For one of Manhattan’s largest public art projects to date, Brooklyn-based artist Molly Dilworth was awarded a commission from the New York City Department of Transportation to create a temporary site-specific installation in Times Square designed to “refresh and revive” the streetscape. Dilworth’s work, Cool Water, Hot Island, is a fifty-thousand-square-foot painting that winds through five city blocks. Her project diary can be found on the artist’s Flickr website.
TIMES SQUARE is a funny place because it’s so coded, iconic, and commercial, and most New Yorkers avoid it unless they work there. At the same time, it’s like a live microphone, so everyone is aware of what’s happening there. Cool Water, Hot Island is a performative public project in a venue that could be watched live in real time. Getting started, I read Mannahatta by Eric Sanderson and studied Manhattan’s natural history as a pre–twentieth century site, specifically in relationship to how it feels now: wired, chaotic, almost illegible. I spent a lot of time thinking about the balance of freedom, control, and playfulness––particularly in the work of Brian Eno and John Cage. A Year with Swollen Appendices, Eno’s diary, is a touchstone. I wanted to create a public project that would feel calm––and like it belonged. I studied the 2002 NASA infrared scan of Manhattan and created a design that covered five city blocks. I decided to take that design, translate it through the poured-painting process that I have explored for some years, and stretch the whole thing to create a “river” flowing through Times Square. Later, I learned that at one time there existed three estuaries nearby called the Great Kill.
Prior to this project, I was creating paintings on rooftops, specifically so they would be photographed and documented by Google Earth. The idea was to invert my typical relationship with technology by making a real thing to be experienced in the virtual world. I am interested in technology’s potential to overwrite the codes of public and private space. The rooftop project began as an abstraction, but once I started working, it developed into a rich set of practical issues related to sustainable building and cutting-edge environmental technologies. I used these technologies as much as possible in Cool Water, Hot Island.
The work is fifty thousand square feet, on Broadway between Forty-second and Forty-seventh streets, and it is made of street paint mixed with grit and hardener. My crew consisted of men who work for a contractor that is often hired to do large road-painting jobs for the city. I worked with the contractor to figure out what types of painting processes were possible in relationship to my design, and I spent a great deal of time figuring out a stenciling system that would be flexible and tough enough to work on the ground. I designed a set of about forty stencils to create the curves and patterns of the painting. I’ve made several large-scale works in the past, so I had a sense of what I was aiming for, but I was nervous since I didn’t have any room for error. Street paint is like an epoxy, and it takes a few hours to harden, so tiny amounts of rain would ruin a coat of paint. There were a lot of little bumps in the road––and environmental situations, like leaking hydrants––but the weather was by far the biggest challenge.
Initially I was nervous to work in Times Square. I had an amorphous fear of the crowds there. My fear turned out to be totally unfounded. I had amazing encounters with people: I bumped into a friend’s mom I hadn’t seen in twenty years, a paint manufacturer who saved me days of research, a professor from the Annenberg School for Communication who invited me to speak at Cardozo Law School, and many others. I was surprised how much I liked working in public. It’s exhausting, and I couldn’t really socialize while on the job, but it was good to put myself in such a vulnerable situation. I was learning at warp speed and receiving superpowered feedback.