It does not matter what you may think about Times Square, you cannot deny the place has a strong ability to capture things: bodies, glances, capital, emotions, opinions. The plaza’s attractiveness is revealed in many scenarios: Its screens and media; its history; its many representations in popular culture; its location; its activity, tradition, tensions contradictions and multiple characters. The daily crowds of tourists, the 24-7 advertising and its vibrant environment in any season of the year are the proofs of that.
Pedestrianized Times Square is a location where (almost) nothing is happening but, at the same time, there is always something occurring. A first glance at this location —the same kind of look that has been projected and repeated many times in many different media— reveals Times Square as a tourist trap. A label that has been more than enough to build a whole reputation and a set of imaginaries for this place, mostly negatives, based on only one of the many characteristics, facets, or versions this location has.
One of the main questions I had at the beginning of my research was related to the capacity this space has for attracting and capturing anything. What is that “thing” that makes Times Square so popular? Is Times Square’s popularity based on a sum of elements, as if one is making a sort of mathematical operation: screens+location+fame+history+imaginaries? Is its popularity the result of a sensory encounter between its visitors and its modes and affordances? Is its popularity even real, or are we here talking about fiction? Is its popularity just a myth? What is the formula Times Square is applying for gathering and retaining such a massive number of bodies and semiotic materials?
Nevertheless, I am not pretending to deny Times Square can fluctuate like a tourist trap. In fact, there is a version of Times Square that is a tourist trap but this location is much more than that. However, even if we accept that Times Square is a tourist trap, there are so many things to explore and to discuss within that condition: its architecture, its inner logic, its components. The point here is that to describe a place should not be the final objective but the point of departure for the more serious, detailed, and schematic work of decomposition.
Intending to solve these questions, and with the idea of looking for that charm, the magnetic spirit this location has, I borrowed two ideas from Franck Cochoy (2016 ), seduction and curiosity, to try to relate Times Square’s attractiveness and power of attraction to a sort of role-playing of persuasion and desire. Seduction is a collective and multimedia activity where curiosity seems to be the gateway to the unknown, a sort of spatiality temporarily assembled around the idea of capturing and being caught. Curiosity, according to Cochoy, “is the antidote of habitus, it is a force that drives us to break from what we are.” (158).
To name and to conceive Times Square as a tourist trap is analogous to what Latour (1999: 304) called black-boxing: [this is] “the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success.” In this case, a black box refers to the success, or the hegemony, of a version of an element over the other versions of the same item. It is easy from outside to think that Times Square is just a place for taking tourists’ money but once one is inside that location —and it does not have to be physically— it is impossible not to see other kinds of aspects, situations, and characteristics the existence of which challenges the dominant interpretation (version) of the place.
Despite the fact that Cochoy (2016) does not offer a clear definition of seduction, amongst his work one can find small references pointing to his understanding of it. Seduction could be understood as a (fatal) way of capturing [other elements] (ibid: 46), as a force (90), and as a “metonymy of desires” (120). Pettinger (2017) also highlights the lack of information about how seduction is “specifically entangled” (321) in Cochoy’s work. Still, at the same time, he is interpreting this idea as a sort of implicit eroticism (ibid).
I spent between six and eight hours daily in Times Square for several months. During that time, I saw how its attractiveness —that set of attributes making the square attractive— was continually flowing, appearing, and disappearing. Meanwhile, Times Square’s meaning and usage were changing, depending on the situation and on who was using it, its materiality was, grosso modo, the same one. Let us take, for instance, three different elements of Times Square, a bench, a screen, and a bunch of tourists, to briefly explore their capacity for attracting and seducing and how their meanings change depending on the kind of relationships they are participating in.
However, it is also essential to keep in mind that despite its seduction and attractiveness, Times Square’s ability to capture could be perceived as a unidirectional activity in which a single element is deployed as a sort of strategy for ensnaring others but those who are caught up in the square have qualities that make them particularly susceptible to this entanglement. Seduction is a double-sided game. We face a particular kind of linkage based mostly on emotion, where nonhuman elements take advantage of human feelings and desires to make them do things. To seduce and attract —we can see in the text mixed with this one— are material-semiotic movements producing specific spaces of desire.
There is a concrete bench in zone E of Times Square. The bench functions as a bench most of the time. It attracts pedestrians due to its shape and location. The bench structure is perfect for hosting people and its design invites them to go there and rest. Effectively, pedestrians use the bench for taking a seat and chatting, eating, relaxing, and as a meeting point. The location of the bench offers good views of the other zones of Times Square. The view the bench has often attracts tourists who use the bench as a staircase. They take pictures and use the bench as a stage. When the tourists are gone, the bench’s flat structure seduces the homeless who repurpose the element into a communal bed. It is not clear to me why they prefer to sleep on the bench, its material is harder than the ground and its shape is narrow. However, there is something about the bench that is inviting as a place to sleep.
The purpose of making a distinction between (i) attractiveness and (ii) power to attract is to highlight two distinct aspects of the square. The first is related to a condition, to a set of characteristics that Times Square has, which makes it attractive. The second is about its capacity to act. We are talking, respectively, (i) about a bunch of adjectives —or signs— and (ii) about an action, following MacCannell (1999: 109), this action is framed by a semiotic process, “a relationship between a sight, marker and tourist.” Times Square’s attractiveness is a passive quality, a set of peculiarities around which other elements congregate. Its power to attract is an active status, the immanent ability to trap that which is in its orbit.
The screens of Times Square are devices that know how to seduce without much effort. They only need to be plugged in and to display advertisements. They function as an assemblage and owe an essential part of their capacity to seduce to their communal coexistence. The high-density-choreography of lights attracts (mostly) tourists who use the screens —now turned into landscape—as decorative elements for their pictures and videos. The screen’s high volume of interactions, especially with tourists and other elements such as the recorded material they display and the software that drives them, as well as their privileged location, attract a wide variety of companies that are seduced by (i) the shear statistical volume of visitors to Times Square and by (ii) Times Square’s promise to position and promote their products in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Thus, Times Square attracts all manner of materials and elements in an endless and multilayered courtship based on promising them things, different things through different promises. Alexa Färber (2020: 53-54) identifies two kinds of promises an urban place can make. “In the most basic sense, [we have] the promise as a practice —to promise to do something— relates a promisor and a promise to each other. […] The performativity of the promise, as an illocutionary or commission act […] is not primarily thought of as leading to the fulfillment of the promise but as a social bond with a certain quality. [Then we have] the second conceptual quality of promises as designating and materializing an object of desire.”
Tourists are the fuel that keeps Times Square working. The screens need tourists and the stores also. The panhandlers, the hotels, the theaters, the restaurants, and the Times Square Alliance all need tourists. Tourists are not only visitors, they are also objects of desire for formal and informal workers and religious groups too. Tourists are numbers. They are statistics that attract capital and investment. Tourists mean sales, tourists mean jobs. To attract tourists is a complex multimodal and semiotic exercise carried out by Times Square itself and by each one of its components. Sometimes these components work in conjunction with each other: the screens seduce visitors who are drawn to them like moths to a flame. Once they are there, the pedestrian plazas, street performances, and glittering lights invite them to linger. Food courts and the other food providers as well as the stores with their souvenirs, discounts, sales, and popular brands are all part of Times Square’s ability to seduce. It is a team effort although, of course, the seduction of tourists implies competition. Street performers are also part of this competition. Broadway shows accused street performances of scaring off tourists and they asked the City Government to ban these informal workers while Stores are continually reducing prices and renewing their products. There are fliers, illuminated signage, engagement campaigns, marketing strategies, and price reductions.
This game of enticement and persuasion starts long before the visitor physically arrives in Times Square. Sometimes it is unnecessary to even be there to become trapped and seduced by this location. Sometimes a promise is more than enough, a promise of being seen, having fun, finding a specific kind of imaginary, a promise of making particular connections. The eroticism that emerges from Times Square, that magnetic and decentralized force, is a hyperbole of bodies, sensations and trajectories. A hyperbole based on a promise of quantity, of being linked to a lot of [fun, eyes, lights, people, money, attention…]
Seduction is a multilevel movement of improvisation and repetition. Implicitly, we have already seen how the elements attracted by Times Square are also always seducing others either to capture them or to get something from them. Those new seducers, already seduced by Times Square, use a set of persuasive techniques based on a sort of material-eroticism reflected in their affordances and semiotic gestures. The persuasive methods used by these seducers are varied: a light, a movement, a naked body, a cd, a flyer, a costume, a dynamic urban landscape, a cheap ticket, a dance, a sale.
Not every technique works for every kind of element which is why the seducer, like a Kraken extending its tentacles, deploys its multiple tools and strategies, taking advantage of the physical and semiotic materials it can find in Times Square to grab as many elements as it possibly can. Seduction in urban places is often a three-player game. It is a multi-sensory movement where the seducer is allied to the place itself to capture those curious elements that are willing to modify their trajectories —or habitus—to follow a sign, a promise, a particular object of desire.
As a provisional conclusion to this post, it can be said that the magnetism/eroticism of Times Square is an exciting feature to explore as the common thread in a set of collective behaviors, practices, and strategies developed to capture and retain other materialities and semiotic products. Its magnetism is also reproduced and reinterpreted by the materials involved in/with Times Square inside different group formations, generating a spatial scenario of permanent seduction through the constant usage of Times Square’s modes and affordances as the tools and resources to achieve that goal.
Cochoy, F. (2016). On Curiosity; The Art of Market Seduction. London: Mattering Press.
Färber, A. (2020). The city as a setting for collaboration? Tracking the multiple scales of urban promises. In Ege, M. and Moser, J. (Eds.). Urban Ethics: Conflicts Over the Good and the Proper Life in Cities, 47-62. London and New York: Routledge.
Latour, B. (1999). “On recalling ANT”. In Law, J. & Hassard, J. (Eds.) Actor-network theory and after, 15-25. Oxford: Blackwell and the Sociological Review.
Maccannell, D. (1976). The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. London: Macmillan.
Pettinger, L. (2017). On Curiosity: The Art of Market Seduction, by Franck Cochoy, translated by Jaciara T. Lira. Journal of Cultural Economy, 10(3): 321-323.