See the Streets of New York in Slow Motion

James Nares’s “Street” (via Wadsworth Atheneum on Vimeo)

It’s amazing to watch a slow-motion, high-definition video of a bird taking flight. The feathers ruffle in succession like a ripple moving across waves, and the wings flap in an exaggerated but seemingly effortless motion. The whole display is fairly awe-inspiring and beautiful — even if the bird in question is a pigeon.

Such is the case in James Nares’s video “Street” (2012), which went on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week in one of the museum’s photography galleries. Technically, the entire exhibition consists of the video as well as two adjacent rooms, in which Nares has chosen and displayed various objects from the Met’s collection. But when I visited on Tuesday, the crowd seemed almost entirely focused on the video; nearly every inch of bench space in the small, darkened theater was filled, and dozens more viewers sat on the floor and stood in the back. People were mesmerized.

And with good reason. To make “Street,” Nares spent sixteen hours shooting footage of people on the streets of Manhattan while he rode in a moving car. He used high-definition video, which can capture fast-moving subjects with incredible clarity. But then, during the editing process, slowed it way, the artist way down (as well as cutting the piece down to one hour and adding a kind of annoying guitar soundtrack composed and performed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore).

In “Street”, you have New Yorkers, who are normally a blur and moving at a constantly frenzied pace, going absurdly slowly about their everyday routines. And since the video is hi-def, it catches everything: awkward facial expressions, moments when a passerby locks eyes with the camera, a woman using her tongue to try and get the food out of her teeth. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nares has amazingly detailed footage of someone picking their nose.

This type of artwork is right up my alley: I love people watching, and I love doing it New York, because I think New Yorkers are endlessly weird and fascinating. Still, I was surprised at the size of the crowd camped out in that dark, hypnotic gallery at the Met. As I pondered the fact that I wasn’t alone in my proclivities, I began to wonder if New Yorkers are perhaps the vainest people on earth. Of course we think we’re endlessly weird and fascinating; that’s why we live here. And it makes sense that we’d want to sit and watch a video in an art museum of scenes we’d probably, in our hurry, just complain about or scoff at outside: we love seeing ourselves elevated to high art.

Then again, it occurred to me later, as I traversed the Asian Wing of the Met in search of another exhibition, that the mega-museum, on a Tuesday afternoon, is quite possibly filled with more tourists than locals. So maybe it wasn’t a room full of narcissistic New Yorkers staring deeply into the mirror; maybe we really are that interesting.

Street continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 27.

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