It’s hard to believe that James Nares’ STREET — a mesmerizing, 61-minute high definition video, shot in one week on the streets of New York — wasn’t filmed in 3-D.
Nares, 59, a British-born artist, was inspired in part by the actualité films of the early 20th century, which were shot around the time motion pictures were first developed and are generally considered to be the precursors of the modern documentary. Along with two technicians and a driver, Nares traveled in a gutted SUV at anywhere between 30 and 40 miles per hour, capturing life in Manhattan in six-second bites (that’s all the camera can shoot at one time). He used a Phantom Flex camera — for non-technical folks, it grabs images at an extremely high resolution, storing tons of information with each frame — fitted with an Angenieux Optimo 17-80 mm T2.2 Zoom lens. Working from 16 hours of glacially slowed-down film sequences, Nares edited the film down to slightly more than an hour. It now runs in a loop at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.
People, cars, storefronts, even birds glide across the screen like cardboard cutouts, and your brain pieces together the tiniest of facial gestures and physical movements into sweeping narratives, shaped in part by Thurston Moore’s droning 12-string guitar soundtrack. Consonance and dissonance ebb and flow. A microsecond clip of a pigeon taking flight becomes a heroic struggle. A woman glancing at her shoes turns into a moment of extended reflection. Reality is captured exactly as is, but it’s also incredibly distorted and expansive, passively inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks.
STREET was offically acquired by the Wadsworth this month. Patricia Hickson, the Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art, first spotted the work in December 2011 at the annual art fair Art Basel Miami Beach, outside the Paul Kasmin Gallery booth (Nares’ New York Gallery) on a flat-screen monitor. “People were drawn to the piece,” Hickson told me in an e-mail, “crowding around it, so much so that it created a human traffic jam in the hallway. I’d never seen anything like it.” It’s not the first film or video in the Atheneum’s contemporary art collection; they own a small collection of approximately 20 films and videos that they began collecting in the mid-1970s. “For me, it is a high priority of the contemporary art collection to collect in this area,” Hickson wrote. “We will always have a dedicated video space at the museum.” The museum is one of only six entities to own a print of STREET.
“We have a process where about 20 of our staff members who are somehow involved in the curatorial staff get to see and respond to things we are considering,” said Susan Talbott, director of the Wadsworth. “Patty showed James’ video as we were considering purchasing it.”
“I was actually showing it for exhibition purposes,” said Hickson. “The reaction was so strong from everyone. I planned to show 10 minutes. I wanted to catch a train to New York. We ended up watching practically the whole film up until the last five minutes, when we were kicked out for another meeting. But they wouldn’t let me shut off the video. The dialog kept going. They said, ‘Oh, we have to have this for the collection.’”
“I haven’t heard this for any other acquisition,” Talbott said. “It’s never happened before. It was really something. Patty and I had been talking about acquiring it, but we were just kind of taking our time.”
“It’s wonderful for me to hear all of that,” Nares, who was listening to the conversation, said.
I spoke with Nares last month at the Wadsworth, where he had just arrived to view the installment for the first time, about the making of STREET. The film will show at the museum through the end of October.
[Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.]
There are structural decisions you must have had to make. Was there any guiding principle in how you shaped the sections of the film?
Yes, but it wasn’t rigorous. The general principle was that I would cut it in the sequence that things happened. And it’s pretty much that. There were some changes, like there were two different days when it rained, and I combined them into one day. There were certain shots... but we pretty much cut it the way it was. It seemed like the only structure that would make sense to my mind. Otherwise, it would have been too random. I did move a couple of things from here to here, just because it made more sense. But really, it was chronological.
How much total footage did you get?
I had 16 hours. A lot of it... There was a problem with the camera. I didn’t realize it until after I’d been shooting with it for a couple of days, that the lens -- there’s a beautiful lens -- but if you zoomed, just at the last moment, the last tiny thing, like when you get closer, it went out of focus. So there’s all this footage where there’s all kinds of wonderful things happening, and it’s just incrementally out of focus, and I couldn’t use it. Next time I’ll use a different lens.
Did you have to scrap the whole shot when that happened?
Yes. If there was a tiny bit of softness we could sharpen it, do video tricks to make it usable. But, you know, I had so much stuff that was good that I didn’t really lose out. I still had trouble cutting it down to one hour. There are some beautiful things that never made it to the film. It’s 16 hours of what I got from the camera [of slow-motion footage] to one hour that I used.
Was it shot on video or film?
It’s video, but it has this beautiful film-like quality. One thing that that camera has is incredibly high resolution. I’m not a great technical person, which is why I had a couple of technical people working with me. I had two people who were doing all that stuff. They were great. But the quality -- each frame is a whole new set of information, which kind of makes sense to me but apparently video isn’t usually that. It keeps the same set, and then adjusts for any changes, like from frame to frame. But this camera has, like, so much information, which is why it was important to have the right way to show it.
Are these kinds of cameras things that you have to rent from somebody who owns them? Because I imagine they’re incredibly expensive.
Yes. I bought a high-speed camera, a video camera, so I knew the principles of how they work, which, I think if I had come to it completely green, it might have been more difficult to understand. The camera is always recording. If it’s on, it’s recording. And it has a six-second loop, depending on your frame-rate that you are shooting. The frame-rate that I was shooting was around six seconds, which was the longest shot I could make.
Six seconds at a time?
Six seconds at a time. So it was quite difficult, because I had to see... The car had to be moving at the correct speed. There had to be a subject that was worth shooting. And I had to see it in time, because we were always going between... I wouldn’t shoot unless we were going between 30 and 40 [mph]. So, like in a fraction of time, I had to see, and then adjust the F-stop and the zoom and everything else and get... It required a certain kind of finesse of timing, which, you know, all of us, we got down pretty well. The driver would wait at the red light, and we’d say, “Okay, this looks good. Okay, you ready? Hit it!” And we’d go roaring across the intersection. [Laughs.]
It’s like a performance in a way. You’re a group of people and you’re operating the camera like it’s an instrument.
What’s really weird is that it was a big black SUV with dark windows, and in certain lights, like if it was dark, people didn’t see the camera. And you know, the lens with this hood on it, it was this massive box sticking not quite outside the window, but just inside the window, but you could pull up right next to someone and they would just not see you. On other days, when it was sunny, people would see you across the street and sometimes react. [7 mins.] But the camera was very big. The body of the camera was this kind of size [makes gesture with hands], and then there had to be a monitor to see what you were shooting, and everything had to feed into these computers to do whatever they did.
At times, you see the car you were driving in the film. And I found it interesting that, with all the footage you had to choose from, you left [the car] in those shots.
Yes. It feels like a shark cruising in the ocean when you do see it. It didn’t bother me, because there is an acknowledgment of the camera, not all the time but in those moments when people see it or something, they clown or they give you a sign.
Like those two girls [standing at a street corner, mugging for the camera]. It’s amazing that shot is only six seconds long.
Yes, and that’s why I made the film, because there is a lot of information in these short time frames. It’s really like a collection of still photographs. But a still photograph that’s just been nudged into motion, and so you see the photo, but you also see what just preceded it and what just came after it, and there’s a little narrative there very often.
Sometimes it’s welcome to have a constraint like that, like, okay, I can only shoot six seconds at a time. I imagine it focuses you on the spot to be paying attention to what you are getting as opposed to just driving around for several hours and getting everything, and then having to edit.
Yes, and it would have been an awful lot of stuff to go through. The other thing I like about it is it brings back to video, for me, something of the magic of film, which, unlike video, which you can normally just let it run for as long as you want... The film stock is much more precious. So, time is more precious to you, and you tend to concentrate more when the camera’s running, it’s a more special time.
Eventually they’ll make these cameras and you’ll be able to let it run forever, but at this point in time, with the technology, you can’t do that. It makes for a much different end result, I would think.
The camera had a beautiful lens, too. It had this Angenieux lens, which actually costs more than the camera. So, yeah, we took all the seats out of the middle part of the SUV and put the other seats down so there was a big flat bed, and the two technical guys sort of lay and sat around in there surrounded by electricity and equipment, and the camera was right in the middle of the car, and I would shoot ultimately each day... I would set up in the morning to shoot out of the left side or the right side, because it took a bit of setup. And then I think I did four days out of one side and three days out of the other. But finding a moment when it was possible to shoot... and there were certain streets where we couldn’t shoot because we’d be shooting through traffic. I wanted to be close to the pedestrians. There are cars going between you, but they’re mostly parked, or they are only parked cars.
I didn’t notice a lot of parked cars. It almost feels like there’s nothing between the car and the people.
Yes, I wanted to have as little interference as possible. And like I was saying, I wanted the camera to be constantly in motion to give this kind of thread to the whole film and to give the feeling of floating through this kind of petrified world. I was also referencing, in my mind, those actualité films, where you see life kind of as it was, with an acknowledgment that the camera is there. It doesn’t try to disguise what it’s doing. It’s just that that’s what’s happening and there’s no interference. There’s no attempt to bend reality this way or that, but oddly enough it does happen, but in a different way than I was expecting. It happens in ways like... there was this one shot -- it’s not in the film -- there’s this guy walking down the street, and his head is like this [looks down]. He’s looking down, looking down, and it looks like he’s really depressed or something. He’s staring at his feet. But when you speed it up, he’s glancing at his shoelaces. He’s just doing that. And so the reality does become distorted in our minds, because the human mind just wants to attach a drama to what it sees.
When I was watching the film, I thought how amazing it is to me that my mind is working so hard to create a narrative between the figures on the screen. There’s a scene where the pigeon sets into motion, and immediately after he leaves the shot, there are two people, and how hard my mind was working to make him be reacting to what I’m seeing, which is the pigeon. And the music, the way it moves between levels of dissonance, has a lot to do with that narrative that I’m creating at the time, at least in my mind as a viewer.
Yes. The decision about what to do with the soundtrack had me mulling for awhile. But once I made the decision, I felt good about it, which was to ask Thurston [Moore] to do it. He offered all kinds of possibilities, and I ended up going with the 12-string, because it was, even though the film is a collection of individuals and you are existing for a moment inside each head -- it’s a crowd of faces -- you kind of experience it as a collection of individuals, and to have the music coming from one individual who’s moving on a path that’s somewhat like our car, meandering through the city, and Thurston’s improvising, which is sort of what we were doing, really, improvising according to a set of one’s own rules, and his rules, like you say, move beautifully between dissonance and harmony and the range of emotions is wonderful, and the way he negates one’s expectations I find really incredible.
It would have resulted in a completely different film if it wasn’t, you know, Thurston Moore doing it, if it was another individual, and it is, like you say, like he’s wandering through it with you as you are watching it.
Yes, it’s like he creates a sort of parallel universe or something that just dovetails. I was very pleased with that.
Is he responding to it at the moment?
Some of it. He gave me a bunch of different things, and some of it he was watching the actual film while he was recording.
And other parts you decided how the music would be shaped?
Yes. There’s one credit at the end of a CD that he made, which is what got me interested in it in the first place. It’s a collection of improvisations.
I’m thinking about someone seeing it in 10 years or 15 years, and there is that sort of time capsule aspect of it. At the same time, I’m thinking about, well, what if you had shot it 10 years earlier? Would there be a different palette?
Yes, I wish I made this movie in the 1970s in New York. I’m personally very nostalgic about that time. It was a big time for me because I had just arrived in the city, so everything was new. But I do think those thoughts. And it certainly would have been different, and I’m very attracted to that. You know, one of the primary reasons for making it is to be able to inhabit the previous world, and it makes your current world make more sense to be able to do that. I’ve always been fascinated with the past and with history, and with the interpretation of histories. I made this film, Rome 78, which was everyone interpreting life in ancient Rome in their own way, in New York City. So, it’s a thread that runs through the work. And the time capsule thing: I did talk about the film as a film to be seen 100 years from now, before I made it, even. It was kind of a joke, but serious too. I’ve often thought of the pleasure of being able to see something. I would love to see this film in 100 years.
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James Nares: STREET, Ends Oct. 28, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford, (860) 278-2670, thewadsworth.org