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

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