Most New Yorkers think of Times Square as a barren consumerist wasteland, but one incredible thing does happen there: by turning creators loose on the world’s most famous intersection, Times Square Arts turns it into a gigantic public platform for contemporary performance and visual arts. It’s one of the highest-profile public arts programs and has commissioned projects by Laurie Anderson, Björk, and JR, to name a few. Now, for the first time, it is exporting its collection. From September 17-25, Times Square Arts trades the Big Apple for Russia, in a collaboration with the Theatre of Nations in Moscow.
Many Americans assume Russia’s societal restrictions make it somehow culturally averse, but Sherry Dobbin, the Director of Times Square Arts, thinks that’s a misconception. “It’s incredibly progressive, in a way. There’s more support for artists here than there is in the U.S. There’s a curious tension between the fact that the U.S. can be great about talking about freedom of expression, but the reality and the funding doesn’t reflect that ethos,” she tells The Creators Project. Artists are hard-pressed to find equivalently generous funding in America. “Would we do this? Would we take Moscow’s public art and pay to bring them here?” Dobbin says.
Dobbin is restaging some of Times Square Arts’ greatest collaborations in Moscow. The show includes 15 pieces from Midnight Moment, the Cinderella-esque program that syncs the electronic billboards of Times Square. It features the work of new artists every month, from 11:57 to Midnight each night. It also reinterprets R. Luke DuBois’ Times Square Portraits as video art, broadcasting more than 17,000 faces and photos the artist took and posted to social media during his residency. And in May 2013, JR took over Times Square and pasted photo booth photos all over Duffy Square. A similar version in Moscow will connect the two countries.
When she approached artists about reproducing their work in Russia, every single artist Dobbin talked to said yes. “Yoko Ono not only said yes, she asked if it would be okay if we used the recording of John Lennon singing ‘Imagine’ with the soundtrack. Björk had her editor do a whole new cut, so we could do it with sound. So the artists we’ve worked with have been really excited about it,” she says.
Curating a show in Moscow dealing with a famous American landmark has the potential for disconnect, but Dobbin says it resonates. “Part of the idea was of a crossroads. Sitting at the crossroads of theater and art, or the crossroads of the world,” she explains. “The title, Times Square(d): Theatre of the Absurd, made me realize that standing in Times Square is like Waiting for Godot. People are there, but they don’t know why. They don’t know what’s going to happen or what to expect. The Rhinoceros doesn’t seem so odd now, because when you walk around Times Square, you’re going to run into characters from Frozen and a naked cowboy and the Statue of Liberty. It’s like being in a very long absurdist drama.”
The exhibition is partly interactive and partly documentation of Times Square Arts’ work, but the appetite for public art in Russia is enormous. Sculptures and installations dot parks and streets in Moscow, and nearly 1,000 people showed up for Dobbin’s first speaking engagement there. A guided tour of the show will also be live streamed. “I’m surprised by how much has not been reflected in the media about what’s positive here,” Dobbin says. Her work represents one step towards dismantling an ideological iron curtain, real or imagined, between Russia and the U.S.
Times Square(d): Theater of the Absurd is at Moscow’s Theatre of Nations’ New Space through September 25. Check out their Instagram.