It's Up!

A project log for Babel in Reverse

178 ESP32s under the Manhattan Bridge talking and singing in endangered languages to passers-by

owen-truebloodOwen Trueblood 01/23/2023 at 23:580 Comments

(Photo by Hassan Mokaddam)

Babel in Reverse” is an art installation under the Manhattan Bridge in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn. It features 178 hanging lamp-like custom devices that illuminate the archway space and play audio consisting of interviews, songs, lessons, and other types of recordings of people speaking some of the more than 700 languages spoken around New York City. Each unit in the array is assigned a language. The installation cycles through several dynamic behaviors highlighting different sets of units over time. For example, playing only units with recordings of music or playing a section of units that moves like a wave from one end of the arch to the other.

My collaborator, Joseph Morris, and I partnered with the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) for the project. They have been working since 2010 to document Indigenous, minority, and endangered languages around New York City and beyond. Without audio from their extensive collection of interviews (most are on their YouTube channel, but also take a look at their language map) it would not have been possible to create our installation.

It took us more than two years to realize the project. Pandemic supply chain issues and work disruptions significantly impacted us, greatly complicating fabrication of our custom hardware and generally messing up our timeline.

In this blog my aim is to retroactively document the work that went into making this art installation a reality, how we overcame the challenges along the way, and hopefully inspire others to take on creating their own public art. I’ll cover the technical bits, the logistics, and expand on some of the side quests that I went down trying to get this built within our budget and on time. There were many mistakes made along the way. I’ll dig into some of those and distill the lessons that I’m taking away for my next projects.

The installation is up right now and will be until about May 2023. If you happen to live nearby feel free to stop by for a visit! The address is 1 Anchorage Place, Brooklyn, NY.