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Riffs by cab riders, secretly recorded for the sake of art

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NEW YORK » His career as a New York City taxi driver began with a graveyard shift, a creative itch, and a brazen interpretation of privacy laws.

It compelled him, most recently, to cruise between art shows along Manhattan’s West Side, hoping to impress upon the city’s cultural elite that with the right soundtrack, even a yellow cab could be transformed into a gallery space.

And in between, Daniel J. Wilson — an artist, a documentary filmmaker and, since 2011, a licensed cabby from Brooklyn — secretly recorded the conversations of his passengers, assembled the highlights into an audio collage of the back-seat musings and installed the final product in his taxi, playing the clips for his riders, who listened anxiously for familiar voices.

"It’s this world where people act like you don’t exist, even though you’re three feet away," Wilson, 35, said from the front seat of his cab recently. "You get this fragment of a person."

Of course, those fragments can have jagged edges. A bartender is expected to at least feign interest in the tales told by his regulars, but the taxi driver is otherwise occupied. Nevertheless, he is privy to explosive confessions and earsplitting breakups, office gossip after work and whiskey-induced phone calls before dawn.

Cable reality shows aside, whom would a cabdriver ever tell?

Wilson’s 37-minute piece, called "9Y40," after the medallion number of the taxi he used during the recordings, draws on a four-week period spent driving on the 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift. It includes an observation on fashion trends ("antlers are so hot right now"), introspection from a bachelor ("I am extremely datable and extremely interesting, but I wouldn’t actually date myself") and a woman’s insistence that her sister is too well-liked.

"Kelly’s not miserable and alone," the woman said, slurring slightly. "She has a wonderful husband; she has friends. That’s what’s sick."

There is also a good deal of profanity.

What is not certain is whether Wilson’s recordings were obtained legally. Though New York is a so-called "one-party consent" state — conversations can be lawfully recorded if only one party is aware of the device — legal experts say Wilson’s interactions with his passengers may not constitute conversations. He often took pains to remain silent, he said, letting his riders riff without provocation.

Before presenting his work, Wilson sought the counsel of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, he said. He was told that while passengers who heard their voices in the piece could sue to prevent him from using the recording, he was unlikely to face serious liability.

The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission would not say whether the recordings violated any rules, but David S. Yassky, the taxi commissioner, chided Wilson for "very poor judgment." He added that the city would decide whether a rule should be drafted to address similar circumstances in the future.

Other reviews have been more charitable, though Wilson has presented his work to a handpicked audience. He recently drove his cab exclusively between art fairs, pegging his efforts to Armory Arts Week, which was held March 5-10.

On a recent Saturday, he played his work for passengers from a makeshift speaker system assembled in the back seat of his Crown Victoria and refused to charge, for the ride or the show.

One rider, Victoria Reis, 42, who was visiting from Washington to attend the Armory shows, called the project "the least pretentious and most experimental" she had seen all week. She tipped him $20.

Wilson remained technically off-duty on the days he drove, careful to follow taxi commission guidelines. But his attire ensured that prospective riders would spot him nonetheless; he wore a chauffeur’s hat with adjustable plastic snaps in the back, a suit jacket and white gloves.

"I think these are actually Santa gloves," he said.

Even his vehicle had been accessorized. In a nod to a godfather of covert recordings, he affixed a Richard M. Nixon hood ornament — more precisely, the severed head of a Nixon bobblehead doll — to his taxi.

"There is a presence," a stately woman who attended a Chelsea art show said on a Saturday, eyeing Wilson as she puffed on a cigarette a few feet from his car. "You very well notice that something is going on."

At the garage in Queens, where he rents his cab, the other drivers sense that Wilson, with his Seoul Fashion Week bag slung over his shoulder, is different. But no one seems to be aware of his traveling artwork, he said.

On a recent weekend, though, his cover was nearly blown. The trouble began on Mercer Street, where two men slid into the back of Wilson’s cab. One was a painter named Tim Kent. The other was the actor Adrian Grenier, who was the star of the television show "Entourage" and played one of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities.

Immediately, driver and passenger began chatting — the actor who once played the actor, the cabby who continued to play the cabby, Santa gloves and all.

"Most of your life is ambient impressions anyway, you know?" Grenier said, as he listened to Wilson’s recordings.

Everyone thought about that for a moment. Perhaps a moment too long.

Suddenly, a loud thwack jostled the cab, and a headlight sailed into the air. Wilson had struck the back of another taxi, which had come to a stop at the light.

A small crowd stared from the sidewalk. No one appeared to be hurt. The other car had barely been scratched. Wilson charged out of the cab to confer with the other driver. Grenier pointed his iPhone.

"This," Grenier said, "is vital art."

Grenier and Kent left to flag down another ride, while Wilson and his colleague worked to strike a deal: They would travel to the other driver’s garage; grease the palm of a mechanic there. Forty dollars, tops. No paperwork.

About half an hour later, the repair was complete. The headlight looked better than before.

Wilson drove back to Long Island City, predicting, correctly, that the garage workers would not notice the difference. And even if they did, Wilson said — even if they stopped renting him cabs, and even if the city revoked his cabby’s license someday soon — no one could diminish one monument to his art’s endurance.

Little Richard Nixon, leering from the hood, had never budged.

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