Black Voguers Populate Billboards in a Times Square ‘Midnight Moment’

HIlarie M. Sheets and Julia Carmel, The New York Times, November 29, 2020

Just before midnight every evening in December, some 70 digital billboards encircling the gaudy canyon of Times Square will be co-opted for three minutes by slow-motion images of Black voguers, performing dances of resistance, resilience and liberation.

The video installation is the work of the multidisciplinary artist Rashaad Newsome, who has remixed footage from live performances of his 2019 piece “Black Magic.”


The opportunity to stage “Black Magic” in Times Square — a storied crossroads of commercialism, celebration, protest, performance — “was a great proposition to do something transgressive,” said Mr. Newsome, 40, who grew up in New Orleans and is now based in Oakland, Calif., and Brooklyn.


Showing Mr. Newsome’s work at a museum like hers, which focuses on queer art, is one thing, said Laura Raicovich, director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. “But to position it in Times Square says something altogether different about the way that we all need to be engaged in the conversations that Black Lives Matter bring to the table.” (The museum and Times Square Arts jointly commissioned this “Midnight Moment,” which premieres Tuesday to coincide with World AIDS Day.)


On Dec. 10 at 11:30 p.m., several dancers from the New York Ballroom community will perform, spaced apart, live on the red steps at the Broadway plaza between 46th and 47th Streets and then in concert at 11:57 p.m., with the multichannel presentation illuminating the screens.


“I want it to be a memorial to those who have fallen,” said the artist, drawing a parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans.


“The dancers were asked to perform ‘Black Magic,’ which I understand as the strength of the human spirit to navigate systemic racism and homophobia with grace and dignity,” Mr. Newsome said. Rather than provide them with specific choreography for these performances, he gives this prompt and lets his dancers create sequences for themselves that make visible their lived experiences.


But as New York City braces for further possible restrictions as coronavirus cases multiply, what audience in Times Square could this and other public art projects actually reach?


Pre-pandemic, Times Square’s foot traffic was extraordinary, with an average of 380,000 visitors daily. After the city’s initial lockdown, that number plunged to some 33,000 pedestrians a day, in April. Widely shown images of a deserted Times Square became symbolic of how severely public life in the city had changed.


For Jean Cooney, the director of Times Square Arts, the relevance of contemporary artists intervening in this landscape has only become more important.


“I had a chance to program public art for those 30,000 people who were most likely New Yorkers and essential workers — a worthy, if not the most worthy, audience for public art in that moment,” Ms. Cooney said. In the early months of the pandemic, in partnership with For Freedoms and Poster House, Times Square Arts worked with more than three dozen artists and designers, including Carrie Mae WeemsJenny Holzer and Maira Kalman, on the messages of gratitude and solidarity displayed across multiple billboards.


Organizers have also repurposed some of Times Square’s displays for more political messages, like a recent billboard that depicted the death of George Floyd through a painting by Donald Perlis.


“Knowing that so many media outlets and cameras were trained on Times Square, there was the potential for those messages — even if we were all watching from home — to be amplified to New Yorkers and people around the world,” Ms. Cooney said.


Current foot traffic in the area, at just over 100,000, is still about 70 percent less than the daily figure last year (with the exception of Nov. 7, when almost 190,000 people streamed into Times Square to celebrate the results of the presidential election). The “Midnight Moment” series, which has been taking place since 2012, had an estimated cumulative viewership of about 36,000 for a piece by the digital arts collective Optical Animal that was projected throughout October.


For such artist projects, “it almost doesn’t matter if there are zero people in Times Square because it’s really about filming it and then sharing and scaling it on social channels,” said Jodi Senese, the chief marketing officer of Outfront Media, which has 24 displays in Times Square. “The spread becomes enormous.”


On Tuesday, Ms. Raicovich will unveil the facade of the Leslie-Lohman museum in Soho wrapped in vinyl wallpaper printed with Mr. Newsome’s signature “King of Arms Tincture.” This baroque pattern of bejeweled flowers, evocative of Ballroom lounge decoration, also appears in animated form at intervals on the screens in Times Square, creating a kind of frame and environment for the dancers. And in January, Leslie-Lohman’s website will host a full-length cut of the 2019 performances included in “Black Magic.”


With the museum still closed to the public, pivoting to the open air plaza of Times Square was a way to bring Mr. Newsome’s work safely to audiences, whatever the number (and however chilly outside).


“Times Square as a site is all the things that New York City is, beautiful and ugly, much of which has stopped right now,” Ms. Raicovich said. “To return with this exuberant dance of survival and joy to me is a gesture of profound hope.”