Garry Scarff boarded the subway ready to unwind after a long day at school, ignoring a couple clutching the poles and adjusting their fluorescent orange safety vests.
But when one of them started screaming poetry in his face, Scarff--and the dozens of other people squished into the train--had no choice but to take notice.
Trapped by the salvo of rapid-fire verses, the 45-year-old from Hollywood chose to lose himself in the words.
” ... People from all over/ would come up to me/ and ask me what I was doing,” blared the strapping subway bard, shouting over and through Scarff’s uplifted newspaper and over the groaning wheels and screeching metal: “I could just look at them/ with this smile on my face/ and say/ I’m a poet damn it!”
The impromptu poetry session on the Red Line struck Scarff as “kind of weird for mass transit.” But he conceded that the cascade of uninvited words made him think and supplied him a different kind of escape from the monotony of his day.
The mass transit poet was Larry Jaffe, one of a troupe of Los Angeles writers reading poetry in rail cars each Tuesday last month as part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s virtual art gallery, which expanded this year to include experimental and performance art.
Tile mosaics, stained glass and rock sculptures have adorned Los Angeles’ mass transit stations for years, but in recent months they have been joined by experimental programs--mixing poets and actors in 1940s period costumes with harried commuters on trains and platforms.
MTA art officials say they are bringing the avant garde to buses and subways to force commuters to interact with artists in a city notorious for lone commuters hunkered down in their cars.
Among the four MetroLab experimental exhibits are a play about a picket line of high-fashion garment workers and an installation on selected light rail cars of sheets of colored transparent plastic. The microwave-sized “gels” signal each other on the tracks--sounding like whales calling to their kin.
“You can really do more cutting-edge things with art that doesn’t still need to be relevant a hundred years later,” said Maya Emsden, director of the MTA’s MetroArt division. “There’s no experimenting with something that has to be there for that long.”
Julie Lazar, a founding Museum of Contemporary Art curator who now works independently, was on the panel that chose the first set of MetroLab projects. They started meeting two years ago to cull four projects from 76 applicants.
One artist wanted to hang wigs from the train ceilings to mimic the backs of passengers’ heads. Another proposed installing an interactive DVD in one of the stations--where passengers could play Pac-Man.
“We were looking for things that were challenging but not offensive,” Lazar said. “It’s not that things weren’t political.... We just didn’t want to take on anything angry the first time around.”
The panel chose more accessible works that attempt to focus the public’s awareness about place and cultural connections, Lazar said. Each artist was awarded $10,000.
Artist George Legrady’s project, slated to begin in June at the 7th Street/Metro Center train station, features names he collected from databases scrolling slowly past each other and lighting up as they cross.
“These stations are communal public spaces where people cross each other’s paths,” said Legrady, an art professor at UC Santa Barbara. “You might walk by somebody that in two years you might be married to.”
Cindy Bernard and Joseph Hammer’s “singing gels” installation is “about seeing and hearing the city differently, even if it’s just for a second,” said Brent Zerger, MTA public arts officer. “Riders probably don’t even recognize they’re in an art environment.”
The premise behind Jessica Rath’s project, an hourlong play performed 12 times during February, originated from a 1941 photograph of a picket line in front of the Biltmore Hotel.
Rath wrote a three-act play for the 7th Street/Metro Center station that she hoped would reflect the labor history of the nearby Garment District.
During the play’s final 20 minutes, the actors boarded a Blue Line train and barked union slogans all the way to the city of Vernon.
“When you use the transit system as a venue,” Rath said, “you have to have some kind of a spectacle to engage an audience that’s surprised you’re even there.”
Subway art began gaining momentum in the United States in 1977, when the Department of Transportation started encouraging cities to use 1% of their construction funds for art.
“Public art brings life to the system,” said Wendy Feuer, the public art and urban design consultant who founded New York City’s Arts in Transit division in 1985. “The system becomes a museum without walls, bringing art to where the people are rather than making people go to it.”
Most other cities’ art programs, including Chicago and New York City, are focused on renovating current stations, some of which are a century old.
In Washington, D.C., one of the Metro board members plans to introduce a measure that would legalize music performances, to ease the tension in crowded stations.
One Los Angeles public art official applauded the MTA, which spends half a percent of construction costs on art, for taking advantage of the opportunity to make transit art more accessible.
“Public dollars are used for public art,” said Felicia Filer, director of the Public Art Division of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. “So the more effort made to give travelers more accessible forms of art, the more ephemeral, thought-provoking experience a person is likely to have.”
But as much as Scarff and some others seemed inspired by their brief interlude with art, others were unmoved.
A disheveled, agitated man on one train rose to shout a five-minute diatribe on society after the subway poets invited others to share their thoughts.
Other passengers shifted uncomfortably, and when the man finished, a young woman in a pickle-green shirt started shouting that mass transit was not a place for the arts.
“Every other day of the year, people ignore this man,” she said before leaving the train. “If you can’t show him the courtesy of listening every day, then why do it at all? Poetry is deep, and there’s a lot of people on the trains who might not be ready to get that deep.”