Underground Streams

Luisa Covaria

Underground Streams is an interactive storytelling platform that provides a window for New York subway riders to observe and listen to their fellow commuters.


Every day more than five million people ride the New York City subway. The trains transport those who create the main fabric of the city: its people and their stories. The subway cars are unique spaces in which people from diverse backgrounds are in close physical contact on a daily basis. Yet people avoid interaction at all costs. It is when interactions take place that unique underground moments make the experience unforgettable. Underground Streams encourages the viewer to observe, acknowledge and eventually become more sensitive to others in their daily commute while listening to the people with whom they share the subway every day.

I have been documenting my commute for the past three months. Everyday, I wear a go pro camera and record people during their commute. At first the experience was petrifying, I felt as if I was invading a very private and personal space. Slowly, I developed a technique to detach myself from the camera. I pretended to read, listen to music or simply act as if I wasn't wearing the camera. This took away my anxiety of being confronted by an individual or the whole subway car. People never confronted me. The few times people acknowledged the camera, I got positive reactions. Two people told me that it was very interesting. Furthermore, after a conversation with photographer Gilles Perres, who has extensive experience with documentary photography, I realized that a lot of my fear was in my head. The camera became almost part of my body and I started forgetting its existence.

My fascination with the subway started because I could not understand the reason people managed to be incredibly distant from one another while physically so close in a reduced space. Philosopher Georg Simmel describes this experience in his book Mélanges de Philosophie Relativiste

"Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and streetcars, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another.” The result is an odd form of salutary neglect, an unspoken agreement to ignore."

Georg Simmel,1913

However, this isolation is not complete forgetfulness of the other. People notice one another. Sociologist Erving Goffman calls this behavior “civil inattention.” People push one another, give their seat to a pregnant woman, elderly person or child, they collectively choose to ignore a pungent smell or raise their voice to speak against or in favor of break dancers in the subway cars. We notice each other and react collectively to specific situations. However, we pretend not to acknowledge each other out of respect and fear of one another. This is why sociologists Tom Vanderbilt noted in Slate magazine in 2009, the subway—which keeps random people together in a contained, observable setting—is a perfect rolling laboratory for the study of human behavior.”

I documented human behavior and my role within this group. People were indeed scared of looking at me. However, by watching the footage I realized that people looked at me and noticed that I was wearing a camera. They would look away when I stared back at them. I also, noticed that people tend to forget the subway norm of ignoring the other when in presence of children, elderly women and animals. This observations were also seen by sociologist Arnold Birenbaum who explains the behaviors of people in subways in different cities in his book People in Places. Based on these information, I decided to see what would happen if different people wore the camera. I asked Oliver, a seven-year-old child, to wear the camera during his commute. I wanted to know whether people would engage him or look at him without caring if he stared back or not. Oliver decided to wear the camera as if he was a cyclop. He had his own wearable camera and he strapped it to his head and pretended to have a third eye. A woman engaged him almost immediately and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was doing his mother's friend a favor. I filmed Oliver while he was wearing the camera a second time. Even when I was filming him he wasn't self conscious of wearing the camera. He had the opposite reaction from what I experienced. He walked around the subway car as if he wasn't wearing the camera or I wasn't filming him. During the interview with Oliver, I asked what he thought about surveillance. I asked how he would feel, if I was filming him on the train without him being told in advanced. He said that he wouldn't be comfortable with that. I got the same response from most people. Individuals don’t have a problem with filming others, however, they express discomfort with the possibility of being filmed.

My preoccupation with the behavior in the subway was rooted in what Georg Simmel describes as 'the dehumanizing effect of urban life”. Especially in New York, people must work longer hours to afford the high cost of living. The subway serves as a place to decompress, sleep, read and forget about the hustle and bustle of daily live. I wanted to create an experience that would bring awareness to the self -absorption and isolation manifested by New Yorkers but without invading or disturbing their personal space. I decided to interview strangers and people I know about their subway stories and what goes on in their minds while they are commuting. I also wanted to invite people to get out of their personal worlds, observe others and become aware of the people around them so as to create an experience in which we are mindful and respectful of others.
While observing and interviewing New York subway commuters, I became aware of how people don't respect others by pushing, standing up before their stop and other behaviors that make the commute unpleasant and inconsiderate.

I wanted to call attention to the fact that by sharing the same subway everyday we become a community. Regular subway riders usually ride the same train, the same car, at roughly the same time. People see each other day after day for years without saluting each other or pretending to acknowledge the other. There is a community in each subway car, but the rule of ignoring makes it always a weird community in which we pretend to forget. By listening to the stories of those that ride the same subway line as we do and observing subway moments that show the interaction amongst ourselves, I want to instigate conversations on how to make the commute more pleasant and one where we are respectful, mindful and friendly to others with the intention of improving our life quality.

The next challenge was to distribute the stories and subway moment vignettes in a way that was engaging. I looked at the story corps website and mobile app. They are very effective at distributing short personal stories and encouraging others to tell their own. I designed a mobile app that allows people to subscribe to the subway-line of their choice. The app downloads a weekly episode and the user is able to listen to it during their commute. The interviews are also distributed on a website that weaves into a narrative that portrays episodes that others and I captured while documenting our commute. For the website's design and narrative thread, I was inspired by the online interactive video documentaries Reinvention Stories, and Insomnia.

This interactive documentary is targeted to New York City Subway riders. The mobile app is aimed to those who already consume media during their commute. The online platform suits those who enjoy whimsical visuals with documentary portraits of New Yorkers.

User Scenario
Mobile App,

The user downloads the app subscribes to the stream of the subway lines they ride the most. Every week, they get a new interview with a person who rides the same train as them. The user watches the podcast during their commute. When users see interesting moments in the subway they take out their phone, launch the app and document a subway moment. Once they exit the subway system and have access to Internet they upload the photograph to the website. This way they contribute to an ongoing verité photo documentary of their subway line.

Online platform
The viewer lands on the site and watches the introductory video that describes the New York city subway as a magical voyage where we meet specific characters. The viewer, then has a chance to ride a stream and learn a persons subway story, observe a subway moment or participate by observing an specific subway line’s photo journal, contributing their own subway picture, downloading the app or subscribing to the podcast.

The project required of mobile and web development. For the web development, I used HTML5, CSS and Jquary. I used and modified examples from the tympanus.net website. The mobile development was created using the Android SDK. I used examples from Shawn Van Every book Android Media Developing Graphics, Music and Rich Media Apps for Smart-phones and Tablets.

The videos were shot using a go pro hero 3, cannon 5d. Post production was done using Final Cut Pro, After Effect.

I proved my theory: the subway is a diverse space that reflects the social interactions amongst New Yorkers. These interactions tend to be a silent agreement amongst all commuters to ignore each other. However, the interactions change depending on the day of the week, time of the day and overall group response to specific episodes.. Furthermore, adults tend to bring their guard down when they are in the presence of children, animals or older women.

During the filming process no one except for two people approached me regarding the fact that I was filming them. The two individuals who approached me were positive about the project. The people, whom I approached on the platforms and interviewed, were open to share their stories online and on mobile platforms.

During the user testing process it was evident that there are users who are used to consume media on their commute and others who don’t. The first group is receptive to receiving weekly stories and enjoys the experience and the content. Others prefer to view the interviews and subway moment vignettes online.