James Nares makes good time with his hypnotic NYC film study 'Street'
Word to the wise: Local art appreciators, hurry up and get to “SLOW,” the exhibit on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. Curated by MOCA director Marcelle Polednik, “SLOW” features work by seven artists: David Claerbout, Kota Ezawa, Idris Khan, Chris McCaw, James Nares, Eve Sussman and Sam Taylor-Johnson. Through the use of still photography, film and video, the internationally renowned artists address concepts of time, duration and the shifting impermanence of life.
Key to the success of “SLOW” is the work of James Nares. The British-born Nares moved to Manhattan in the early 1970s and was a participant in that decade’s No Wave movement, a ragtag scene of visual artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers, spawning notables from rockers Sonic Youth to film director Jim Jarmusch.
In the decades since, Nares has worked in both paint and film. His contributions to “SLOW” include seven Cibachrome and three Polaroid print nude studies and his film “Street.” Shot in hi-definition video and filmed over the course of a week in September 2011, “Street” is a 61-minute unscripted documentary of people walking the streets of Nares’ beloved Manhattan. Viewing the video takes people-watching to a hypnotic level, as Nares leads his audience on a mesmerizing journey from Battery Park to the Upper West Side, aided and abetted by a minimalist soundtrack by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore.
Folio Weekly: In a lecture at Wadsworth Atheneum, you describe “Street” as a kind of hybrid between your interests in high-speed photography and history. How did those two seemingly disparate ideas spark the creation of this piece?
James Nares: I’m not sure. It was just one of those moments when my interests suddenly met in some almost magnetic way. I had always been into high-speed photography, and I always loved those actuality films [late 19th- to early 20th-century documentary films], where they would just attach a camera to a car and film. And then people would go to the movies and just sit and watch the streets of New York. [Laughs.] It was very sort of Andy Warhol in a way. The idea of just turning the camera on and letting it run was abandoned.
F.W.: What did you find so fascinating about something like an actuality film or Warhol’s film studies of things like people or even buildings?
J.N.: I was attracted to the fact that there was no attempt to interfere with what you saw by editing. There was no attempt to manipulate what people were doing. There was an awareness of the camera, because people would occasionally clown for the camera or just look at it, notice it. And I like those moments, too, because they take you back to your own role as the viewer and your own ultimate place in that experience.
F.W.: It’s interesting; I did notice that phenomenon in “Street,” where people seemingly feel obligated to react to your camera, as if it's part of that very relationship.
J.N.: Yes, absolutely and there’s a number of those moments in the film. Some are just simple glances from one person in a crowd who will see the camera when nobody else does. And there are other moments where someone sees the camera and they act like it is the major event of their day. I don’t know if you saw it, but there’s one sequence with the two little girls who make it very clear they are just incredibly happy to be filmed. I really love that section.
F.W.: Thurston Moore's soundtrack is quite appropriate for this film. How did that come about?
J.N.: I hadn’t originally planned to have any soundtrack and then planned on having street sounds and slowing them down, like the film itself. I thought that by doing that, I would possibly reveal something about the sounds of the city in the same way I hoped to reveal something about the sights of the city. But it didn’t work. It just seemed to drag the film down and make it seem like it moved incredibly slow. [Laughs.] And once I decided on having music, I knew Thurston would do something amazing, and he is almost the perfect person because he's almost the same age as me and we came up together in the same general scene and even neighborhoods. What I love about the music that he did is that it wanders very freely through emotional states and it wanders in the same way that I wandered through the city, shooting the film.
F.W.: You've been in the New York City art scene since the early ’70s, through the art boom of the ’80s and now post-9/11 Manhattan. Your 1976 film “Pendulum” is a black-and-white short, featuring a wrecking ball swinging through an abandoned street; “Street” is a full-color, hour-long feature filled with a literal panoramic shot composed primarily of people. Which do you think has changed more: you or the city?
J.N.: I think the two of us have changed together. What do you call that? A symbiotic relationship. Both of those two films bookend each other nicely, and I think that it’s significant that The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought “Pendulum,” and they asked me to speak about that film at a luncheon. Afterwards, I went up to [Met associate curator] Doug Eklund, who had been responsible for purchasing the film, and handed him a DVD copy of “Street” and said, “I’d love it if you would watch this.” And he called me the next day and said, “We want to buy it.” And I think he’s a pretty perceptive guy, and I think he chose well [Laughs.] because I do think those two films represent some kind of chapter of my life and of the city as well.