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Inside “New Frontiers,” the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller-Inspired Exhibition at Top of the Rock

By Julie Smith SchneiderMar 1 2023
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To take in the sweeping, sky-high panoramic views of New York City from Top of the Rock is to experience a vantage point steeped in history with an eye to the future. In 1933, when workers finished building 30 Rockefeller Plaza (then known as the RCA Building, the headquarters of the eponymous radio corporation), the observation deck was the first attraction in the art-filled complex to open to the public. Now, when you emerge onto the viewing platforms, you stand where other visitors stood 90 years ago, on the rooftop of a company at the forefront of the newest technological advancements of the time: broadcast radio and television. And still today, fresh possibilities and ingenuity emanate from the airwaves breezing around the tip-top of the crown jewel of Rockefeller Center.

New Frontiers, an art exhibition that recently opened at Top of the Rock (located on the 67th through 70th floors of 30 Rock), draws from Rockefeller Center’s storied origins while spotlighting a new generation of New York City’s digital artists. Weaving together elements of past, present, and future, the exhibition — on view through 2024 — features interactive, technology-forward installations that explore the boundaries of what art can be. Admission to Top of the Rock includes entry to New Frontiers.

The exhibition borrows its title from Rockefeller Center’s inaugural arts program of the same name, led by devoted champion of contemporary arts Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Each foundational artwork defined Rockefeller Center’s distinctive aesthetic while interpreting the guiding concept of “New Frontiers.” This thematic throughline summoned a forward-looking optimism, celebrating humanity and advancements in communications, science, and technology. For example, carved into limestone above 30 Rock’s entrance, sculptor Lee Lawrie’s gilded relief sculptures, titled Sound and Light, usher in the advent of broadcast television and radio, innovations that would indelibly shape culture and society for decades to come.

Evoking a similar vision through a 21st-century lens, the newly opened New Frontiers exhibition invites viewers to explore the history of art, technology, and entertainment in New York City while imagining what comes next — with plentiful opportunities to interact with the installations. “Every visitor invents this exhibition and pushes the horizon further,” wall text explains. “You are the new frontiers. You are the makers, the shapers, the dreamers, the observers, the thinkers, the travelers. You honor Rockefeller Center’s original purpose to redefine form and promote beauty.”

On the mezzanine level, visitors can read about Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s curatorial vision, and a multimedia installation brings together an immersive soundscape designed by Andrew Giugno and Ray Kunimoto with a video montage featuring archival footage of cultural moments and milestones at Rockefeller Center. When the golden Art Deco elevators open on the 67th floor, several more interactive opportunities await.

A satisfying clicking sound might be the first things you notice about Time Capsule Over Manhattan, a kinetic sculpture made by BREAKFAST, a Brooklyn art studio founded by Andrew Zolty and Mattias Gunneras. Their new work for Top of the Rock features two panels with a gradient of colored polycarbonate discs, each embedded with a magnet. Each disc is a different color, and the palette reflects the spectacular sunsets that can be seen from the nearby observation decks.

“If you, as the audience, look at the piece,” Gunneras notes, “you’re forever part of the piece.” Whether you shimmy or strike a pose, as you move in front of the diptych, the discs whir, with pixelated imagery using flip-disc technology — an invention that originated in the 1960s and gained popularity for signs on buses and in train stations, airports, and sports arenas — and your pixelated movements are recorded. BREAKFAST reengineered the flip-disc technology so the discs flip 60 times every second, a rate the human eye can’t detect, resulting in an experience that feels at once nostalgic, magical, and cutting-edge. In this artwork, the discs double as tangible pixels, and the viewers double as the subjects.

“The piece is literally a time capsule of all of those that interact with it. When someone steps away, it's playing through all of those thousands of clips that stay locally on the piece,” Zolty explains. “It’s capturing the history of the time period and all the people that are interacting with that piece.”

Similarly, Diana Sinclair’s installation, Reflections, creates an ever-changing portrait of all the people who participate in her interactive photography project. The installation features a pair of photo booths, each with touchscreens that prompt each participant to answer questions about their relationship to time and place before posing for a long-exposure black-and-white portrait. The resulting image appears on the booth’s screen and on a set of framed screens nearby, tinted with a shade of gold, purple, crimson, or slate blue — a nod to photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ series Untitled (Colored People Grid).

Installed along a dedicated hallway, five screens display Progressive Perspectives, a rotating exhibition of digital art that’s also available for purchase as NFTs, curated by creative studio MATTE, in partnership with Foundation. Currently, a series titled Wetwave – Membrane II, by multimedia artist Yoshi Sodeoka, fills the hall with spacey tones and creaky blips, while blobs and drips in vivid violets, bright whites, and neon greens move around the screens, like the hallucination of a circulatory system or slow-motion fireworks falling earthward. “I am fascinated by the concept of organic computing. I strive to make visual art that resembles nature in a twisted and psychedelic way,” Sodeoka says. He adds, “Digital art has come a long way. But it’s still largely ignored by big institutions and the general public. I would like to think that I’m helping to break the boundary by having my digital artwork in a public setting, such as Top of the Rock.”

On the 69th floor, in an installation called A View from Above, visitors become video stars, merging with the iconic vista through a futuristic, three-dimensional “virtual drone selfie” experience. The results? A cinematic souvenir video with soaring views.

New Frontiers is included with any Top of the Rock ticket, which can be purchased here.

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