Mysterious Shadows In The Queens Plaza Clock Tower

In late 2012, light artist Chris Jordan was invited to the clock tower in Queens Plaza to make and show art in the clock tower room.

Built in 1927, the clock tower is on the Queens side of a funnel of traffic to Manhattan, an area that is uniquely dense, noisy, and fast. Twelve storeys tall, the building is wrapped by two subway lines, neighbors a railyard for the Long Island Railroad, and lives at the foot of the majestic Ed Koch (nee Queensboro) Bridge. Thousands upon thousands of people pass by it daily.

The clock tower was built as a focal point of the neighborhood. From the top of the tower, Queens Boulevard and 31st Street appear to eminate from the building. But today, Queens Plaza and Long Island City is known for its tall glass structures, the foremost being the Citibank skyscraper.

Queensboro Plaza’s clocktower seen at night

Throughout history, clock towers across the world broadcasted time as sole local authorities. Now, clock towers are at most middlemen, automatically rebroadcasting the master time kept by a central source. But so do cellular phones, and with precise time synchronization available in the hands of the vast majority of New Yorkers, the public service of announcing time is no longer important.

Jordan was given this space long after the clock tower lost its public relevancy and knew part of his artistic mission would be to reinvigorate the landmark.

Jordan’s new piece and product of his clock tower residency, Locost Queue, reimagines the tower’s time piece facade as a mirror of the people passing through Queens Plaza. On the circular faces, he projects full-body silhouettes of people facing the same direction as if they are waiting in a queue. The silhouettes scroll slowly, giving the impression that the people are standing on a moving pedestrian platform, similar to those found in airports or in the Court Square subway station a few blocks away.

The transportation engineering of Queens Plaza is admirable—the scale of it, the way the subway cars squeal and shake the earth, the 10-lane bridge, and how deliberate and reliable the entire system is. Photos from the 1920s of the area show a very different neighborhood: clean, manageable, and possibly quiet. As time went on and the requirements of transportation changed, new elevated subway tracks and more traffic lanes appeared, gradually morphing the area into the complex system we see today.

The infrastructure of Queens Plaza evolved to a point where planners realized that the area was an eyesore, despite being a desirable location. In 2010, the city announced improvements in the area for pedestrians and bicycles, to create an “inviting gateway” by turning a parking lot outside the clock tower into a park. The bustle of all the aforementioned transportation, however, is not conducive to introspection nor relaxation. Jordan’s piece, intentional or not, adds to the bustle with another visual space filled with people being transported as they wait.

The silhouettes are of people he and his oft collaborator Enki Andrews photographed on the street near the clock tower. Through this process, CJ met people on the street and spoke with them about the project and the clock tower. At one point during the installation of the piece, he said, “I hope that lady and her son sees this,” referring to the silhouette of a mother holding her boy. Jordan values his direct audience and sees the silhouette as bringing something inaccessible down to earth; a form of empowerment.

The night of December 4, Jordan switched on the light installation, which will remain on display until the middle of March 2013. The residency was put together by No Longer Empty as part of a program called “How Much Do I Owe You”. In addition to Jordan’s piece, the main floor of the clock tower opened as a gallery to present works from local and international artists.

The silhouettes were printed on a five foot long sheet of transparency film and hung around an 1800 watt light bulb (read: a very bright light that shouldn’t be directly looked at). A small motor rotates the transparency around the bulb, hung on a hula hoop with shower curtain rings, creating the scrolling effect outside.

A pair of lenses focus the light through the silhouette transparency and onto each clock face. Jordan, Andrews, and their friend Spec, a brilliant engineer, are all obsessed with the science of optics and light. Two years back, Spec salvaged Fresnel lenses and mirrors from 15 overhead projectors that were being thrown away by a school. The lenses, as well as four heavy glass lenses, each unique in their own way, were collected throughout the years and put to use in Locost Queue.

A pair of lenses focus the light through the silhouette transparency and onto each clock face.

The techniques used in Locost Queue draw from Jordan’s days of playing with overhead projectors, colored gels, mirrors, and prisms to make low-tech visuals by constantly moving the objects on the lit surface with his hands.

Outside of Locost Queue, Jordan uses modern projection equipment and software to present his work of photographs and timelapses. More recently, he’s used the Kinect 3D sensor to create interactive pieces that rely on performers or public participants to create visual experiences. Even with his technical proficiencies, Jordan prefers to focus on the simple yet profound effects of light and what it conveys, rather than the technology used. Seeing him play with visuals, regardless of technique, is wonderful because of the way he constantly tinkers with the aesthetic he produces and the deftness he displays in manipulating it.

Jordan’s piece Locost Queue, is a novel, elegant, and simple reimagination of the aged concept of the clock tower. Another great example is Christina Kubisch’s work in the MASS MoCA clock tower. Also in New York City, the Clocktower Gallery, repurposes a clock tower in Lower Manhattan as a gallery space and radio station.

Soon, clock towers throughout New York City will have entirely decorative faces, if they don’t already. What else can be done with them?

Photos via Enki Andrews