A space of solidarity in the context of public transit needs to be able to respond to the tendency of personal territoriality. Through creating simple, shared experiences, we create a sense of connection between riders that extends beyond the time spent on the T.
By Daniel Shieh, Delaram Rahim, Eunsu Kim, Harvard GSD
Public transportation constraints large numbers of strangers in one place for a certain period. Also, it is a unique public space where people with varying backgrounds are assembled in a small space. The space between people, or interpersonal distance, creates and defines the dynamics of social interactions. Public transportation, as a social infrastructure, serves as a platform of having all different types of people together, but sometimes it causes discomfort.
According to Edward T. Hall’s Proxemics study, intimate distance, which is defined as closer than 18 inches, is used in very close relationships and personal distance is within 1.5-2.5 feet.  The interpersonal distance in subways are usually indicated within the range of intimate distance and personal distance. In most of the cases, passengers on subways have to experience these two interpersonal distances with strangers. The breach of physical distance on a personal and intimate level often causes disturbance and even undermines passengers’ personal territories, yet in the context of the subway, it is normally accepted as a non-intimidating situation. When passengers breach each other’s personal distance, it also causes minimizing personal territories.  Then, passengers tend to create personal mental spaces by listening to music and playing with their smartphones, which enables them to maintain their personal territory, even though it is a public zone. This allows them to feel more psychologicallycomfortable in situations where personal invasion might occur. iv In this project, we focused on the passengers’ behavior of keeping their bubble in public realms and attempted an intervention to publicize their personal space without undermining their bubble.
Much effort has been made to enrich the rider experience by adding public artworks to the stations and inviting music performers, as an addition to goals of safety and efficiency. However, the subway car remains to be viewed as space predominantly focused on safety, effectiveness, and ad revenue. MBTA previously held poetry in motion events on subway cars,v but there were no further art initiatives on the subway cars. Other well-known interventions to alter subways, in NYC, such as Train Passengers Sing Over the Rainbow! by The Liberators International, are more intense initiatives that take the form of short-lived spectacle to temporarily change people’s perception of the subway car’s function.
In contrast, Art on the T transforms personal space into a connected space without forcing public transit riders into deliberate interaction with one another or other high-level engagement with others. A space of solidarity in the context of public transit needs to be able to respond to the tendency of personal territoriality. Through creating simple shared experiences, a sense of connection is built between riders. Participants are invited to do simple tasks—low-effort activities which call for a moment of pause and share a communal experience with other passengers. The tasks include multiple formats from simple drawings to poem writings which reflect the physical or emotional status of passengers. Additionally, the collected artworks are combined into books and placed on the seats of the subway for the result of this experience to be shared.
Art on the T is an iterative project of engaging the community on the train and with that result, giving back something to the train to change the culture and the atmosphere of the public transit. In the same context, the artworks are uploaded on Instagram to have the shared experience last beyond the duration of the train ride. This delayed communication through online platform brings another method of interaction, which enables the participants to be involved in a more informative way. For instance, during the train ride, people encountering the drawing exercises first read the exercise prompt then look around at other people, trying to see how others react. Passengers already on the train may also look at how newcomers react, sometimes starting a conversation over it. As they participate, they focus more on themselves, letting the marks on the paper reflect a part of their identity. Afterward, they leave their work on the seat, knowing that others will see it and that it will join other’s work on the online platform Instagram. The passengers’ artworks are then compiled onto Instagram, an online platform, so they can later look at others’ works and stay connected as an online community.The exercise is implemented repetitively. Therefore, it remains as a not just a one-time experience, but as a culture. Through the repetitive process, passengers are able to recognize the project and find their own work from the distributed books and online platform. The project is not limited in the result such as artworks or books, but the entire process itself is the project, which makes it a space of solidarity. However, the ongoing project of Art on the T takes pauses in the process and gives back something to the train station for the passengers to learn about this project and see their “finished” work. The results are also compiled in a more permanent format such as the books, and a more monumental form such as an art proposal for the platform which consists of the collection of the images and phrases produced by the passengers on the train.
Lexicon keywords: Subway cart, Reflection space, @/# artontheT, Shared experience
Art on the T was created by a group of interdisciplinary students at Harvard GSD, ranging from backgrounds in landscape architecture, architecture to fine arts and public art.
Daniel Shieh is a 2nd year student in the Master of Design in Art, Design, and the Public Domain. He is an artist who makes interactive artworks that allow people to understand and connect with each other in a different way.
Delaram Rahim is a designer with background in architecture and public art. Currently she is a 1st year candidate for Master of design studies in Art, Design and the Public Domain. She practices the interdisciplinary relationship of art and architecture and integrating art and culture into architectural design.
Eunsu Kim is a designer pursuing the master’s degree in landscape architecture. Her interest is in the intersection of technology, design and human experience.