Press for 31 Down's "Canal Street Station"

Mar 27, 2007 12:00 am

TimeOut New York

Trained Killer
Forget transit cops: A new installation lets you play private eye on the subway.

For all the improvements over the past decade or so, the transit system is still kind of creepy, which makes a new interactive public artwork by the group 31 Down Radio Theater all the more diabolical. With just a swipe of your MetroCard, it puts you in the middle of a murder mystery unfolding in the Canal Street subway.

According to creator Ryan Holsopple, the piece, titled Canal Street Station, consists of a toll-free number you can dial from any of the pay phones there. The voice of one Niki, and archetypally breathy French girl, comes on to say that she's committed a murder and that you need to find her somewhere in the labyrinth of platforms and tunnels connecting the J,M,Z,N,Q,R,W and 6 trains. "Basically, it's a big game," says Holsopple, who adds that depending on where you are, you'll be asked a specific question about the location- maybe for a detail from a nearby mosaic or which train goes to Fresh Pond Road in Queens. You hang up, snoop, and then call back with your answer. I correct, you'll be told where to go with your next call.

Holsopple explains that the technology behind the work involves a server set up to recognize calls coming from the MTA's pay phones. "The system accepts calls from any number," he says, "but it only gives instructions about the mystery when you're dialing from inside the station."

In addition to Niki, you also hear from PI Mike Sharpie, who serves as a combination inner voice and narrator. Holsopple says he doesn't want to give things away, but he did hand us one clue: No matter where you start you're led to the same destination. "I just want people to hear this disembodied voice," he says, "and let their imagination create the imagery around it." -Daniel Derouchie

New York Post Online Edition


March 21, 2007 -- Subway riders can dial M - or N, Q, R and W – for murder in an interactive mystery at a Canal Street subway station. The game can be started by calling (877) 679-4283 at any pay phone inside the station between Broadway and Lafayette for clues.

More clues to the murder can be found in the walls and doors of the cavernous tunnels connecting the lines.

"We thought the station really fit the film noir aesthetic," said creator Ryan Holsopple of the arts group 31 Down.

We make money not art

Like probably many people i wouldn't think of using a phone booth anymore but i feel a pang of nostalgia each time i see an old-style one. Many artists have created performances, installations or games around public booth. One of my favourite performances is Sophie Calle's adoption of a phone booth in Greenwich Village back in 1994.

When Paul Auster suggested that the French artist contribute to the improvement of life in New York City, she spent a week sitting on a chair next to a public phone booth in TriBeCa. She replaced the Nynex logos with Have a Nice Day and Enjoy, stocked the booth with snacks, cigs, drinks and flowers, listened to conversations, chatted with people and got comments on the notepad left at the booth.

In the end representatives of the telephone company threw all of Calle's improvements into a trash basket (via).

More recently, Ryan Holsopple launched a public pay phone who-dunnit that invites people to make a toll-free call from any public pay phone in Canal Street Station and solve a murder mystery.

Set in the maze of tiles that make up the station, the Canal Street Station game puts participants in the shoes of a private investigator, as he searches the depths of Canal Street Station for a young French woman that may have committed a murder, or may be a figment of his own imagination.

The game uses a Trixbox server, a phone application platform based on Asterisk™, to collect caller ID from payphones in the Canal Street Subway, and pinpoint where the player is located.

Players are asked one simple riddle that can be solved by referencing a subway map on the platform, the answer has to be entered into the keypad when they hear Niki (alias Tajna Tanovic) say the words, "Canal Street Station."

"If you answer the clue correctly you hear her say, "Great Work Detective!" Niki then tells you a more difficult riddle that takes you to another platform in the station. The riddles become increasingly difficult as you walk the creepy corridors of the Canal Street Subway station finding the answers," explains Ryan Holsopple. "You can start on any payphone, but no matter where you begin you will eventually end up on the same platform in the end of the mystery, when you answer the final question, you are told which train to exit the station on to take you to the last stage of the mystery."

It's not the first time that the artist works with payphones: one project recorded subway Buskers, busker dial up (in collaboration with John Schimmel) and Peter Stuyvesant's Ghost, a self-guided walk through the area of Peter Stuyvesant's farm utilizing pay or cellphones to access soundworks.

I asked Holsopple a few questions about his latest project:

Why payphone? Are you still using them to make phone calls? Were you interested in working with them for some nostalgia-related reason?

I love payphones and with the growing number of mobile phones, it seems that payphones are on their way out, but I feel they are still essential to the makeup of the city.

Payphones in the NYC subway are the only way to communicate with the outside world, so that puts a boundary on users in a piece such as this, which is great when it comes to a game/theater piece.

I also love the nostalgia theme and much of the work that 31 Down does is based in nostalgia and the technology of the past and how it relates to the present.

The theater company centers around the ideas and cliches of the 'Private Investigator', so this became extremely relevant when I started working with Asterisk, which is an open source PBX created by Mark Spencer. Asterisk (and the voyeuristic possibilities that it offers) has a very 'seedy' side to it and seems to me to be the perfect fit for a private investigator obsessed with surveillance an eavesdropping.

I was also interested in a report by the Straphangers about the state of payphones in the NYC subway.

When i first read about your project i immediately thought about some old films noir. Are there movie scenes that influenced the scenario or any other elements of your project?

31 Down's work is heavily influenced by film-noir. In this pay phone mystery, the audience gets to play the character of a private detective, Mike Sharpie. For clues along the mystery, you hear the inner voice of the detective through the phone handset, this convention has a direct relationship to the film-noir voiceover narrative, which I love.

You also hear the voice of a young lady who speaks with a heavy French accent (played by Tajna Tanovic), she may have killed someone in the station and she is leaving mysterious clues for the detective; this device is mostly based on the work of film director Krzysztof Kieslowski (Dekalog), and the use of obsession and voyeurism in his work.

Thanks Ryan!

The work is co-produced by free103point9 Transmission Arts and 31 Down radio theater and will be running until October 31, 2007.

Second Ave. Sagas

Murder at the Canal Street station
Published March 20th, 2007 Arts for Transit, MTA Absurdity

Kill or be killed as you wait endlessly for the Q at Canal Street.

Well, that caught your attention, eh? Someone's been killed at the crowded Canal Street stop? Well, not quite. I'm sad — or happy — to report that no one was murdered at the underground entrance to Chinatown.

The murder is part of an interactive performance by the public artwork troupe 31 Down Radio Theater called Canal Street. The action takes place in labyrinthian tunnels of the Canal Street Station, and you, the detective-cum-straphanger, are supposed to solve the mystery. For $2 — or less — you too can be a New York detective. Time Out New York wrote about this intriguing work last week:

“For all the improvements over the past decade or so, the transit system is still kind of creepy, which makes a new interactive public artwork by the group 31 Down Radio Theater all the more diabolical. With just a swipe of your MetroCard, it puts you in the middle of a murder mystery unfolding in the Canal Street subway.

According to creator Ryan Holsopple, the piece, titled Canal Street Station, consists of a toll-free number you can dial from any of the pay phones there. The voice of one Niki, an archetypally breathy French girl, comes on to say that she's just committed a murder, and that you need to find her somewhere in the labyrinth of platforms and tunnels connecting the J, M, Z, N, Q, R, W and 6 trains. "Basically, it's a big game," says Holsopple, who adds that depending on where you are, you'll be asked a specific question about that location—maybe for a detail from a nearby mosaic or which train goes to Fresh Pond Road in Queens. You hang up, snoop, then call back with your answer. If correct, you'll be told where to go for your next call.”

I love this idea; I can't wait to do it, and a few things leap out at me. First, this game relies on the payphones in the New York City subways. Wait a minute, you might be thinking, do those payphones actually work? Well, about a quarter of them don't work. So part of the game is finding a working payphone at Canal Street. (The other part involves finding one you want to touch. Good luck with that.)

Next, I think this game is best played at rush hour. That Canal Street station is a zoo during the day; why not really go for the "confusing masses of harried commuters" theme that would so enliven the game? You can push against the tide of humanity as you dash from the Brooklyn-bound N/Q platform to the uptown J/M/Z tracks.

So there you have it. You can spend an hour, as the theater troupe suggests, running around Canal Street trying to find out minutiae about the subways in an effort to solve a murder. Test the payphones; test your patience. And have fun. It's the best $2 or Unlimited Ride swipe you'll spend this month.

And who knows: Maybe she would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids and your dog too.

To get started, head to the Canal Street station; pay the fare; find a payphone and dial 1-877-OR-WHAT-31 (1-877-679-4283). Canal Street will be in the Canal Street station until October.


Subway murder mystery game a thrill for riders
NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It's the ultimate murder mystery.

A killer is on the loose in the dripping, dank maze of pathways in New York City's Canal Street subway station. It's your job, as a subway rider, to find her.

That is the premise of the 31 Down Radio Theater group's murder mystery game called "Canal Street Station." It was designed as an interactive public art installation but has quickly spread by word-of-mouth to become a popular game for anyone who wants to play a private investigator.

"The station is full of atmosphere and mystery," said its creator Ryan Holsopple.

"Canal Street station is great for that, and they (the players) definitely get put into an old private eye world with dripping and the tiled walls and everything," he added.

For the $2 price of a subway token, players can take part in the murder mystery by calling a toll-free number from any pay phone in the area. An automated server answers the call and plays a recorded message with the player's assignment.

The would-be sleuth must find out where the killer has gone. Clues include anything from determining which train goes to a particular station to finding a character in one of the station's murals.

The player calls back and is given another mission and the game continues. The game could take about an hour if done properly. It is not affiliated with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the city's subway system.

Holsopple said his goal was to create an interactive game that used both a form of media, a telephone server, and traditional scavenger-hunt clues to move the story forward.

"You can't use cell phones down there," he said, referring to the subway station.

"I wanted to somehow use the media to see the space around us a little differently," Holsopple added in an interview.

He said that finding the clues and returning to the pay phone to key in the answers makes the players true participants in the game.

"You're really solving things, you're really moving the character forward instead of just being told the story."

Actress Tajna Tanovic, who plays the voice of the killer, played the game for the first time.

"I like mystery and I like drama, too," she said, adding it was interesting, challenging and fun.

Holsopple said the response has been particularly good.

It has definitely generated some buzz," he said.

The theater group co-produced the game with the non-profit arts organization free103point9 ( The theater company's Web site (, provides starting instructions for the game which runs through October.

BBC Radio Five

Interview transcription, March 21, 2007

Of course, in New York now, citizens are being invited to solve a murder mystery through a series of clues and working their ways through the subway system. This is a mini adventure, I’m pretty sure there's no real death involved. The creator is Ryan Holstopple, part of the art group 31 Down.

Ron: Hello Ryan.

RH: Hi Ron. How are you?

Ron: Very well thank you. I love interactive mysteries, I think I used to love them anyway. How does this one work?

RH: Basically you show up in the Canal Street subway station in New York City Manhattan of New York City and…

Ron: Down at the bottom of Manhattan. Down where the world trade center used to be?

RH: Exactly. A little bit further north, but in the general vicinity.

So you can call once you go in the turnstiles there are numerous payphones in the station and you can call from any payphone you want to start on, and you are guided through an interactive private detective story, and you answer clues along the way. So you'll get a clue after your first call, you'll hang up and go search the station for the answer and then you will find another payphone and call back in and answer the clue into the keypad with a number sequence or so forth. And then, if you're right, it will say - you're a great detective here's your next clue. If your wrong it will say - your detective died and hang up on you.

Ron: Oh dear! Well look, lets have a listen to one of these clues now.

Thank you for calling Canal Street station, 31 Down's interactive payphone murder mystery. To play canal Street station be in the subway inside the turnstiles anywhere in canal street station. Call from a payphone this 1-800 toll free number. For more information visit

Ron: All right. So that's obviously all we could get to because we weren't calling from within the ring, we weren't calling from within the Subway system.

HP: Exactly, we are using a server that uses caller id information and I've gone through the whole station and selected phone numbers from the payphones in the station and you can only play the game using those numbers. If you call from an outside number, that's the message you get.

Ron: That’s really clever, amazingly clever. So then, how long does it take to actually go through all the clues?

RH: A good player, not during rush hour traffic I'd say can do it in forty-five minutes to an hour. The other night, we had some girls from Jersey play it and they were getting the wrong answers and it took them about two hours to get through the whole thing. But they did it.

Ron: They did do it, I mean they weren’t entirely serious obviously. Do you go down there and do you watch people play it?

RH: I've never watched people play it, but I have a monitoring system that when people solve certain questions right it emails me and if I'm by my computer at home I can see, Oh somebody made it to the third stage, and so I kind of keep a watchful eye on the people playing it that way.

Ron: Is there a prize?

RH: In the end you actually leave the station and I probably shouldn't say this because it will give away the end, but its fun. You actually call me live and I talk to you on the phone in character to give you your final clue.

Ron: Oh great. Couldn't be better. You meet a lot of interesting people that way?

RH: The people are at first shocked that they're actually speaking to somebody live after hearing these voices the whole time and yeah the people are actually pretty fascinating. Like those girls from Jersey City the other night were a lot of fun to talk to about their experience in the end of the mystery. And a lot of people, what they do, is go for a nice ride on the train and people really seem to enjoy it. They go in pairs a lot. There was a group from Berkeley California the other day that went through it and so people seem to be have a good time with it. And on a blog online I read that people were saying that this is a great first date activinty. So, you know, it seems like a great thing for that, which I think is really cool.

Ron: I think you might very well get some shopping groups from Britain, people who come over to New York for the weekend to do their shopping, and may just want to add a in a murder. Give use the website again.

RH: Oh, its and its co-produced by free103point9 transmission arts.

Ron: Well there we are, 31 Down

RH: Yeah, a lot of our work is based on the private detective saga and this is a private detective that plays crosswords a lot, so 31 down or 26 across. That’s where the name comes from.

Ron: it sounds to me as if you got more ideas up your sleeve, this isn't going to be a one off.

RH: Oh yeah. Always. This show runs from march until October and we've done a lot of payphone pieces in the past and sound walk using phones so yeah we do have a lot of things up out sleeves.

Ron: It was lovely to talk to you. Thanks so much.

RH: Thank you so much

Ron: Bye

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