Streetby Joshua K. Leon
Metropolitan Museum of Art | April 5 – May 27, 2013
Veteran artist James Nares’s recent film Street, which has captivated audiences at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes the digital aesthetic as far as technology will allow. Street’s recent run at the Met included a mesmerizing live performance by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who composed the film’s original score. That concert featured percussion sounds and improvisations not heard in the original film. Fortunately it now streams for free via the Met’s website, extending the life of a remarkable film.
This hour long meditation on street life was sculpted from 16 hours of footage taken along the sidewalks of Manhattan over the course of a week in September of 2011. With unprecedented detail, we can see Manhattan’s immense magnetism propelling dense crowds along its pedestrian friendly streets, for what purposes we can’t know. Slow down the speed of sidewalk life to that which could track the wings of a hummingbird, and we are left with an enchanting, participatory form of urban art.
Nares and his production team see Street as a series of captured moments, a time capsule for future generations. “My intention,” Nares says, “was to give the dreamlike impression of floating through a city full of people frozen in time, caught Pompeii-like, at a particular moment of thought, expression, or activity.” The film is intended “to be viewed 100 years from now,” implying that the work has yet to reach its intended audience whose challenge will be to derive stories from these phantasmagorical images. For now, this exercise inevitably generates speculation on how contemporary public life in New York City may be perceived across time.
The urban tableau presented in Street serenely portrays the city’s incomparable diversity while drawing attention to our shared experiences as urbanites, connecting modes of living from Chelsea to Harlem. Despite myriad differences, its subjects are metaphysically attracted to public life. Attuned to the city’s constant motion, this film satisfyingly transcends anti-urbanist discourses often present in American cinema (recall, for example, the dystopian New York portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or his sophomoric After Hours). Street conveys the possibility of comity and orderliness in urban interactions, rather than the perceived discord in cities that strikes fear through the heart of suburbia.
The film installation provoked plenty of laughter from audiences. This is what we might expect when seeing ordinary pedestrians in slow motion, their idiosyncrasies bearing close scrutiny in what at times resembles an interpretive dance. That laughter might just as well serve to calm our nerves. Street’s time capsule theme ultimately forces us to confront the disquieting notion of a future minus ourselves. We can never understand that future through the lenses of the present, though I can only imagine today’s society looking ever sillier as its common styles and forms of social communication descend into obsolescence.
The film’s emphasis on capturing cityscapes in time recalls Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s equally meritorious 1920 short Manhatta, which provides steeply angled footage of the city in an industrial context. Both films were shot during periods of drastic technological change, and both themselves utilize some of those emergent technologies. These films reassuringly portray periods of confounding social upheaval, roughly bookending the rise and fall of urban industrialism. In the case of Street, the ensuing dialogue with the future nevertheless raises pressing concerns about an especially insecure present. We can safely assume what concerns most New Yorkers at this moment: soaring rents, dead-end jobs, burdensome commutes, and so on. As a result the film presents the city at a time in which our roles in it are precarious and subject to jarring redefinition. Intentional or not, “in transit” is an apt metaphor.
In this sense the relative invisibility of labor as an aspect of city life may leave future audiences wondering what people in these times ever did for work. Still, the film gives telling examples of the political economy that animates social patterns in the city.It is notable that this study of public life was shot in the same month as the Occupy movement gathered steam, only to be doused by city police. This is not the film’s subject, though the episode reminds us that the city does not value unsanctioned political engagement in its streets.
Street does not spare us the commercialized perversity of the modern agora. We see a public realm where the meaning of freedom begins and ends with consumer choice. Dense flickering neon advertising is virtually everywhere. This hints at the desperation of proprietors large and small who hack away at passersby for attention. The flow of potential customers is their lifeline in a pitiless system of creative destruction. In Nares’s city, everything is noticeable.
1000 5th Ave. // NY, NY
ContributorJoshua K. Leon
JOSHUA K. LEON is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He writes on poverty, development, global health, and urbanization, and lives in Manhattan.