THERE are moments in history when everything interesting seems to take place indoors: clandestine meetings, documents being signed, objects and discoveries being made in private studios and ateliers. The past year, however, saw a different moment, in which plazas were occupied and protests and revolutions unfolded in the streets. Public space was activated — which might partially explain why James Nares’s “STREET,” at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, feels particularly relevant at this moment.
Mr. Nares’s 61-minute video sits in a curious place, somewhere between still and moving images. It has the uncanny look of a 3-D slide show or some hybrid of photography and film; it also calls to mind the stereographic viewers that were popular in the 19th century. Shown in slow motion, the people Mr. Nares filmed on the streets of Manhattan look like cutouts placed into deep pockets of space.
Mr. Nares filmed the video with a high-definition Phantom Flex camera (using an Angenieux Optimo 17-80 millimeter T2.2 zoom lens, for those who need to know). The edited footage is shown in slow motion, but the video employs another trick: the Phantom Flex is usually used in a stationary position to film fast-moving subjects, but Mr. Nares’s camera reversed this. It was positioned in the back of a sport utility vehicle that was driven through Manhattan at 30 to 40 miles per hour.
Using the device of the familiar made unfamiliar — or the uncanny — ordinary street vignettes become noteworthy occasions. A man stares into the camera on 125th Street, seemingly communicating something to the viewer. People waiting on street corners seem assembled for an event, and individuals hailing cabs look as if they are raising their arms to speak or to testify. Lovers hug, and the slow-motion release of their embrace makes them look as if they are parting for the last time. A man beseeches a woman outside a church. Some people ignore the camera, but for those who acknowledge it, their gazes feel like coded bits of communication.
Occasionally, you will see someone “famous” on the streets of New York, like the Naked Cowboy, a performer who plays the acoustic guitar in his underwear. But mostly the video is a reminder of how cities are filled with strangers — what modern artists like T. S. Eliot and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner identified as the strangely novel sensation of being alone in a crowd (although one wonders if ancient Romans ever felt the same way).
Some of the most fascinating moments involve animals and insects. Watching a pigeon fly in 3-D slow motion takes you back to the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, who captured “animal locomotion.” Muybridge’s first subject, famously, was a galloping horse. Here, the movements of the pigeon become an updated supplement to that narrative. Similarly, a fly moving through the frame at a faster rate than the walking humans underscores how the animals and insects that live among us experience reality — time, gravity and motion — in an entirely different way.
Unlike in photography, with its singular moment, people here are caught in the process of having an expression. And there are other effects: streetlights pulse at an unfamiliar rate; a cigarette butt tossed from a hand flies erratically through the air; falling rain looks, because of the slower speed and greater volume of 3-D, like snow.
"STREET" feels like a silent movie, except it is accompanied by a jangling, sometimes droning acoustic guitar soundtrack composed and performed by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The alternate tuning of the guitar, at once dissonant and unfamiliar, has all the markings of a Sonic Youth instrumental. Mr. Nares himself was in a downtown New York band in the 1970s and made Super 8 films that served as a kind of visual complement to the No Wave and punk scene of that moment, and there is the vague sense of overlap with the past and the present.
But Mr. Nares’s film is an eon away from the rough street aesthetic of the ’70s. Instead, it feels — and particularly because it is exhibited in a museum — linked more to a whole art history of street art, which is like a genre of its own within the field. There is, of course, the bold graffiti made with spray-paint cans starting in the 1970s, often cited as America’s most widely known and globally circulated aesthetic. But the earliest photographs often focused on the street: an 1839 daguerreotype by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre featured a view of the Rue du Temple in Paris, and another French photographer, Eugène Atget, took thousands of photographs documenting spookily depopulated Parisian streets. In the 1960s, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus offered oblique critiques of America during the Vietnam War era by focusing on people on the street, and more recent artists like Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Beat Streuli and Paul Graham and videographers like Kim Sooja use a combination of documentation and manipulation to create contemporary visions of urban streets.
Mr. Nares’s video isn’t explicitly political, and yet there are, at all times, distinct markers of how cities are divided along class, race and economic lines. Although he keeps the camera trained at street level — generally below the second floors of buildings — you can often tell where you are, based on a knowledge of where tourists go and where different populations live.
New York looks a little more battered in Mr. Nares’s representation than in many recent street-art works that highlight the Bloomberg era of gentrification and development. “STREET” also makes you aware, however, of how technology can radically change perception. It is a new representation of the city in which the still and the moving images are blurred, in which everything is stationary but shifting, and in which nothing is happening and, at the same time, there is too much to comprehend.
“James Nares: STREET” is at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, through Oct. 28. Information: (860) 278-2670 or wadsworthatheneum.org.
To view a clip of "STREET," please visit www.paulkasmingallery.com.
James Nares will exhibit at Paul Kasmin Gallery in May, 2013.