On june 10, 1998, the NBA Finals (Chicago Bulls versus Utah Jazz) were shown in actual time and almost actual size on the giant Panasonic screen of the Times Tower building in the center of Times Square. Quite unusually, the pace in a limited area slowed down to a full stop. A group of homeless people had set up a TV lounge with knocked over BID (Business Improvement District) orange trashcans. Two young guys were sitting on mailboxes. A larger group gathered around the information panels behind the army recruitment booth. A couple stopped to watch the game, placing their hands on a light pole. When, carried away by the spectacle, the woman ventured a few steps on the sidewalk to get a better view, her partner reminded her: "The pole! The pole!" and grabbed her, pulling her back in place to prevent her from getting swept away. In fact, each person at rest was anchored by a piece of urban furniture to this island amidst the rushing flow of Times Square. Suspiciously, the cops started to drive in circles around our momentarily crystallized territory. Suddenly, we were standing out. We were still. That day, I understood that Times Square was all about flows. I also understood why I sensed a feeling of vacuity. Times Square was an empty space, constantly passed through, with no place to stop.
To explore this problem, I wanted my questions about change in Times Square to avoid the well worn path of "Disneyfication." Inspired by Georg Simmel and the Chicago School of Sociology, I turned to the concept of "interstice." It seems that each urban mutation produces its own interstices, temporary gaps where people can produce innovative responses to the disorganization provoked by change. Times Square is a perfect example of a current mutation, the digital revolution, the means of infinite reproducibility of information. However, because of the ongoing street traffic, it also feels empty.
Is Times Square an interstice of the global city? Is it totally controlled or is it also proposing innovative responses? The concept of interstice poses the metropolis as a mentality and the stranger as its analyst. It is a zone of "pure mobility." It describes the ability of being in between two or more different situations without moving. As the city is in constant evolution, disorganization is a permanent challenge and mobility a constant answer. Mobility is social as well as spatial. It is the ability to move from one place to another, from one social status to another, from one neighborhood to another. Pure mobility is "just the idea of motion which we have when we think of it by itself, when, so to speak, from motion we abstract movement."1 An interstice is an immobile zone that nevertheless is in contact with a number of other places. Because of this, it is in constant becoming and can generate innovative responses to change. I decided to look for pure mobility in Times Square. I quickly found a guide in the Senegalese peddlers. By observing them, day after day, I learned to look at Times Square through the lens of mobility.
Despite all the efforts of the City and the communications industry (through BID) to control and cleanse Times Square of the disorder of public life, the "Crossroads of the World" is still alive. The very effort of transforming Times Square into a "Virtual Entertainment Center" of the world ignores the physical spatial interstices from where vitality springs. Of course, this energy is almost always considered an unauthorized use of public space. The Senegalese peddlers, besides stealing revenue from the IRS, are commonly seen as sidewalk obstacles and, therefore, as a threat to the public. But who are we speaking about? Who is the public? In this case, it is a crowd of disembodied humans whose unique goal in life is to browse smoothly through our communication networks. The public of the New Times Square is composed of tourists who are also TV watchers. Advertisers, rather than tourists, now pay for Times Square. This public is standardized and categorized. It must behave and look good.
Besides the routine movement of tourists and workers, there are two different mobilities indicative of the changes in Times Square. The first one is located outside the flow. It is quicker and captures the flow. It is represented by communication networks and real estate development. The second one is located inside the flow. It is slower, interstitial, and unauthorized. It is represented, among others, by the Senegalese vendors. Both affect the public order of Times Square.
The unique position of the Senegalese vendors, who constantly shift between two different involvements, helped me to distinguish these two mobilities. First, as peddlers, they stand out and hail the public. However, their activity is perceived as disrespectful to the gathering at large. According to the Midtown Community Court of Justice, it is a crime against the "quality of life." As pedestrians, then, they make an effort to fit in, to become part of the flow. They merge into the crowd as undercover vendors. For this purpose, they must pay a great deal of attention to their field of vision. They rely on a double field of visibility: from the bottom looking up (the pedestrians eyes) and from the top looking down (the corporate buildings and their employees). In looking at the vendors tactics for evading capture by the police and by the cameras, I started to uncover a whole network of visual authority. I suggest that Times Square is a huge apparatus designed to capture images of an excited crowd at the "crossroads of the world." Cameras are everywhere, held by tourists, anchored on buildings, moving through the streets. This is the first type of mobility.
The main consequence that the New Times Square has on public order is the redefinition of the physical place as a visual background. It supposes that there is another space, the foreground, controlled by the commercial world of capital flows. The investors and entrepreneurs are mostly communication networks such as Warner Brothers, Disney, Virgin, MTV, Reuters, Bertelsman, and ABC, who confer the roles of extras to members of the public. These companies use the image of Times Square as a background for their own image. MTV is the most obvious example. Its studios, on the second floor of one of the new buildings, overlook the square, and they have not only transformed their facade into a giant screen, but also into a huge camera lens. On MTVs "Top Ten Countdown," you can see the host of the show on the foreground which is set against the movement of the square in the background. The camera then starts travelling and fades into a video clip on a television set a few feet away.
Times Squares apparatus extracts rough images, just as the mining industry extracted ore in the 19th century. Pedestrians are the miners of the digital age. Their labor is less physically intensive and more rewarding. However, it is not paid. Pedestrianism is a part-time job where work and play are one and the same. Strolling up and down Times Square is actually very enjoyable. It provides a powerful feeling of participation and involvement in a global dynamic. Young people are probably the ones to feel this most zealously, taking pride to give their best performance as "extras." Times Square depends on this population to maintain the value of its images. Therefore, the "foreground" must trust the actors, especially the walk-ons who do not get paid. To be allowed in the scope of a big company camera is thus a form of trustworthiness. It is a kind of cooperation between multinational corporations and the public. Times Square provides pedestrians with the powerful experience of feeling as if they are at the center of the world. The colors, the movement, and the noise work together to construct this atmosphere.
Only global organizations that have the connections to exploit the place differential between Times Square and the rest of the world can afford to invest in Times Square real estate. The flow of tourists and youngsters captured in the afternoon by MTV is redistributed that same evening nationwide. Images of people travel much faster than their models. By the time you get home to watch TV, your passage there is already history. It has been documented, distributed, and possibly archived. Times Square works best as a complement to the dullness of suburbia.
However, there are some drawbacks to this quite enjoyable situation. Times Square realizes the greatest possible relative surplus value, and companies can produce highly valuable images with limited costs. This constitutes an appropriation of work because a movement in space that produces a commodity should be considered labor. However, the "extras" get no wages for their work. In terms of surplus value, this entails a huge increase in productivitycompared to professional actors, for example. For if the laborers do not get a salary, the entire profit goes to the entrepreneur.
Another interesting consequence is the path of money. The real clients of Times Square are the companies who use its background to enhance their image. Thus Times Square derives its profit from companies who derive their profits from the financial markets, from people who buy their products and from people who make them. Money, therefore, is exterior to the physical site, although you can still spend your salary there if you wish. In this way, Times Square can be described as a tax-exempt zone. The State agrees to help maintain the necessary visual order and to waive taxation on real estate and on labor, in exchange for a more productive global economy that brings taxes at another level.
This kind of global business necessitates control on the ground. It requires a heavy surveillance of Times Square. Consequently, the BID, with its police forces, cleaning teams, and site publicity, can be viewed as stage manager and producer. They make sure that the extras behave, that the flow proceeds uninterrupted, and that the set remains aseptic. Enlisted for these tasks are two NYPD precincts, a special midtown task force, mounted police, BID police, Guardian Angels, and undercover agents. While some unusual behavior is accepted and even encouraged (Ricky Martins fans yelling in the middle of the square, Black Jewish preachers), a whole range of activities are not (homeless people, peddlers, hustlers). In other words, you can be normal or eccentric, but you cannot neglect your role as extra. I like to call this the discipline of the image, be it the image of a person or the image of a place. This is quite an important move in our society. One important restriction is on images of poverty because these do not fit into the companies vision of the New Times Square. Therefore, any images of a "third world market" are forbidden. Another restriction is on "hanging out." Stillness corrupts the flow. This is why the Senegalese peddlers have become unauthorized in Times Square. However, they are still here. They are not remnants of another time, but rather the parasites of the New Times Square. For this purpose, they have proliferated: an interstitial mobility which has its own effects on the place. This mobility is the background noise in the picture, as opposed to the foreground mobility of big companies.
The vendors are dangerous for two reasons. First, they corrupt the picture. If they get captured by a camera, they rupture the compatibility of the background with the foreground projected by the communications networks. Second, they slow down the flow and lower the density of excitement captured in Times Square. The first danger is entirely structural. The reproduction of images does not distinguish between the good and the bad. It reproduces the vendors along with others and distributes them widely. Thus the risk of corruption of the image by poverty spreads with the acceleration of communication technologies. This problem has led to a specific distribution of space within Times Square. Except when they venture out of their usual places, the vendors are mostly pushed to the blind spots of the camera. Assigned police officers occupy the borders of the designated areas, dissuading the vendors from entering this field of vision, and thus protect the money shots. This occupation has led to a particular spatial distribution of cops and vendors. However, in reality, there is no single corner exempt from the camera because tourists, armed with cameras, cover the entire square. Later, they may display their pictures on the Internet. Therefore, the position of the Senegalese vendors in Times Square is far from insignificant. It is, in fact, simply the least dangerous compromise for everybody involved. This tells us a great deal about the spatial lines of tension. The visual is not an internalized uniform field of power as discipline is in the Foucauldian sense. It has its interstices, margins of maneuver for "others."
The second danger is more general. Along with others, Senegalese vendors slow down the flow of pedestrians. They even sometimes provoke a little congestion. Although it may seem unimportant at first, it is actually a big problem for both the companies and the City who work together in Times Square. For companies, it is useless to have connections at speeds of hundreds of megabytes per second if the flow is stuck at the source. This breach of the flow can severely impair the apparatus of capture. For the City, circulation is more a question of public order. As a partner to the companies, the City has the responsibility of maintaining a steady flow. This is not new. In 1906, Mayor McClellan already faced this problem. The peddlers, he noted, "should remember that they have not a vested right to use the streets for the purpose of trade, that the streets are highways and are intended solely for that purpose."2
This general emphasis on the visual is just another step towards more stimulation that produces reserve between people. If these "matter-of-fact attitudes"3 are adopted, it is not because they are an expression of our essence, but because it helps us resist the overwhelming stimuli and, thus, stay open to a manageable amount of contact opportunities. Therefore, reserve is good. However, as people seem to enjoy the excitement of Times Square, they might forget that the reserve they feel toward one another is a product of the overwhelming stimuli and confuse it with something deeper. In other words, people might get caught up by the visual dictatorship and forget that reserve is nothing but a means of managing interactions in public space. When it becomes a way to miss interaction, nothing happens, and real vacuity takes over.
Luckily, the Senegalese vendors in Times Square remind us that this is all a game. In opening their attaché-case, they disclose their disruption. They transform the whole background into a site rich with potentialities. Above everything else, they force pedestrians into an awareness of their situation. They hail them and, incidentally, show that there is something more than pure image. Not something beyond the visual but something short of the visual. In 1998 and 1999, the 42nd Street Redevelopment Project organized an exhibition entitled "The People of 42nd Street," sponsored by the Durst Organization, developer of the Condé-Nast building, and the Empire Development Corporation. The exhibition featured an extensive collection of actual size portraits displayed along the wooden fence of the construction site. Faced with all these virtual people, I wondered if we, the actual pedestrians, would soon be replaced by our pictures. Luckily, hologram technology has not yet reached that stage of development.
One reason to get rid of parasitic bodies would be to eliminate the risk of coagulation. This is another reminder provided by the Senegalese vendors. By slowing down the flow, they save the possibility of a mass takeover of Times Square. In this regard, they are the would-be catalyst of a solidification of the stream. Traffic jams are not such a problem on the road. The cars still protect people from interacting and the flow from crystallizing. In suburbia, the risk is limited. On the sidewalk, the risk is far greater. The NBA Finals in 1998, which brought movement to a halt in Times Square, is a good example of how technology can backfire. It proved to me that Times Square was still alive, that it was possible to hang out, that space was still public. This is what the Senegalese vendors symbolize in an everyday perspective. If public space is to be accessible, it should not only be passed through, it should be occupied. Our cities propose only two alternatives: getting stuck in a ghettobe it East Harlem or Sohoor stuck in motion.
Even if small sidewalk jams do not lead to confrontation, much less to revolution, they are sites for social innovation. The Senegalese vendors have reinvented a centuries-old social economy. Instead of informal labor, such as the low-wage labor of undocumented immigrants, theirs can be described as marginal labor in a precise sense. Marginal economies were originally the practice of traditional societies. They were based on the principle of exchange and did not require money. The value of the merchandise was defined by the next-to-the-last object exchanged. The Senegalese vendors are constantly selling their next-to-the-last item, waiting to have enough money to return home and settle down. The crucial notion here is stock. The Senegalese vendors do not have stock, either in merchandise or money. They acquire their stock through the last transaction, which is immediately converted into a house in Senegal or is sometimes used to secure immigrant status in the US.
Times Square is the theater of a double economic play between global capital and a marginal economy. The relationship between the two is not complementary but extremely contextual. Times Squares marginal economy lies in the interstices of the global apparatus. It stands in a position of exteriority (pure mobility) in the heart of its space.4 The Senegalese vendors show that the city is not merely the territory of the State or of global capital. They reinforce the idea that a metropolis is above all a state of mind and not a simple economic and/or administrative settlement of populations. They show that interstices pervade even the most technological tools of capture. The pure mobility of the interstice shows us that the public exists in the possibility of acceleration and deceleration. The public lies in the differential of speeds, in the realm of contextual action.
The space of the New Times Square is still enjoyable. What is threatening is its foreground. The public of Times Square is still alive, thanks to the intervention of certain people operating from its material interstices. The image of Times Square, distributed around the world, does not offer the same possibility. It only injects the feeling of excitement into contexts, which is not always reflected at the level of experience. Therefore, corporations print their trademarks on the foreground and encourage people to buy excitement in the specially designed malls of their neighborhoods, excitement that has been brought to them directly from the "Crossroads of the World." Suburbia becomes the modern outskirt of Times Square.
photographs by Stéphane Tonnelat