New York’s secret underground tunnel is an audiovisual reminder that stories live forever

voice tunnel nyc

It’s rare to see New York City, the city that never sleeps, look so empty. Even at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, you could see party goers stumbling home, people traveling to work, and food carts being set up for the day. As I walked out of the 33rd Street 6 train station, however, the streets were silent. No cabs, no crowds – just a single file line awaiting the opening of the Voice Tunnel, New York’s latest Rain Room-esque interactive art installation.

For the past three Saturdays, the Voice Tunnel was a huge attraction at Summer Streets, an annual event where the city’s Department of Transportation shuts the streets down for seven consecutive miles to host various activities between Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge. But compared to yoga by Astor Place and zip lining over Foley Square, the Voice Tunnel felt more exclusive. In its near 200-year history, the Park Avenue Tunnel that ran across midtown has never been open to public – until artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer took it over and turned it into an interactive museum.

Within the 1,394-foot cavern that ran between 33rd and 40th street, Lozano-Hemmer installed 300 theatrical spotlights and 150 speakers “powered” by human voices. “What we’re doing is a very straight mapping of voice into light,” the artist says. “And the merit of this particular interaction is to make it architectural, to make it into a narrative. The tunnel itself, its linearity, helps you sort of go from story to story, almost as if you were able to tune into people’s different realities.”

The power to confess any secret and know that it will never leave the confines of this underground tunnel felt liberating.

Upon entry, there are signs warning against trespassers. Today was clearly not the case. As I descended into darkness, I made my way to the line forming in the middle of the tunnel. Underneath a spotlight, an intercom stood before the crowd. Participants were encouraged to record a few seconds of their voice so the speakers could loop and repeat their voice on each of the 150 speakers. As the next person adds their track, the previous recording moves to the next set of speakers down the tunnel. The message is repeated for 75 times until new recordings take over.

You could see people pondering about what they wanted to say, while others seemed confident about their chosen message. I couldn’t imagine airing my words out loud in a tunnel full of people.

“What makes the experience valuable is the fact that it’s ephemeral,” Lozano-Hemmer told the New York Times. This project “allows us to remember that we are on earth for a very brief period of time, and then we’re going to die. And it helps us live perhaps more intensely. We’re more alert to the fact that it ends, that we’re getting recycled, that there is a flow.”

Not only will the speakers echo each clip, flashes of light also correspond with the sound as it booms. Frequency is key in the Voice Tunnel – the more intense a person’s voice is, the brighter the lights illuminated. Concurrently, the faster the person spoke, the quicker the lights cascaded down the tunnel. The experience is a sensory stunner, and you could feel the words traveling through you as you make your way across the chamber. Despite the messages scrambling and overlapping each other, you could always hear one more clearly than the other depending on the speakers to which you stand closest.

“The truth is out there,” one recording murmured. “Know that you are one mysterious creature,” another boomed. “Can you hear this?” a child-like voice pondered. “Wake up, New York!” shouted the last.

And wake up we did. Like most other limited time attractions in New York City, the line to experience this unique installation wrapped around the block hours before the tunnel opened at 7 a.m. Although Voice Tunnel technically closes at 1 p.m., Summer Streets volunteers had to shut the line off as early as 11 a.m. to make sure everyone in queue will be able to enter before the event was over.

It’s easy to feel like a face in the herd in a city as large as New York, but for these past Saturdays, visitors were the star of the show. The power to confess any secret and know that it will never leave the confines of this underground tunnel felt liberating. Lozano-Hemmer doesn’t believe in censorship, and he trusts that participants will be mindful of the messages they wish to share. As the noises became jumbled in their repetitions, I decided I’d had enough. Just as I prepared to exit, the voices danced around in a strobe light-like celebration for a one-worded recording.

“Yes.”

The tunnel erupts in an applause. Somewhere out there is a newly-engaged couple whose moment will forever live within Park Avenue Tunnel.

Credit: GIF by Dylan DeRose

Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.
Product Review

Screen snags aside, the Galaxy Fold is an exciting step toward a foldable future

Samsung's Galaxy Fold is the company's first foldable phone, with two screens, six cameras, and a dual-cell battery. The phone may be delayed due to display issues, but that doesn't stop us from asking -- what's it like to use?
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (April 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Movies & TV

Clip from John Wick: Chapter 3 confirms the dog is totally fine

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, the third installment of the wildly successful action series that stars Keanu Reeves as a deadly assassin forced out of retirement, hits theaters in May 2019. Here's everything we know about it so far.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Samsung Galaxy Fold woes, zombie pigs, and more

Today's topics: Samsung Galaxy Fold, Facebook A.I. voice assistants, YouTube comes to Fire TV, facial recognition on airline flights, the SpaceX DART program, Yale's zombie pigs, and much more!
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Climeworks wants to clean the atmosphere with a fleet of truck-sized vacuums

Using machines that resemble jet engines, Climeworks wants to fight climate change by extracting CO2 from thin air. The gas can then be sold to carbonated drink and agriculture companies, or sequestered underground.
Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!
Emerging Tech

Geoengineering is risky and unproven, but soon it might be necessary

Geoengineering is a field dedicated to purposely changing the world's climate using technology. Call it 'playing god' if you must; here's why its proponents believe it absolutely must happen.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Earth Day, indoor container farming, robot submarines

Today on Digital Trends Live, we discuss how technology intersects with Earth Day, a new Tim Cook biography, indoor container farming, robot spy submarines, A.I. death metal, and more.
Gaming

Google’s Stadia is the future of gaming, and that’s bad news for our planet

Google’s upcoming Stadia cloud gaming service, and its competitors, are ready to change the way gamers play, but in doing so they may kick off a new wave of data center growth – with unfortunate consequences for the environment.
Emerging Tech

Hawaiian botanists’ drone discovers a plant thought to be lost forever

In what may well be a world first, botanists in Hawaii recently used a drone to find a species of plant that scientists believed was extinct. The plant was located on a sheer cliff face nearly 20 years after its last sighting.
Emerging Tech

Alphabet’s Wing drones now have FAA approval to deliver packages in the U.S.

Alphabet Wing has become the first company to receive Air Carrier Certification from the FAA. This means that it can begin commercial deliveries from local businesses to homes in the U.S.
Emerging Tech

A battery-free pacemaker harvests and stores energy from heartbeats

Researchers in China and the United States have developed a new battery-free pacemaker which gathers its required electricity from the energy of heartbeats. Here's why that's so exciting.