The idea to siphon the words and images from the New York Times’ 156-year archive onto 560 small screens at the paper’s new Renzo Piano headquarters seems like an innocent, obvious proposition—a printed paper, in a new age, “going digital.” But Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen‘s installation Moveable Type, which holds court in the lobby, has choreographed that content into an unimaginable art: It has made poetry out of the news. And it’s good.
To start, the algorithm crafted by Hansen (a statistician) is very picky about what it selects from the Times, and how those selections appear. Sentences that start with “I” are juxtaposed with those that start with “you.” There’s today’s news, then news organized into phrases starting only with numbers. There are heartbreaking lines from obituaries. Or simply the shapes of countries, a single line slowly tracing their borders.
Lean in and you’ll recognize the chattering of typewriters, gentle telephone tones, or another sound we imagined to be one of those old teletype machines cranking out wire stories, which gives it a very vintage newsroom vibe (matching the retro-optimism of the newsroom upstairs; you almost expect people to be smoking at their desks). Each sound is then paired impeccably with the proper words. Letters to the Editor, for example, appears with a sharp staccato typing that. sounds. like. someone. is. giving. you. a. piece. of. their. mind.
Rubin calls it an “organism” that “metabolizes the content,” and just in our few minutes stationed in the corridor with him not a single person walked by who didn’t engage with the piece; at least two people got their photos taken with it, and even hustling employees gave it a knowing smile (or maybe looked for their bylines to scroll up).
David Byrne recently wrote on his blog he had fun identifying the countries and this news of approval from a fellow designer of sound especially floored Rubin, whose work with audible seems to have made him into a human boom mic. As we switched on our camera his ears literally perked at the chirping tweet of our Canon PowerShot powering up. “Did your camera make that sound?” We played it for him again. “Hmm, I wonder why they chose a bird?” Rubin designed the sounds for some of HP’s products; it appears he’s always doing research.
As cool as our camera sounded, the shoddy photos we took on the scene were not as impressive, so we asked Rubin if he had any good ones, and what do you know, he did. Beautiful shots–a few more below–by Michel Denancé. Officially opened to the public December 17, you can see Moveable Type whenever the Times building is open, or by viewing this lovely making-of video on NYTimes.com