Imagine Times Square before the arrival of Disney and Forever 21. Next, imagine it before porn houses crammed its streets in the Seventies. Now reach even further back, before the arrival of Dutch settlers, when it would have been blanketed by forest, with a lush sonic landscape of birds chirping and streams rushing. Finally, go to Times Square (yes, we all hate it) and try to re-create this experiment. Think you can stay focused on imagining natural beauty?
If you can’t muster the mental energy, try downloading Jungle-ized, a sound installation by Soundwalk Collective that maps an Amazon rainforest environment onto eight blocks of Times Square. The smartphone app tracks your GPS, using your location to trigger deep-jungle sounds recorded by Collective members and experimental musician Francisco Lopez that correspond to different times of day in the dense layers of the rainforest.
As you sidestep selfie-stick-wielding tourists, a hum of chirping insects floods your ears. The mix depends on your location, so if there’s too much howling monkey and not enough burping frog, just move. Occasionally, the voices of the writer Daniel Pinchbeck or anthropologist Jeremy Narby briefly surface to mention the interactions among wildlife that constitute a natural ecosystem. These contrast with the artificial ecosystem of Times Square: a sea of pedestrians parting around hawkers of bus tours, delivery bikes dancing around cabs impatiently thrusting across lanes, Elmos and Minions trying to make a buck. Sometimes, sound syncs fortuitously with sight, like when tropical birds start calling just as you pass a flock of pigeons pecking at a sidewalk treat. Mostly, though, the lush sounds of nature directly replace honking cabs, a nice break from New York’s number one tourist hellhole.
Jungle-ized is a collaboration between Soundwalk and the Times Square Alliance, an arts nonprofit that offers free public installations in Times Square. Soundwalk member Stephan Crasneanscki, a sound artist in New York, jumped at the opportunity for access to this space of extreme commercial development, where nature can no longer be felt or seen. How, he wondered, could this frenzied place be inverted?
The answer lay hundreds of miles directly south of New York City, in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Here was not only a place governed by the rhythms of nature, which “offers a time that’s not human, that’s endless,” as Crasneanscki explained, but one where the process of environmental destruction that created Times Square is still visible; large-scale deforestation, driven by logging interests and endless consumption in the global north, could trigger a catastrophic die-off of plant- and wildlife there in the next fifteen years. For Crasneanscki, what is highlighted by this “jungle-to-jungle” experience — the Amazon to the concrete — is “the lacking, the longing, the missing,” he said. “What happens if we don’t have nature anymore in our lives? And what happens if all we have is nature in the mode of parks or zoos? We thought the Amazon would be the only place that would echo back something as radical as Times Square.”
By peeling back the commercial sheen, Crasneanscki hoped to expose the other realities that constitute its heart: Is the true meaning of Times Square in the eyes of tourists who see in the bright lights the meaning of the big city? Or is it the thorough quashing of a natural environment? There are economic realities, too: Low-wage workers ensuring that the gears continue to turn, real estate developers funding the endless construction, and maybe also city planners who utilize public art as a way of gentrifying neighborhoods. Although Times Square is far past the point of gentrification, as Crasneanscki observed, activists have long pointed to its over-cleanup as the most striking example of New York’s transformation into a mecca of wealth.
Jungle-ized is not the first time Soundwalk has trod these waters of cultural tourism. The company’s work is popular because it provides glimpses into communities often ignored by mainstream culture, such as Manhattan’s Chinese immigrants or Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jews. But the tours have also been criticized for promoting “authentic” views of neighborhoods that exoticize historical cultures while obscuring the lives of the people who actually live there. Jungle-ized does this, too, on both its Times Square and Amazon layers. Looking around the clogged streets, one notices that nearly the entire infrastructure of the bonanza is supported by people of color, often immigrants: black men selling bus tours, Latina women posing topless as Wonder Woman, Arab men grilling kebabs, South Asian women running a souvenir store. And then you listen in to the tour itself, which in addition to animal sounds includes the voices of indigenous people from the Amazon singing and reciting shamanic chants. Unlike Narby, though, they never speak, their voices instead used as mere atmosphere.
When I asked Crasneanscki about this, he said that the chants can help the listener “enter a state of hypnosis or a different vibration,” pushing you to “reveal to yourself the different layers of reality.” And admittedly, this is a major challenge when the sounds of nature have already become commercialized, rendered in crisp high definition as sleep and relaxation aids. How to make the listener more aware, rather than more sleepy? But focusing exclusively on the layer of “nature” behind Times Square also obscures a different layer of the Amazon’s many realities: the human lives and cultures — the same ones we hear as pleasant background in Jungle-ized — under threat from not just climate change, but also encroachment by the cultures of the global north. “I thought it was more effective to hear them the way I had been hearing them,” said Crasneanscki of the shamanic chants, “to hear how we’re all limited in how much access we have.”
The installation appeals to tourists who want something different to do in Times Square and, maybe, New Yorkers who are willing to brave the district for an off-kilter take. But I wanted to know what the people living in this ecosystem thought of the idea that their workplace needed a makeover. I asked Omar Sidibe, who was holding a placard for a store that operates as a barber-pawn-repair shop, what he thought of Jungle-ized. “I don’t like this — it sounds like a baby crying,” he said of the monkey howls, shaking his head. But the Ghanaian immigrant, who has been working in midtown for two years, does like Times Square. “It’s busy and everything is moving,” he said. “It’s a business place, so you have to be strong, and if you’re strong, you’ll get the things you need.”
I also asked Brian Martinez, a friendly young ticket agent for Big Bus Tours who was standing across from a massive construction site. “This makes me feel more at ease. Hearing the sirens, the cars all the time — it’s frustrating,” said Martinez as he tried out Jungle-ized. “I’m actually from Puerto Rico, so the cricket sounds — I like all of that.”
Jungle-ized runs through April 30 in Times Square.