Finding Transcendence in the Streets

In our society, New Year’s Day marks a conception of time that facilitates reflection.  Taking stock – considering and evaluating the importance and significance of the experiences we have had and the activities we enacted – is an important human exercise.  It is a process of refinement that helps us to distinguish mere distractions from significant visions and the banal from the meaningful.  Ultimately, these times of reflective concentration, intend to make better people of us.

In contemplating on my experiences in 2013, one work of art emerges as a profound viewing experience.  Hands down, my encounter with James Nares’ Street stands out the most arresting art experience of last year.  Indeed, I would even say that this chance encounter with this piece of work is one of the most arresting art experiences of my life.

Last spring, I took my youngest daughter to New York City as a right of passage commemorating her sixteenth birthday.  As with my oldest daughter, I brought her to city that I love in order to expose her to the complexity of a broader and bigger world.  This intentionality eventually brought us to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Our visit to this grand institution happened well into our week-long trip and we were weary for it.  By the time we arrived at the doors of the Met, we had roamed the busy streets, crowded institutions, and innumerable stores of what is a demanding and complex city.  We had literally walked over hundreds of miles before we arrived at this point and little did we know that all these experiences would serve to lend meaning to a piece of visual art.

Street is a video installation by the British-born artist that is entirely given to depicting the seemingly unending street life of New York City.  The New York-based artist captured the footage that was used to comprise the installation over the course of a week in September 2011.  During that week, he collected footage of people on the streets of Manhattan from a moving vehicle using a high-definition camera that is typically used to record fast-moving subjects like hummingbirds.  He recorded innumerable six-second scenes – the minimum amount the resolution would allow for – till he had acquired an amazing sixteen hours of documentation.  In his final presentation, he slowed down his source material significantly and presented a one hour edited version.  His visual record was accompanied by a repetitive soundtrack of guitar music performed by Thurston Moore, a member of the band Sonic Youth and a friend of the artist.

When we came upon this work on the second floor of the Met, both my daughter and I were immediately mesmerized.  The dramatic and emotive music, combined with painfully slow-moving images of people on the streets of the city, produced a work that was both captivating and hypnotic.

By slowing down the moving images and eliminating the distracting and frenzied sounds associated with them, Nares transformed what would otherwise be chaos into order and he provided an object of meditative contemplation.  Within the room it was presented, there was a substantive crowd that, like us, was subsumed into the beauty and grace of the imagery.  With the lights out and the room silent, it felt more like you were in a theatre than an art gallery.  However, the collective human experience of watching Street gave such a collective sense of the profound that you felt you were more in a church than in a movie theatre.  Regardless, you definitely did feel that you were in anything other than an ordinary moment of time.

The technique of Nares’ presentation allowed for an extended and considered examination of the brief, six-second, snapshot moments he captured in his original stock.  This presentation allowed the viewer to observe details that could never be observed in “real time.”  The result was a convincing poetic and transcendent view of the human experience.  The installation allowed from a transfiguration of the ordinary that transformed banal moments of everyday life into seemingly eternal works of art.

In our encounter with Nares’ work, both my daughter and I left the museum changed.  Though, after we left the exhibition, we continued to see the busy and crowded streets, we now knew that grace and beauty saturated those complex moments.  This consciousness was so astute in us that we reconsidered all the experiences we had had before our encounter as well.  Nares’ presentation had truly reminded us that banality is really a façade that hides a more resident and transcendent meaning.

Given that we face another year on this pale rock of a planet, the work of James Nares reminds us all that we need to slow down our pace and increase our consideration of the moments that we find ourselves in.  His work reminds us to be more contemplative of the meaning infused in our own human experiences.  I think this might be a good resolution for us all.


You can see a cut from James Nares’ Street at the following link:


Ross Melanson

About Ross Melanson

He is a poet, visual artist, and independent scholar living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is the Founding Editor of page51 – a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between art, culture, and philosophy. Read more →, or

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