Torn, Bent, Dinged or Unhinged

The New York Times, April 13, 2002

Several seconds into their expedition down West 31st Street on Wednesday, David Wondrich and Kenneth Goldsmith found what they were looking for.

"Here's a really nice one," Mr. Goldsmith said, pointing his digital camera at a strip of steel running up the side of a building that bordered a parking lot. The steel was bent and dinged at waist level, as if, perhaps, it had been backed into by a truck.

"Let me get my notebook out," Mr. Wondrich said, and he began scribbling.

The men are not city inspectors, except in the most general sense of the term. They are artists. And at a time when New York is focused on rebuilding, Mr. Wondrich and Mr. Goldsmith have embarked on a rather contrarian project called Broken New York that is both a heartfelt valentine to imperfection and a semirigorous attempt to catalog every type of streetscape defect the city has to offer, from bent signposts to buckled pedestals to blown-out utility boxes.

Broken New York is part of the Free Biennial that opened last week, a virtual annex to the 2002 Whitney Biennial Exhibition uptown. So far, the two men's Web site,, contains 90 images, including such ready-made classics as "Mashed cooling ribs, 40 Park Avenue," "Sprung vent-plate, 213 Madison Avenue" and "Spalled concrete, Pershing Square."

Part of Broken New York, a series of photographs of the city's open flaws taken and displayed by the artists Kenneth Goldsmith and David Wondrich, includes three shots taken in Manhattan: "Archipelagated sidewalk" on the Avenue of the Americas, and "Billowing sign" and "Bowed corner flashing," both on West 31st Street.

The Broken New Yorkers are fascinated not by the things so broken that they need fixing, but by the blemishes that, because no one cares to repair them, become permanent, barely noticed eddies in the flow of the city.

"You walk around and there's stuff broken everywhere," said Mr. Wondrich, 40, a bearded, professorial-looking English professor turned writer. "And most of it doesn't make any difference. The city goes about its life." He finds this somehow uplifting. "We can live with a lot more brokenness than we think," Mr. Wondrich said.

To take a walk with Mr. Wondrich and Mr. Goldsmith, two longtime friends who step expertly on each other's sentences like a comedy team, is to be reawakened to the haunting beauty of unintended and untended asymmetry.

A few feet past the bent steel they encountered a glass door riddled with what appeared to be bullet holes, ineffectually patched over with duct tape and covered with black and white squiggles of the glue that fastened a sheet of brown paper to the inside of the door.

Mr. Goldsmith, also 40, an artist and Web site designer who has made a career out of collecting and documenting ephemera (his 487-page book, "Soliloquy," consists of every word he uttered during a week in 1996), was beside himself.

"This whole thing is beautiful," he said. "It looks like a Duchamp."

"It's a total wreck," Mr. Wondrich agreed.

"It's like Duchamp's `Large Glass.' Philadelphia's got nothing on us."

"We're giving it away."

"It's a complete aesthetic door."

For a generic street in a neighborhood so anonymous it does not seem to have a name - North Chelsea? South Midtown? - the block of West 31st between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas was proving a rich trove. Nearby was another length of peeling duct tape, this one with an arrow scrawled on it in ink pointing to a hole a few inches away, where a doorbell used to be.

"That was an arrow to ring the bell!" Mr. Goldsmith yelped, sounding like an archaeologist stumbling onto a mummy's tomb.

Next stop was a No Standing sign. The signpost was pretty straight, but the sign itself, 9 or 10 feet up, was bent back rakishly.

"Oh, that'll never get fixed," Mr. Goldsmith said appreciatively.

"Make sure you get the pillar," Mr. Wondrich said. "The whole thing looks like a sail."

Hanging in the next doorway was an intercom facing, ripped from its moorings and trailing wires. Superficially, the scene resembled some of the artists' other works - "Exploded lamppost hatch, United Nations Plaza" and "Gutted utility box, 716 Third Avenue" came to mind. But this intercom plate, instead of being left to dangle, was screwed at an odd angle to another metal plate a few inches away. This made a difference.

Eventually, and probably inevitably, the artists started to attract attention. The owner of the building and his son came out to see what the trouble was.

"We're doing an art project called Broken New York," Mr. Wondrich explained to the owner's son, Juan Miranda, the assistant manager of a freight-forwarding company in the building's ground floor. "We're looking at things that are broken."

Mr. Miranda, 22, had no trouble getting the hang of the piece.

"It's all right," he said. "I've seen some weird stuff before. I've seen garbage for art." He offered information on the history of several of the damaged objects on the block, said to the men, "Good luck on your project," and walked off.

A few steps down he stopped to call their attention to a caved-in stretch of sidewalk. Mr. Wondrich was already on the case. "That's the next one," he called out. "Thanks."

It had been nearly 15 minutes and the documentarians were exhausted. A worn neon sign down the block beckoned.

"Would you like to have a bourbon, Dave?" Mr. Goldsmith asked. "I think it's after noon."

"Gee, yeah," Mr. Wondrich said. "We've been working so hard."

Over tumblers of Irish whiskey, Mr. Wondrich, who writes a weekly column on cocktails for, said that he did not intend to document the incomprehensibly vast field of destruction near the World Trade Center, for reasons both of sensitivity and of aesthetics. Disorder means more when it is surrounded by order. For the same reason, he said, he doubted the project would visit neighborhoods where urban decay is so endemic it creates problems for people who live there.

"If you're going out to East New York," he said, "though even East New York is looking up these days, it's like shooting captive game. Of course it's broken out there. Everyone knows that. We're interested in places where it's not so obvious."

Hence, the first phase of the project, several weeks ago, was a trip to the Upper East Side.

"We wanted to see if the Upper East Side was broken," Mr. Goldsmith said.

"And it was," Mr. Wondrich said, "except for that new Trump U.N. Tower. We spent 10 minutes looking at it."

"Couldn't find a single thing wrong."

"We were stunned."

"We crawled over every inch of that building."

"Donald Trump, man, he stuck it to us." Mr. Wondrich raised his glass in salute. "But I guarantee you, if we go back in two years to the Trump building --"

"We'll find something broken."

"Rust never sleeps."

Back to Kenneth Goldsmith's Author Page | Back to EPC