty, students, and staff from UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math).
I reported to Times Square on this particular afternoon because it was the last day that visitors could experience the accompanied augmented reality work, Unmoored (2018), using a HoloLens headset. Hereafter, until the installation closes on September 5, Unmoored would be available to view in adapted form for smartphones and tablets. But I was determined to pop my skull into this apparatus and get the full treatment.
The sculpture itself is modeled on the USS Nightingale, a nineteenth-century expedition and merchant clipper that transported tea, coal, cotton, and munitions, but was also employed as a slaving vessel. Ironically, it later became a Union Navy ship during the American Civil War. It’s a sobering reminder of the economic foundations of this country, where millions of Africans were enslaved in the pursuit of making the United States the richest nation in the world. The varied uses of the ship complicate the whitewashed, binary narrative of the North as the good America and the South as the concentration of violent racism.
The copy of the USS Nightingale is scaled down for practical reasons but still imposing amid the saccharine LED billboards. It has an exaggeratedly large, animatronic figurehead that depicts nineteenth-century opera star Jenny Lind, known as the “Swedish Nightingale” and hence the namesake of the ship. In the mid-nineteenth century, the prows of many ships in New York harbors featured Lind. Periodically, her robotic head comes to life to take a look around. I’ve repeatedly joked to my sculptor friends that all contemporary sculpture is the art world equivalent of steampunk, just to upset them, as the medium seems to be suffering from tropes of retro-futuristism. Instead of electric gadgets powered by steam, in galleries we might encounter an iPad playing glitchy video while immersed in an aquarium that would look at home in the loft of a 1980s action movie villain. But in this case the joke was closer to the truth; it was STEAMpunk.
I entered a small shipping container near the sculpture to get outfitted for the Unmoored experience. Two on-site staff members strapped my head into the HoloLens, which consists of a single broad tinted lens and a pair of noise-canceling headphones. They led me onto a patch of concrete to the east of Wake, penned in by stanchions and rope. People milled around the area, and I was aware that my photo was being taken by numerous tourists. As instructed, I stared at the wooden sculpture, still visible through the dark visor, my hearing dampened by the headphones. Times Square had become eerily quiet.
Bright planks of wood began to fly from my periphery, wrapping the ship’s frame to seal its hull. The augmented reality technology used in Unmoored still has room for improvement. The imagery was not clumsy but not wholly convincing either. If I remember correctly, the Lind figurehead disconnected from the ship and flew south down Broadway. The sound of rushing water creeped into the headphones. Now, fully wrapped in digital planks, the ship lifted off the street and started to float away after Lind. The work is designed to give the impression that Times Square is flooding, presumably as a result of global warming. The bright afternoon sun made it difficult to “see” the water surrounding me, but the sound elements effectively conveyed the scene.
I looked up, and high above me, the hulls of a few ships drifted past. They bumped into the enormous video advertising screens, made turns east or west down 47th and 46th, and disappeared. Soon, the number of encroaching ships increased dramatically, and creaks and splashes, distorted as if heard underwater, filled my ears. Yachts, fishing boats, shipping vessels, and others floated above Broadway into a maritime rush hour cluster. I stared, stupefied, my neck craned all the way back. The gridlock of the boats made their movement impossible. Rust started to form on their hulls. Barnacles attached themselves. I felt suddenly claustrophobic. Gradually, the images of the ships disintegrated, and huge, mutant plankton floated by me, ostensibly a suggestion that while the world may not be ending, our human world is.
The sequence only lasted about six minutes, but still proved disorienting. Taking off the headset, I returned it to the staff, said my thank yous, and maneuvered again through the sweaty crowds.
Back on the train, it occurred to me that when the world floods, the vast majority of us in Times Square that afternoon won’t be on one of those boats up above. It’s not hard to imagine the majority drowning while a wealthy minority floats overhead in their sedan bridge vessels. Historically, ships like the USS Nightingale have been employed for accumulation and exploitation. And if living bodies aren’t part of a family dynasty, or treated as commodities that can be capitalized, they’ll be left in the proverbial wake. Like Chin’s virtual boats, the strongholds of the wealthy will get a few more years of existence than the rest of us. But they’ll eventually rust out and sink, too.