New York's 36th Annual Halloween Parade
OCTOBER 31, 2009

CONCEPT, DESIGN, and DIRECTION: Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles


ARTFUL SHIPMATES: Kate Whitehead, Moira Sauer, Katherine Alexander, Linda Lambertston

TOWER of SOUND: Jordan Matthews, a.k.a. DJ Wa



"Hic dracones sunt" Here be dragons.

The Lennox Globe in the New York Public Library was engraved with these words 500 years ago, a warning to early European explorers of the perils that awaited them in the margins of their half-finished charts, amidst the empty spaces simply labeled Terra Incognita (Unknown Land). Such maps occupy a liminal moment in history, poised between the theological certainty of Medieval maps (which plotted Paradise and Hell on a perfect symmetrical disk) and the geographical precision of later Enlightenment cartographers, who had mastered the science of longitude and the art of the sextant. Only in the precarious age of Exploration – of Hudson and Champlain, Cabral and Columbus – did we discover just how little we knew, and how vast Terra Incognita truly was. It was an age of fantasies given concrete coordinates, of myths pin-pointed on an empty chart, and of charts that tracked Dragons in eastern oceans.

This year, in honor of the Hudson–Champlain Quadricentennial, NY's Village Halloween Parade chose Terra Incognita as its theme. One might laugh today at the matter-of-fact declaration of mystery expressed in this simple phrase. Yet these days, as we confidently plot our course by GPS and globe-trot vicariously via GoogleEarth, Terra Incognita is nearer to us than ever. Our era’s own Northwest Passage assumes the full dimension of dread and promise that marked the voyages of Champlain and Hudson 400 years ago; except that now, in the immortal words of Peter Schuman, “We are all in the same boat.” Together we sail into the uncharted waters of an economy in turmoil and a planet in catastrophic upheaval. At the same time, the winds of change blow us toward new virtual worlds, astounding discoveries, and global communities, bringing us closer to new and strange shores.

New York’s Village Halloween Parade has always been a place where the strange is commonplace and where possibility and dread intermingle. This year, we conjured all those ancient Mariners who set their course before us into darkness and uncertainty. Hundreds of volunteers heeded the call to transform Avenue of the Americas into a vast azure sea, made of billowing silk. As the waves moved steadily up Sixth Avenue, their choreographed undulations revealed a host of creatures real and imagined, drawn from the margins of early nautical charts. Inundated by the silken tides, individual Parade masqueraders found themselves within living map, an illuminated Baroque tableau of blowing zephyrs and rosetta compasses, engraved legends and half-imagined landscapes – a reminder that we have all known unknowns before, and that just beyond the Dragons always lies a meridian of hope.


Alex Kahn, 2009


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Watch video of TERRA INCOGNITA in the 2009 NY VILLAGE HALLOWEEN PARADE (Click below)