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Discover Hidden Gems of Rockefeller Center with Gesso

By Julie Smith SchneiderMay 18 2021

Do you know where to turn your gaze to spy the spirals of fossilized snail shells, which are some 460 million years old and embedded in an interior wall of 30 Rock? Or which relief sculpture houses a small, unassuming wooden bird that swivels and bursts into birdsong, filling a lobby with true-to-life chirping, every hour on the hour? How about which newly commissioned sculpture can you touch? Now there’s an easy new way to find delightful details like these that are nestled throughout Rockefeller Center, as well as get seasonal updates on retail and redevelopment: “Audacious Dreams: An Immersive Audio Walk Tracing the Past, Present, and Future of Rockefeller Center,” a cinematic audio walk produced by Gesso, a New York–based company dedicated to leveraging audio to delve into the stories behind cities, museums, and iconic cultural institutions.

Rockefeller Center’s guided audio walk, available on the Gesso app, starts on the cusp of the campus, directly across the street from 1251 Avenue of the Americas, with its glittering mosaic made from more than a million pieces of colored glass and The Tonight Show’s neon sign. Before proceeding, we pause here for a grounding in history and an orientation to the urban geography and the sheer scale of this institution: six city blocks, 22 acres. From here, the tour winds through the storied buildings, outdoor spaces, and underground passageways with the warm, friendly voice of Gesso co-founder Henna Wang. She serves as your personable guide, dispensing history, facts, anecdotes, and wayfinding tips throughout the walk. The recorded audio tour clocks in under 50 minutes, though listeners are encouraged to move at their own pace. Pause the recording to look around. Call on all your senses to experience the walk fully. Take breaks, and maybe even snag a pick-me-up from Blue Bottle Coffee.

Wang founded Gesso with her now-husband Michael Reynolds in 2018. Both Wang and Reynolds are alums of NEW INC, the New Museum’s art and technology incubator. The company got its start producing official audio guides for museums, which could be played on museum-goers’ personal mobile phones—no clunky communal devices necessary. These guides are designed to enhance understanding of exhibitions, offering approachable insights into the backstories of artworks on display.

Gesso’s Rockefeller Center walk reflects not only on the roots of this New York City institution, but also its continual evolution and of-the-moment art installations, as well as the current refreshes of the buildings and outdoor spaces. For Wang and her collaborators, the Rockefeller Center tour is a special opportunity to spotlight a cornerstone of New York City cultural life. “As New Yorkers, what drew us to New York is wanting to be at the center of all the conversations, alongside people who are really at the top of their fields, be it art, commerce, diplomacy, retail, hospitality,” Wang says. “I think this is a common thread amongst [Rockefeller Center’s] tenants as well.”

Access to art and culture is an important guiding principle for Gesso, something that stems from Wang’s family history and upbringing. Her mother grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. “She lacked access to art and culture growing up—all of those things were destroyed during that time,” Wang says. When her mother moved to the United States in the ’80s, she made a point to expose Wang to lots of art with frequent outings to museums. “So, in a way, I feel like [founding] Gesso was very much related to that experience. Like, who has access to knowledge? Who has access to culture, and who doesn’t? And, wanting [Gesso] to be this platform where we can feature different voices and people can join in on telling stories about places that are meaningful to them.”

In their audio stories, Gesso lifts up the contributions and stories of a wide range of people whose stories haven’t often been told. For example, in their guided audio walk of Rockefeller Center, artist Hildreth Meière gets a spotlight. Her trio of roundels on the façade of Radio City Music Hall is the only permanent art installation on Rockefeller Center’s exterior designed by a woman. Further into the walk, inside the International Building, there’s a leafy gold installation titled “Light and Movement” by Michio Ihara, who was born in Paris and raised in Tokyo before coming to the United States in the 1960s. As the guide notes: “In a city of immigrants, it’s fitting that the work of such a global citizen adorns these halls.”

Gesso’s Rockefeller Center audio tour serves as a sort of key to this city-within-a-city, an invitation to push through the brass-clad doors into airy lobbies and art-filled halls, and explore the colliding layers of the past and present. The guide also nods to the future, pointing out construction that’s underway to redevelop certain areas of the campus. “Most of the literature about Rock Center is very focused on the making of it or the art deco [style] or the public art from the original commission,” Wang notes. “But, it’s anything but frozen in time. Rock Center continues to reinvent itself, just like New York does. It really does feel like a microcosm for New York.”

“Rock Center continues to reinvent itself, just like New York does. It really does feel like a microcosm for New York.”
—Henna Wang

When the pandemic shut down museum-going life as we knew it in March 2020, Gesso’s co-founders realized they were poised to reimagine their audio experiences as “staycations” to meet the longings of pandemic life. To help their fellow New Yorkers connect to the world outside their apartment windows in safe, socially distanced ways, they, along with a small team of audio producers, created guided, linear audio walks throughout New York City. They also started populating Gesso’s map with 400 “snippets”—short audio vignettes about notable local spots. Each snippet is geotagged and uses GPS to play automatically when you’re close to the location. These short stories constellate in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens currently, making it easy to take a self-guided walk. “Think of them as a podcast that really knows where you are,” Wang says. Their Rockefeller Center audio series includes five standalone snippets, in addition to the guided walk. Expect to hear the voices of artists whose work is currently on display, as well as people who work at Rockefeller Center, such as Homer Murray, chef at Hombre Taco, and Adam Rolston, creative and managing director of the architecture and design firm INC, and designer of the Concourse update.

“Audio has the power to be immersive in a particularly compelling way,” says Rebecca Chaisson, the producer who researched and scripted Gesso’s audio walk of Rockefeller Center. Other immersive media, she observes, can suck users into the screens of their devices, causing a disconnect with the physical world. “I think that Gesso drops you deeper into where you are. As you’re moving through a given space, you’re dropping into stories that happened where you’re walking.” As you move around the campus, the tour will draw you further into the stories and innovations that Rockefeller Center holds.

The walk wraps up back outside 30 Rock with the urging to “tilt your head back. Turn around, and take in your full surroundings. The limestone, soaring and timeless, but designed and built by human hands with future generations in mind.” Rockefeller Center was built generations ago during the difficulties of the Great Depression, which feels parallel, in a way, to the current tumult of the pandemic. Yet, like New York City as a whole, it still persists and adapts, an audacious beacon of beauty and innovation and hope, one that feels particularly resonant and quenching right now. Wandering Rockefeller Center with Gesso’s guide playing in your ears, stokes curiosity and wonder. It adds a deep richness to the experience of this place, layering storytelling that melds past and present with the sheer pleasure of discovery.

To listen to Gesso’s guided audio tour of Rockefeller Center, download Gesso’s app for iPhone or Android. For a live, in-person experience to complement the audio walk, take Rockefeller Center’s Art & Architecture tour.

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