Visual Arts alum’s film lights up Times Square

It’s recognized as the Crossroads of the World and a top tourist destination worldwide.

But Times Square as a bastion of cutting-edge visual art?

Most people living within 50 miles of the famed Manhattan intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue would agree: not so much.

Times Square’s stigma as a hub for snap-happy tourists, chain restaurants, knock-off Louis Vuitton vendors and a nearly naked cowboy is one the Times Square Alliance is trying to combat, said visual artist and Mason Gross alum André Costantini (at left). According to the Alliance, Costantini’s short film Universal Pulse was the first to be created specifically for use on the Times Square screens. It also marked the largest coordinated effort in history by the sign operators there to display synchronized creative content at the same time every day.

“They are trying to give people a reason to say there is culture and there are events [in Times Square] that are actually really cool,” said Costantini, 39, of the alliance’s public art program, Times Square Arts, which commissioned the work.

The 3-minute film—which played from 11:57 p.m. to midnight every evening in October 2012—combines Costantini’s black-and-white still shots of familiar cityscapes superimposed with drawings by Brazilian public artist Bel Borba. Animated by Taiwanese artist Bert Sun, Universal Pulse mimics the movement of cell-by-cell animation.

“The piece is about New York, and essentially we use Bel as a character. He ends up looking around New York and imposing his art upon it,” said Costantini, who now splits his time between Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Catskills.

Viewed on a small screen, Universal Pulse is evocative. But when played simultaneously on 15 jumbo signs—some with multiple screens—its impact is magnified significantly, Costantini said.

“When you see something that you made [appear] on NASDAQ, MTV, Bank of America, American Eagle and JVC screens, it’s pretty freaking spectacular,” he said.

While at Mason Gross, Costantini studied in the Visual Arts Department with a concentration in photography. Since graduating in 1995, he has primarily worked as a photographer, shooting for dance, music and fashion clients, including American Repertory Ballet, his college alma mater’s Dance Department and L’Oréal.

More than a decade ago, he began venturing into video editing with the advent of new, user-friendly technology—namely iMac editing software and DSLR cameras with video capability.

“If you’re an artist and have the opportunity and technology at your disposal, then you figure out ways to use it,” he said.

Four years ago, Costantini embarked on a new challenge: shooting a feature-length film about a dynamic visual artist.

Enter Borba, also known as “The People’s Picasso,” whose public art is created through mostly found materials. Following the advice of an ex-pat friend living in Brazil, Costantini cashed in his frequent-flyer miles and flew to Brazil for a week to meet Borba.

“All of a sudden it was the beginning of what became this movie and this working relationship,” he said of the resulting 95-minute documentary, Bel Borba Aqui: A Man and a City, which was executive-produced by actress Debra Winger and had a two-week run at New York City’s Film Forum earlier in October.

As a visual artist who’s spent the bulk of his career showcasing musicians and dancers, Costantini knew working with another visual artist and “finding a vehicle to be able to tell your own story and simultaneously someone else’s” could be tricky.  But with Borba, he said he found a kinship.

“In a lot of ways it’s not particularly challenging if you find someone who you can collaborate with and who understands that,” he said. “[Borba] is very open to using anything as a medium.”

And that flexibility resonates with Costantini, who said one of the benefits of attending an art school tucked inside a major research university is the well-rounded experience it provides, one that continues to feed his creativity.

“I can recall taking a literature class or an environment class that you probably wouldn’t be able to get at just an arts school,” he said. “Understanding things visually is one vocabulary. The more you can connect with the world in other ways, the larger your view grows, and the more you can grow as an artist.”

Watch Universal Pulse
View Costantini’s photos

Story by Lisa Intrabartola, October 2012