NEW YORK — Noise never sleeps in the city. Streets are choked with vehicles that produce a near constant din of rumbling engines. Parks are often full of chattering crowds on sunny days.
The clamor is enough to make even the hardiest New Yorkers brainsick, thirsting for a spot of tranquility in the swirl of urban chaos.
An exhibit by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes that opened in a downtown Brooklyn storefront on Thursday for eight days in June could be just the palliative for the over-worked, over-stimulated New Yorker.
Called the "Sanatorium," it is a temporary clinic where visitors can participate in 15 different idiosyncratic and tongue-in-cheek therapies that aim to lighten the load of urban life. The therapies draw from Gestalt psychology, conflict resolution techniques, corporate coaching, psychodrama, art performance and hypnosis. Volunteers will be on hand to guide visitors through the activities.
"It's like a series of self-discovery games," said Reyes who was sporting a lab coat during a recent visit to the sprawling "Sanatorium," which covers two floors of an approximately 25,000-square-foot space. The artist is known for enigmatic, participatory works that blend sculpture, architecture and performance. Among his best known works is "Floating Pyramid," a 20-foot white pyramid cast off into a Puerto Rico bay in 2004, forcing people to swim out to reach it.
Crystal Butler, 42, is one of the volunteer "therapists." She said she could relate to the concepts at work in Reyes' clinic.
"New York has a level of human contact and activity and noise than I have ever come in contact with in any of the other cities I lived in," said Butler, who has lived in Washington, D.C., and Dallas, and recently moved here from Los Angeles. "People need more of a respite."
The exhibit is the first in a series of interdisciplinary works commissioned for a two-year project by the Guggenheim Museum exploring "stillness" that will include contributions from composer Arvo Part, architectural firms Snohetta and Solid Objectives and surprise performances throughout the city by the group Improv Everywhere.
An online component includes video and data studies of noise and stillness by graduate students, including an interactive map of about 270,000 noise complaints to the city's 311 line between 2004 and 2005.
A glance at complaints on the map recorded between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. demonstrates how ubiquitous and constant noise is: One caller said the resident in a nearby apartment at Ninth Avenue and West 43rd Street was "creating a disturbance by dropping item on the floor, moving furniture and generally making a lot of noise."
Up the street, another caller complained of "excessive noise coming from a delivery truck." And a couple blocks away, a caller complained of a man in a hallway yelling for somebody named "Tony" for 30 minutes.
Curator David van der Leer, who is originally from Holland, said he was struck by the commotion when he moved to New York City five years ago. "It's such a noisy city in comparison to other cities around the world," he said. "I wanted to do a project that was related to finding these quiet moments."
He said the "Sanatorium" could help visitors take a step back and reflect on their lives and the city around them.
"By doing so, I think we are creating a nice, quiet zone in downtown Brooklyn," he said.
Much like an actual clinic, visitors are greeted by receptionists, who determine what kind of therapy is appropriate to their needs, and then are directed to sit in a "waiting room" before being able to proceed.
There is "The Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes," where visitors curate miniature exhibits of their lives with the help of a therapist by placing small objects — tarot cards, trinkets, toys — that represent different phases of their life inside a maze-like model of a museum.
Troy Turnwald, 24, wearing baby-blue tennis shoes, a tie and jeans, was among the first visitors to curate his own miniature museum show, and said it was "extremely enlightening" to be able to associate the objects with his life. He said he had come to the exhibit to find some tranquility.
"Everybody's got stress in their lives, and I was curious to see what was being done here to alleviate that," said Turnwald, a cashier at a Brooklyn supermarket who moved to the city about a year ago from Grand Rapids, Mich. "I just sometimes feel assaulted by the immensity of the city."
Another therapy is "Goodoo," where visitors are asked to direct their "healing energies" to other people by adorning voodoo dolls with ornaments like red silk flowers, light bulbs and toy guitars. The "goodoo" dolls can then be taken home.
Somewhat more seriously, or perhaps more gut-wrenching, is a piece called "The Vaccine against Violence," in which each visitor is asked to express their urban frustrations by attacking a hooded dummy with a balloon for a head and sporting a drawing of whatever is causing the stress. (The idea was developed by Antana Mockus, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia).
Mel Bucholtz, of Boulder, Co., will be leading individuals and groups to relax and reflect on their lives through a short therapeutic hypnosis technique he refers to as "the tuning effect."
"I think people can benefit a lot from getting a little bit of distance from noise and frenetic activity," he said of the exhibit. "They can actually come to a place and play to do it."
On the first day of the exhibit, in the dimly-lit basement of the building, about two dozen people were spread out in front of Bucholtz on a mat, lounging, sitting or lying down on pillows.
As Bucholtz's soothing voice softly guided participants through the 20-minute exercise, the faintest of snores could be heard in the room, though sleep was not the intention — and Bucholtz would pleasantly ask for people to stay awake. The objective of the exercise, he explained, was to slow the conscious mind's brainwaves and to bring people to a sense of stillness where they can "objectively observe highly charged issues."
After the session, Dean Daderko said he was surprised by how much calmer he felt after the exercise.
"I feel like we get used to feeling perpetually overwhelmed," said the 39-year-old who has lived in New York City since 1996. He said when he leaves the city for the countryside or beaches, he realizes how constant the stress is.
"I always describe the beach as having a pipe cleaner through my brain," he said. "It's like things get cleaned out there."
Another volunteer therapist, Anna Konkle, 24, grew up in Vermont and in a small town in Massachusetts, but moved to New York City six years ago to go to acting school. She said she grew up with a mother who practiced meditation, surrounded by nature.
Though what attracted to her the city was the hubbub and lifestyle, she said it is a struggle to stay in the present and focused.
"Here, more than anywhere else, I want to go to therapy," she said. "Here, you can easily be broken down. There is so much stimulation."
Guggenheim Museum's "stillspotting nyc": http://stillspotting.guggenheim.org/
Pedro Reyes' Blog: http://www.blog.pedroreyes.net
Follow Cristian Salazar on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/crsalazar
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