Rebuilding the Bowery in one adequate descriptive system, with Lower Manhattan circa 1997 as a flock of digital swans.
In 1999, I dreamed I was drifting over the Bowery at sunset. The street was covered by a red fog laced with yellow-orange fumes. Cars wove heedlessly between lanes yet never collided. I spun and circled through the air above, watching the silent passage below. When I awoke on the couch at my studio, a few streets east of the Bowery, I resolved to replicate the vision.
This picture shows the length of the Bowery that I flew over in my dream. At 190 Bowery is a graffiti-covered 1898 Beaux-Arts mansion that has housed a single family in its seventy-two rooms since 1966. The building circled in yellow is 222 Bowery, where William Burroughs had an apartment known as “the Bunker.” He died in 1997, a year after this photograph was made. Since then, the pincers of prosperity have grasped the street. Where there once were parking lots, condos called Avalon and NoLIta Place stand; between them rise the stacked silver boxes of the New Museum, whose facade is stamped with rainbow letters spelling “Hell, Yes!”
Summer evenings in 1997, I’d wander down Bleecker Street to the newly named NoLIta, just west of the Bowery. Every storefront on one stretch of Elizabeth Street below Houston was occupied by shops stocked with esoteric merchandise. In the windows of butchers I’d see sparkly pinwheels, model ships, and papier-måché castles. In the evenings, the grates would come down, and the block’s residents would unfold card tables outside and chat. At a bar up the street, performers would play an electronic music newly named illbient. I would look in for a minute, then amble past, too shy to walk inside.
The year before, I had begun hanging out with swans. I found them along the Connecticut shore and off the A train beyond Howard Beach. I made repeated visits to a favorite swan couple in New Haven’s East Rock Park, always bringing a loaf of Italian bread. Cajoled by crumbs, the birds would come close enough for a photograph, or even to nip my outstretched hand. They were, to me, a thread of magic in the mundane.
I took the release that year of a swan-themed postage stamp as a sign of the importance of my work. I began researching the swans of America.
Mute swans, I discovered, come from Europe, where they are kept as “ornamental” birds. They’re found in the eastern US and are gradually spreading westward, into the habitat of native trumpeter swans. Agents of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have shot hundreds of encroaching mutes in the past decade to keep the West safe for the native species.
Trumpeters summer in Alaska, nesting one family per lake. If humans intrude on their territory, the swans depart to a more isolated lake, traveling overland for the sake of their unfledged cygnets. (If the cygnets don’t learn to fly by winter, the entire family will remain and freeze into the ice.) Walking swans are easily killed by predators. Even a few noisy interlopers can destroy a trumpeter population.
I went to Alaska in the summer of 1997 to seek the native trumpeters. I stayed in Fairbanks, where, in the university library, I discovered a paper on the nesting habits of North Slope trumpeters. The article’s authors had set up time-lapse Super-8 cameras with telephoto lenses in the tundra to record the behavior of nesting trumpeters. The paper included some lovely drawings, which I scanned for future reference.
I found no swans in Alaska, but I did fall in with a community of far-northern artists whom I thought to be as strange and beautiful as the birds. In 1997, electronic music made a lot of sense, and the University of Alaska had an Internet connection. Fairbanks’s young musicians were trading Mouse on Mars songs and sequencer patches with correspondents in Berlin and Antwerp. I went on a car trip with a few new acquaintances and a forged dip-net fishing license. We camped alongside streams filled with so many spawning salmon that they jostled against one another like the traffic on a New York City avenue. When we arrived at the Chitina River, it was fast flowing and gray with mud swept down from the mountains. We caught no fish. The next morning we were barely able to light a smoky campfire.
I got back from Fairbanks and found a place to live on lower Mulberry Street. One night I met some friends at their West Village apartment, which had just been visited by a pot-delivery man. I stayed until the Prodigy CD playing on the stereo overcame me with nausea, then excused myself and—barely able to walk—hailed a cab home. The lights streaked as we drove down the Bowery, like the hyperspace effect in the original Star Wars
; I resisted asking the driver to turn down the slinky jazz music pulsing from beneath the seats.
I had the red Bowery dream a year later. I wrote a few notes about it, then carried on with some photographic projects. I left the Mulberry Street apartment and moved east to Allen, to Ludlow, across the East River to Greenpoint, to Williamsburg, then finally south, by way of Red Hook, to Gowanus. The blocks in the dream were painted over and faded into boutiques, galleries, and baby stores.
The more photographs I made, the more I thought of the unphotographable dream. Finally, in 2007, I wrote a proposal to create a computer program that would simulate the Bowery circa 1997 and submitted it to Eyebeam, a digital-arts space:
The camera swoops down over the Bowery’s double lanes of traffic. Cars jostle and turn, brushing each other, while on the horizon the sun sets smoky orange. Birds veer through the hazy air, as if traversing a rough torrent. As we drift above Houston St., Prince, Stanton, Eldridge, and Spring, the buildings stutter, altered in aspect. The sidewalks and windows expand and contract. We dive into the street and the cars part ahead of us. We are ghosts in this city. Time slips as we yaw past the house in which William Burroughs once lived. It’s no longer 1997. We plunge into a dirtier, grimier Bowery Bum past. Time appears as double-exposed images, taking us back to 1897, 1797, to when the Bowery was a lane, a path, a forest, a swamp.
The proposal was approved. I was grateful for the chance to revisit the Bowery and redeem the years I had spent in its orbit.
Eyebeam is housed in a ramshackle West Chelsea building that feels like a drafty submarine. It’s a determinedly anti-market, anti-commercial institution that time (or at least the recent prosperous decade) has nearly forgotten. The artists there make either really amazing or really awkward things. Sometimes both at once. Generally, the Eyebeamers work with electronics or computers.
I decided that my Bowery had to be written in Lisp, a programming language as odd as the street had seemed to me until recently.
A computer scientist named John McCarthy created Lisp in the late 1950s, and in the years since it has roosted at research universities, flickering into and out of use. Lisp was the language of choice for Artificial Intelligence until that obscure quest for self-knowing machines was swept away by personal computers; many hardcore programmers still write their code with Emacs, a text editor created with—and sinuously modifiable by—a 1970s Lisp variant. Whereas most contemporary languages have practical goals—solving math problems, or constraining the imagination of corporate programmers so that when one is fired the next can easily take over—Lisp was designed to be the quintessence of a computer language. Its original definition could be written out in half a page—in Lisp.
Eyebeam gave me a computer that looked like a cast-off from the spaceship in Alien
, and a corner in a skylit room that rattled with the wind gusts from the Hudson and crackled as the spring storms blew through.
While thinking about my raw 3-D graphics, I revisited the computer scientist Craig Reynolds’s influential 1987 paper, “Flocks, Herds, and Schools.” Reynolds sets out three rules for a “flock”: Its members attempt to avoid collisions with, match velocity with, and stay close to nearby flockmates. Depending on how far its creatures can see and how fast they can turn, the flock changes from a swarm to a line to a chaotic assembly.
I started to think of the cars on the Bowery as flocks, sharing behavioral rules with the birds above. But then, I thought, its buildings were also flocks over time, going up and down in something like unison. Creating a flock in Lisp seemed a good way to start my project.
I programmed a covey of triangular birds in accordance with Reynolds’s rules. (I later learned that he wrote his own first flocking program in Lisp.) While showing the birds to a visitor, I adjusted the program a bit, entering the relevant Lisp into Emacs while the flock was spinning in a neighboring window. In most languages, the program must be restarted for changes to register. But to my surprise, the flock responded to the new commands immediately. Lisp, with its self-encompassing nature, sees no difference between itself and the program it is running.
I started leaving my primitive flock flying for hours and days on end; I wrote and rewrote the program as the triangles swarmed and circled in response.
In the movie Dark City
, space aliens experiment on humans by inducing artificial sleep, implanting them with new memories, and altering their physical environment. In The Matrix
, glitches occur when the computer makes changes to the simulated human world. For my Lisp birds, as for our own dystopian Manhattan, the rules could change in midflight.
None of this had much to do with the Bowery. I had thought of the street as one of the secret roots of the city, a place truer than the grid of streets and avenues it sunders, and so, when I began biking it daily en route from Gowanus to Eyebeam (over the Manhattan Bridge, up the Bowery, then across Prince Street to the west side), I was disappointed at how little relation it bore to the old-fashioned clarity of Lisp. Maybe these two relics of the past would not intersect. Perhaps the Bowery was just unsavory and wretched.
I was even more put off when I came across a flyer (by the redoubtable cartoonist Matthew Thurber) promoting a new collaboration between Vice
magazine and MTV: the Virtual Lower East Side. This VLES seemed to be the cross-breeding of indie-rock nostalgia and a shoddy multiplayer video game. What would my Virtual Bowery be now but a cheap follow-up to a cynical rehash?
I decided that the Virtual Bowery should only be birds, no street. It should express the purity of algorithm and language, not the drabness of the urban marketplace. After a few bicycle accidents, I started taking the subway to Eyebeam, bypassing the Bowery altogether.
Lost in Lisp, I concentrated on creating a dubious system of virtual invisible buckets to hold the flock. Then, just when I’d convinced myself that elegantly spinning triangles were all that I needed, a friend at Eyebeam, mindful of my departure from reality, presented me with a 3-D model of lower Manhattan appropriated from Google Earth. Not wanting to disappoint, I isolated from it the three blocks of my Bowery vision. After a day’s work, I had laid the model Bowery under the flying triangles.
What was interesting, I realized, was not some abstraction of flock motion, but the streetness of the street and the birdness of the birds. I rendered a 3-D version of one of the Alaskan swan drawings and pretty soon replaced the triangles with swans swooping over the Bowery.
Summer arrived my time at Eyebeam ended, and I moved on to other things.
I walked down to the Williamsburg waterfront, where I had moved soon after losing my apartment off the Bowery, and had one day seen a swan swimming in the East River. The road, which used to have an open view of the water and the Manhattan skyline, is now hemmed in and shadowed by condos.
I saw two swans browsing the muck of the Gowanus Canal, the toxic byway near my apartment in Brooklyn. The EPA had just announced plans to make the Gowanus a Superfund site. The mayor’s office opposes the plan, for fear that developers will not want to build condos in the area. Three anonymous, glossy, anti-Superfund flyers were slipped through my apartment’s mail slot as I wrote this.
At a housewarming party for ex-Williamsburgers who had moved to Ridgewood, Queens, I met a man from British Columbia, and we got to discussing trumpeter swans. “Something I have often heard repeated is that the earth is a gong,” he said, “that all creation is a frequency of sound.... Perhaps you re-created the tonal resonance of their wetlands.”
I haven’t yet put cars into the Virtual Bowery. For now, it’s just blocky buildings frozen in the late ’90s, with swans hovering overhead. I haven’t worked with Lisp much recently, either. But I feel happy when I fire up Virtual Bowery and see the stiff-winged trumpeters circling above the red street.