Brush up your Shakespeare—start quoting him now.
Or, have a machine do it for you.
You rogue. You knave. You leave. You villain. You rascal.
These are phrases you might encounter over your cocktail at the Public Theater, the Lafayette Street landmark, now that an elegant new bar has taken up residence in its lobby.
They won’t stay long, because other phrases, all selected by algorithms from each one of Shakespeare’s plays, soon take their place, passing in a manic, poetic, vaguely familiar, and increasingly hypnotic stream—37 streams, actually, because that’s the number of nearly four-foot-long blades, each embedded with 3,072 high-efficiency white LED emitters, dangling from the steel, elliptical-conic contraption at the center of the room. The effect is as if all the characters from Shakespeare’s plays were talking to each other at once.
The Shakespeare Machine is the creation of Ben Rubin, a local media artist with the spirit of a mad inventor and a passion for data. Commissioned by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs as part of the Percent for Art program, which funds site-specific pieces in city-funded construction projects, Rubin’s device is at once artwork, chandelier, brain-teaser, and literary tourist attraction.
“People will learn to look for it,” says cultural affairs commissioner Kate D. Levin, who has a background in English as well as theater. “It reminds us how juicy and exciting language can be.”
The artwork has been in the works for almost five years; the building has been around since 1854. Originally a library funded by John Jacob Astor, it became a receiving station for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and then a theatrical success story when Joseph Papp restored it, staged the world premiere of Hair there in 1967, and made it the home base for the Shakespeare Workshop as well as for a roster of new plays and musicals. (He’s the Joe of Joe’s Pub, the club next door that also benefitted from the revamp.)
As Rubin pondered ways to evoke this identity in a piece that could make the lobby itself a destination, he conceived a variety of dazzling contraptions–all of them, he cheerfully admits, deemed unbuildable by the city agencies and theater officials. Three years into the process, when Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis finally signed off on a five-branched chandelier, “I was despondent,” says Rubin. “I knew it wasn’t right.” So the artist came back with yet another proposal—the template for the current machine.
For Eustis, the experience was an initiation into the process of guiding site-specific artwork from concept to fruition. “We went through more iterations than I would have thought possible,” he says.
But then the very idea of a permanent artwork was foreign to him. “I was very nervous,” Eustis says, “that a work of art was going to be part of my theater that wasn’t going to change every six weeks the way we do the shows—that I was going to have something stuck in the lobby that didn’t feel like the Public.”
Evenutally Eustis came to see that the machine–created with the typeface Knockout, the one that Paula Scher used to create the Public’s graphic identity—fit seamlessly with its mission. “It puts Shakespeare’s language in the center of the Public Theater,” he says. “That writer’s work and that writer’s poetry are the basis of everything we do.”
To fulfill his vision Rubin called on his frequent collaborator, statistician Mark Hansen (with whom he created the artwork recalibrating New York Times copy that’s housed in the paper’s lobby), as well as a team of experts in software design, mechanical engineering, and Shakespeare. With input from Eustis, Scher, architect Michele Gorman, data artist Jer Thorp, and designer/programmer Ian Ardouin-Fuma, among others, along with representatives from Cultural Affairs as well as the city’s Department of Design and Construction, Rubin developed the 400-pound form that would contain and broadcast the 811,705 words in Shakespeare’s theatrical output.
Each blade contains a whole play. Once a cycle, for about two minutes, the blade streams its play in its entirety. Then selections from its text will appear–terms selected for grammatical, contextual, rhythmic, or semantic attributes, like a verb followed by the word it, a noun phrase containing a part of the human body, and adjective-conjunction-adjective.
Rubin plans to add more categories this week, and to continue the process indefinitely. His fantasy is to have longer blades that will accommodate bursts of iambic pentameter and other complex phrasings.
Columbia University professor James Shapiro, one of several Shakespeare experts (including scholar Stephen Greenblatt and theater director Barry Edelstein) who advised Rubin on the project, pronounced himself transfixed–with the unfamiliar combinations of familiar words, the patterns within each blade, the challenge of looking at the blades in progression. “The word that came to my mind was mesmerizing,” he says.
“I think Shakespeare absolutely would have enjoyed this,” Shapiro adds. During the quarter century the author was writing, “these words were swimming around in his head.”