‘A Song for Mannahata’, mixed media installation / Lydia Schouten

‘A Song for Mannahata’ is an installation in which videos, drawings, objects, the spoken word, music, soundscape all come together.


Manhattan has been discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson, a captain who sailed on the ship ‘Half Moon’ for the West Indian Company/the Netherlands. At that time there was a humanistic tolerant climate in the Netherlands, where great thinkers like Erasmus, Descartes and Spinoza came to. But it also gave Jewish refugees and the Quakers from England a place. From this climate became New Amsterdam founded. The place where all cultures were welcome.

Manhattan as a house, making connections between the present and the past as the basis for new interpretation, social relationships, relationships with other cultures, where people and stories resonate with each other on a timeline and together forms a world, which defines ‘NOW’. The Manhattan grid as a layered composition of videos, objects, drawings and texts. It consists of separate story fragments from hugely differing sources; books, newspapers, internet. An assemblage of heterogeneous stories, memories, dreams. Combined they form the city’s inner self.

Dutch version of this page click here

Execution of the installation

The installation can be set up in various ways, depending on the dimensions of the space.

Large drawings alternate with 3 video projections, 9 small LCD screens and different objects. On entering you see one video projection on the wall showing a hand writing and overwriting letters. The texts become ever more illegible. These are travel letters from the first pioneers on their way to New Amsterdam. Rough seas can be seen through the semi-transparant text.
On an opposite wall there is another video projection showing activity around St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery.

On a third video projection you see Afro American attendants in their role of guardians of the art.

In the middle of the space a small, rusty video table has been set up showing a visit to a fortune-teller. In New York people from diverse cultures often ask advice from these ‘spiritual healers’, usually from South America.


A curved branch with 4 small speakers stands in the space. In the sound heard every now and then through these speakers, time slips from the one century to the other through alternating Indian singing with Afro American working songs and fragments of spoken text (including Allen Ginsberg). There is also a rusted stove with a pan of soup on it.
A little further on a light bulb is spinning around, every 5 minutes this comes to rest again. The light from the bulb slides across a gas burner with simmering soup and across a drawing entitled: ‘Stomp the Devil, Shake, Shake, Shake’. The drawing relates to the Quakers, who were persecuted in Europe for their beliefs. 

St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery

In the back room, on a rusty table, there is a monitor showing activity around St. Mark’s Church.
St. Mark’s Church is important to me since it is where Peter Stuyvesant, one of the first commanders of New Amsterdam, built his house and is also where he is buried.
Over the years it has become an important cultural location, hosting many performance events, and also the place where vagrants have permanent shelters and are part of the public in the church.

Coney Island

Various video images, recorded on Manhattan and Coney Island, are shown on small LCD screens arranged in the space. I made regular return visits to Coney Island because I became interested in the dilapidated district with boarded-up fairground attractions and snack bars. I also filmed the Russian immigrants on Brighton Beach, who wander over the boardwalks in thick fur coats and sing karaoke in a Russian restaurant (see video).



The role of the attendants

The Afro American attendants can be seen in their role as guardians of Manhattan and of art. They kill time through small-scale individual on the spot actions. Whenever circumstances allow, they return in the installation as performance element. Initially almost invisible, as people expect from museum attendants. After a while an attendant starts to hand soup around to the public. The soup stands for a welcoming gesture, but also for feeding the poor; those who have not succeeded in making a dollar from a dime. They then revert to their roles as attendants with small-scale idiosyncratic behavior.


I have been experimenting with sound as a component of my visual art since the eighties, mostly in combination with video, but also as a stand-alone element. It has shifted my attention from purely visual art towards art as a multisensory experience, in which sound ‘sculpts’ the space.

A 5-channel surround system creates a soundscape.
A moving field of music and sound physically envelops the visitor.
Speakers stand in the four corners of the space and 4 more small speakers are attached to a large upright branch.
The installation oscillates between sounds from different times.


Soundscape excerpt