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A photograph of Times Square with a grate prominently featured.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out | Find this enigmatic sound installation right here.

You’ve probably stepped on this secret artwork in Times Square

Listen closely to discover this unmarked artwork.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Every day, thousands of people walk through Times Square, rushing to catch the subway, heading to work, meandering through shops—many of them unaware that they're stepping over a revolutionary art project that's been a part of the city for decades. 

Purposely unmarked, it's easy to miss this piece of auditory art because truly experiencing it requires tuning into a specific frequency in the most cacophonous place in America. The late artist Max Neuhaus's installation called "Times Square" sounds like the echo of a bell ringing. It's hard to place this droning tone among all the other noises there, especially because the sound emanates from a typical grate right beneath your feet. 

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Most people breeze by the Broadway Pedestrian Plaza between 45th and 46th Streets. Every once in a while, a bit of sound might catch someone's attention, resulting in a furrowed brow or a glance around the area. What was that? Is someone listening to music without headphones? Is that the subway? Why does it sound like someone running their finger along the edge of a crystal glass?

The sound blends in with the background noise of sirens, horns honking, overheard conversations, people dressed up like Elmo asking for a picture. That's exactly as the artist intended. 

"The work is an invisible unmarked block of sound," the artist described in a brochure about the work. "Its sonority, a rich harmonic sound texture resembling the after ring of large bells, is an impossibility within its context. Many who pass through it, however, can dismiss it as an unusual machinery sound from below ground. For those who find and accept the sound’s impossibility though, the island becomes a different place, separate, but including its surroundings. These people, having no way of knowing that it has been deliberately made, usually claim the work as a place of their own discovering."  

An archival photo of Times Square.
Photograph: Max Neuhaus, Times Square, 1977. © The Estate of Max Neuhaus. Image courtesy Estate of Max Neuhaus

The perpetual humming of the city itself

Though Neuhaus was a skilled percussionist who’d played for audiences around the globe, including at Carnegie Hall, he wanted to make his work available to all, Jean Cooney, director of Times Square Arts, tells Time Out in an interview. So, she says, he took his artwork to the most visible place in America—and buried it. 

“It could be for anybody coming from any background to experience the work,” she says. “It really isn’t far off from what ambient and background sounds you’d hear in NYC. It’s not far off from the perpetual humming of the city itself. You really have to listen more deeply to discover it.” 

The artwork has a reputation as “underground”—and not just literally. While some people know about it and have nicknamed it “The Times Square Hum,” Cooney says, many others have never experienced the art. 

“I don’t see a lot of people stopping and hearing it,” she adds.

The artist adamantly declined signage at the location, instead creating what Dia Art Foundation Curator Alexis Lowry described as "a chance experience." 

“Neuhaus was really into this idea of soundscapes and this work being encountered in an unmediated way,” Lowry says in an interview Time Out. "It’s deliberately meant to be unplaceable."

A close-up of a grate in Times Square.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out | Artwork hidden in plain sight.

Anti-institutional art 

When Neuhaus first created the work in 1977, it was a very different era for public art in the city, Cooney explains.

“The lore is that there’s almost a lawlessness of taking over and activating public spaces. Artists were becoming increasingly frustrated with this highly gated, elitist model of producing art,” she says. As artists faced challenges garnering museum attention, they created an anti-institutional model.

“His decision and interest in making this work was very much in line with that cultural moment,” Cooney says. “It was a conscious anti-institutional decision.” 

After pausing his music career, Neuhaus began experimenting with acoustics and electronics, according to his biography. He spent four years negotiating with the Metropolitan Transit Authority to earn permission to create the "Times Square" installation.

The artist maintained the installation until 1992 when he was no longer able to care for it. The sound vanished until 2002 when Dia Art Foundation began overseeing the speaker/amp system and maintaining the artist's vision even after his death. 

“He was interested in drawing people’s attention to perceptual tuning,” Lowry says. “You become attentive to a set of circumstances through the feel and the texture of the air around us.”

In this piece, sound becomes what she describes as "a sculptural element." 

There's not technically much to "see." If you gaze into the grate where the sound radiates, you'll see confetti, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, chewed gum, plastic cutlery and a lost driver's license. Instead, experiencing this artwork is about feeling, not seeing. 

“I hope that the work tunes people into their environment,” Lowry says, “and maybe they pause for a moment and put their phone down and look around.”  

How to experience "Times Square" 

The work is on view 24/7, but we recommend visiting in the early morning when it's quieter. Head to the Broadway Pedestrian Plaza between 45th and 46th Streets (between Broadway and Seventh Avenue), remove your headphones and listen. 

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