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'NYC 1993' Installation Journeys Back In Time With 5,000 NYC Pay Phones

Nyc 1993

KAREN MATTHEWS   04/07/13 04:10 PM ET EDT  AP

NEW YORK — Want to journey to a grittier time in New York City's not-too-distant past, when the murder rate was sky-high, Times Square was a crossroads of crime and porn, Starbucks had yet to arrive, and hardly anyone owned a cellphone?

A project designed to promote an art exhibit has turned 5,000 Manhattan pay phones into time machines that take callers back to 1993, a pivotal year in the city's art, culture and politics.

Pick up a receiver on the rarely used phones that still dot the New York streetscape, punch 1-855-FOR-1993 and you will hear a notable resident recounting what life was like on that block 20 years ago.

"We liked, creatively, the idea of using a sort of slightly broken, disused system as the canvas of this project," said Scott Chinn of Droga5, the ad agency behind the campaign for an exhibit titled "NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star."

An eclectic mix of artists, writers, food and fashion stars, and others has been recruited to reminisce, including chef Mario Batali, actor Chazz Palminteri, porn performer Robin Byrd and former Yankees pitcher Jim Abbott, who threw a no-hitter in 1993.

The narrators describe a New York that was dirtier, bloodier, raunchier and less gentrified than today – but also an easier place for a talented young person to gain a foothold.

Batali says in his sound bite that opening a restaurant was easier in 1993 when he debuted his first restaurant, Po.

"You didn't have to have a rich daddy or an investor or put together a team or anything like that," he says. "It's sad to watch the cost of business push the real individualist entrepreneurs out of the game."

Bike shop owner Dave Ortiz remembers when the city's Meatpacking District, now home to trendy restaurants, nightclubs and pricey boutiques, was the wild, wild West.

"The rats were huge," he says. "They were as big as cats, so you had to walk in the middle of the street. It's amazing what they turned it into. It's cool but it's lost its, like, authenticity."

Rudy Giuliani was elected New York City mayor in 1993 and promised to crack down on crime and make the city more livable. The number of homicides in the city – 1,960 in 1993 – had already dropped from a high of 2,245 in 1990 but has plunged steeply since then. (There were 414 in all of last year.)

The city's AIDS crisis peaked in 1993 at 12,744 diagnoses. Terrorists staged the first attack on the World Trade Center. The look of the city has changed dramatically as national retailers have replaced independent merchants. New York City's first Starbucks opened in 1994.

"There was a presence of a kind of downtown underground scene which you really don't experience in New York anymore," recalled Gary Carrion-Murayari, curator of the exhibit at the New Museum featuring 161 works, many intended to shock with sexual imagery.

Lutz Bacher's "My Penis," for example, repeats a video snippet from the 1991 Florida rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, a nephew of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, in which Smith testifies about the organ in question.

In Pepn Osorio's "The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?)," a blood-soaked sheet covers what appears to be a corpse. Four nude mannequins join hands and stare into space in Charles Ray's "Family Romance." Political issues are tackled head-on in works like Sue Williams' "Are you Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn?"

The exhibit and accompanying pay phone campaign run through May 26.

Pay phones in the Times Square area feature X-rated talk-show host Byrd describing the neighborhood before Disney musicals and theme-park stores made it safe for tourists.

"The area wasn't really as dangerous as people thought it was in those days," Byrd says. "Because most of the bums that you thought were bums on the street were really undercover cops."

She adds: "It was a great time. It's too bad it's changed because now it's very pasteurized, homogenized, and it looks like Vegas."

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  • Barry McGee

    WHAT: Barry McGee WHERE: <a href="http://www.icaboston.org/" target="_blank">ICA Boston</a> WHEN: April 6 - September 2 WHY: The Bay Area street artist formerly known as "Twist" mixes and matches elements of sign painting, comic book imagery and hobo art in his happy-sad images, which grapple with the dysfunctional realities of urban life. Image: Barry McGee: Untitled (Crawling Man), 1999/2012; house paint on tin galley trays mounted on plywood; 77 1/4 x 68 x 132 in.; private collection. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.

  • Overdrive

    WHAT: "Overdrive" WHEN: April 9 - July 21, 2013 WHERE: <a href="http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/overdrive/" target="_blank">Getty Museum</a>, Los Angeles WHY: Do you love LA? From the interwoven freeways, dreamy houses and ever-buzzing urban landscape, this exhibition will celebrate LA's transformations and explorations in design. Image: LAX, Theme Building by Pereira & Luckman, Welton Becket & Associates, and Paul R. Williams, 1958 Pencil, watercolor, and gouache on board Unframed: 76.5 x 101.6 cm (30 1/8 x 40 in.) From the Alan E. Leib Collection © Luckman Salas O’Brien

  • Claes Oldenburg

    WHAT: Claes Oldenburg: "The Street and The Store" WHEN: April 14 - August 5, 2013 WHERE: <a href="http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1320" target="_blank">MoMA</a>, New York WHY: Oldenberg's supersized sculptures of cardboard, burlap, and newspaper molded into everything from cigarettes to lingerie and melting banana splits. The 1960s icon somehow manages to make plaster look mouthwateringly delicious. Image: Claes Oldenburg (American, born Sweden 1929). Pastry Case, I, 1961-62. Painted plaster sculptures on ceramic plates, metal platter and cubs in glass-and-metal case. 20 3/4 x 30 1/8 x 14 3/4” (52.7 x 76.5 x 37.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 1961-62 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: MoMA Imaging Services

  • Yael Bartana

    WHAT: Yael Bartana: "And Europe Will Be Stunned" WHEN: April 4 - May 4, 2013 WHERE: <a href="http://www.petzel.com/exhibitions/2013-04-04_yael-bartana/" target="_blank">Petzel Gallery</a>, New York WHY: Bartana, an Israeli artist, will show her trilogy of films depicting a Jewish utopian political group that calls for the return to the land of their forefathers. As The Guardian described, "<a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/may/13/art-exhibition" target="_blank">Everything appears both real and unreal. Study the credits and you will find that this is profoundly true, that the actors performing the roles are also playing themselves.</a>" Image: Yael Bartana Zamach (Assassination) 2011 RED transferred to HD Duration: 35 minutes Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

  • Saloua Raouda Choucair

    WHAT: Saloua Raouda Choucair WHEN: April 17 – October 20 2013 WHERE: Tate Modern WHY: At 97 years old, the Lebanese pioneer of abstract art is finally getting her due. Choucair's works, which combine modernism's abstract aesthetic with the motifs of traditional Islamic design, have not previously been shown outside her native country. Image: Saloua Raouda Choucair, Self Portrait 1943 © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

  • All You Need Is Love

    WHAT: "All You Need Is Love" WHEN: April 26 - September 1 WHERE: <a href="http://www.mori.art.museum/english/contents/love/about/index.html" target="_blank">Mori Art Museum</a>, Tokyo WHY: First of all, the exhibition statement begins: "For human beings, love is the most precious of things." In honor of Mori's 10th anniversary, they've compiled a heartbreakingly stellar show capturing renderings of love from Marc Chagall to Yayoi Kusama. The 200 works will explore different kinds of love from romantic and familial bonds to the ones forged online. Image: Yayoi Kusama Love Is Calling 2013 Mixed Media Installation Artist Support: ASAHI GLASS CO., LTD.

  • John Singer Sargent

    WHAT: John Singer Sargent: "Watercolors" WHEN: April 5–July 28, 2013 WHERE: Brooklyn Museum WHY: For the first time the Brooklyn Museum's collection of Sargent's watercolors will be shown alongside those acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the early twentieth century. We're expecting it to be very juicy (and also watery.) Image: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Bedouins, circa 1905–6. Opaque and translucent watercolor, 18 x 12 in. (45.7 x 30.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum,

  • Yael Kanarek

    WHAT: Yael Kanarek: "High Performance Gear" WHEN: April 18 - May 25, 2013 WHERE: <a href="http://www.bitforms.com/upcoming-exhibitions.html#id=167&num=1" target="_blank">bitforms gallery</a> WHY: Israeli-American artist Kanarek explores the ramifications of a Networked society, where everything can be digitized, connected and synchronized. Through storytelling and multilingualism, Kanarek toys with how language and signifiers shape reality. Image: Yael Kanarek Deeply Concentric, 2013 wood, the word “white” in silicone in nine languages: Amharic, Arabic, English, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, Latin, Russian diameter 42” / 106.7 cm, depth 2” / 5.1 cm

  • I, YOU, WE

    WHAT: "I, YOU, WE" WHEN: April 25 - September 1, 2013 WHERE: <a href="http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/IYouWe" target="_blank">Whitney</a>, New York WHY: Aside from 1990s art being so hot right now, this exhibition marks the final installment of a two-year exhibition exploring the Whitney's permanent collection. Also, the conceptual show is jam-packed with our favorite artists including Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Kiki Smith, David Salle, Francesca Woodman, Carrie Mae Weems... you get the picture. Image: Tina Barney, (b. 1945), The Landscape, (1988). Chromogenic print, Overall: 45 3/8 × 58 3/8in. (115.3 × 148.3cm Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz 93.11 © Tina Barney

  • Salvador Dalí

    WHAT: "Dalí. All of the poetic suggestions and all of the plastic possibilities" WHEN: April 27 - September 2, 2013 WHERE: <a href="http://www.museoreinasofia.es/exposiciones/futuras_en.html" target="_blank">Museo Reina Sofia</a>, Madrid WHY: After attracting a whopping 790,090 visitors at the Pompidou, the world's favorite Lobster Phone spokesperson heads to Spain.

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