Friday, October 26, 2007
“You just have to react.”
“You won’t be asked to leave, but you will want to leave.”
“I steal it from her every chance I get.”
Sometimes they unite vaguely and ominously:
“Five-year-old girl’s finger.”
“Two of his lawyers.”
“Fifteen years in prison.”
At other times they seem sentient, asking the right questions (and maybe watching television):
“And where’s all the blood?”
As poetic as they might sound, these phrases did not bubble up from the subconscious of a writer or latter-day Dada collagist. They were culled from another kind of memory, a vast collective one that is stocked and ordered every day (and these days, every minute) by reporters, editors, photographers, bloggers, Op-Ed contributors, letter writers and inveterate e-mailers: the databases of The New York Times. They comprise tens of millions of words that have appeared in the newspaper since its founding in 1851 and that appear continuously in its online version.
Since The Times moved in June from its longtime home on West 43rd Street in Manhattan to its new, almost completed tower designed by Renzo Piano on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, two men — an artist, Ben Rubin, and a statistician, Mark Hansen — have all but taken up residence in the building’s cavernous lobby, huddled most days around laptops and coffee cups on a folding table. Flanking them on two high walls are 560 small screens, 280 a wall, suspended in a grid pattern that looks at first glance like some kind of minimalist sculpture.
But then the screens, simple vacuum fluorescent displays of the kind used in alarm clocks and cash registers, come to life, spewing out along the walls streams of orphaned sentences and phrases that have appeared in The Times or, in many cases, that are appearing on the paper’s Web site at that instant.
They are fished from The Times databases by computerized algorithms that Mr. Rubin and Mr. Hansen have designed that parse the paper in strange ways, selecting, for example, only sentences from quotations that start with “you” or “I.” Or sentences ending in question marks. Or just the first, tightly choreographed sentences of obituaries.
The content of the permanent installation, called “Moveable Type,” is drawn not only from the words that The Times reports but also, in real time, from the search terms and Web commentary pouring in from thousands of readers around the world, capturing what Mr. Rubin called “both the push and the pull” of the newspaper.
“We want it to feel almost like an organism that is living and breathing and consuming the news,” Mr. Rubin said, adding that someone who had not seen the paper or Web site would be able to watch the screens for several minutes and begin to get a sense of that day’s biggest events, though in a way that might feel more like floating on the newspaper’s stream of consciousness than reading it.
And if you happen to come into the lobby late at night, he and Mr. Hansen added, the artwork, like the paper, will be mostly asleep but “dreaming” — rummaging, “Finnegans Wake”-style, through articles and captions and headlines going back generations.
David A. Thurm, the chief information officer at The New York Times Company, said he had read about Mr. Rubin and Mr. Hansen in a magazine, then went to see a creation of theirs called “Listening Post,” which eavesdropped on the cacophony of the world’s Internet chat rooms and became a minor sensation during a 2003 stay at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Mr. Thurm said that he and others involved in the newspaper’s new headquarters felt that a similar concept could create a kind of “dynamic portrait” of The Times that functioned, in a way, like a homage to the news ticker but one that followed the advice of Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”
The installation, which was commissioned by The Times Company and its development partner in the building, the Forest City Ratner Companies, is still being fine-tuned but is now operating during the day. On a recent viewing it seemed to rouse itself to life, its screens reeling out words and, from hundreds of small hidden speakers, issuing the din of typewriters, the lost music of newsrooms.
As clackety and coldly mechanical as “Moveable Type” is, the artists said, people who wander by tend to draw close to it, as if to hear the pronouncements of an oracle or to warm their hands with the heat of information.
“People seem to want to touch it,” Mr. Hansen said.
Mr. Rubin, smiling paternally, said, “We really don’t want people to touch it.”
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