Riding the subway in New York is an exercise in cognitive dissonance: jammed together with strangers, most of us respect the unwritten edict to feign isolation in a space that forces interaction. We read, twiddle our thumbs or our phones, listen to music. The pretense is necessary: the anonymous, slack-faced trance frees us from the burden of decoding so many new faces in so short a time. We zone out, we glaze over, we do everything but engage with other people. But the truce is uneasy, and though careful not to linger, we sneak glimpses of our neighbors, looking up over the tops of our books and our magazines and our papers for a second or two.
Josh Melnick’s The 8 Train, showing now in the 6th floor Art In General space on Walker Street, invites you to transgress the first rule of subway riding by beckoning you to stare, long and hard, at the faces that flitter in and out of your vision, half-seen, through the haze of your daily commute. What at first glance seems to be a series of portraits projected onto four screens is, in fact, a series of super-slow motion videos, each depicting, in black and white, a solitary subway rider’s face.
“I chose the subway because it is a place which is both public and private, a place where people are in close proximity but not necessarily close,” says Melnick. “It’s also a great place for dreaming, for being rocked into a trance, and for making up stories about all the faces you see.”
Melnick and cinematographer Max Goldman spent over a week riding every subway line, looking at and photographing hundreds of people. The subterranean world they’ve created uses a documentary-style realism to invoke a fantasy world – the title, 8 Train, references the idea of potential, chosen both because it is a line that doesn’t exist and because it invokes the infinite. The images were captured with a two-second pan of a camera shooting at 1,300 frames per second; on-screen, those two seconds are stretched out over more than three minutes, with the result that no detail is lost. The overall effect is mesmerizing. A blink, an eyeball movement, a twitch: when elongated in time, these involuntary acts come to seem purposeful. The background is haunted by flickering lights and passing trains that move faster than the faces but slower than they should. The faces of these anonymous subway riders are randomized onto the exhibit’s four screens: a procession of faces of all types, each one afflicted with his or her own strain of subway malaise.
“Though everyone looks at one another in the subway, no one can actually stare – as soon as eye contact is made, you have to look away,” says Melnick. “In many ways this project was about giving us the opportunity to really stare at another person; to look deeply at them. To stare so long that we become aware of our own process of looking. The project is not about how we look at people in public places specifically. It’s about how we look at people in general.”
Through deconstructing our own looking, the work succeeds. Melnick takes those fragmentary glances, those two seconds we steal when we look up from our reading, and freezes them, drawing them out for what feels like an eternity and inviting us to revel in those snatches of voyeurism. In revealing every micro-expression – each tic, each blink, is operatic – the portraits show us all that we fail to see in those two seconds. They invite us to dissect those fleeting glances and, perhaps, restore some humanity to our daily commute.
‘The 8 Train’ – Art in General, 79 Walker Street, 6th Floor. Through July 18th, 2009.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Tim is a freelance journalist based in New York and a correspondent for Outside Magazine. Recent stories have taken him from New Guinea to Alaska and from BASE-jumping lessons to the Navy SEALs obstacle course. He lives in Brooklyn.