The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue

Public Images

Diane Nerwen, <em>Traveling Shots: NYC</em>, color, sound, 15:56. Courtesy carriage trade.
Diane Nerwen, Traveling Shots: NYC, color, sound, 15:56. Courtesy carriage trade.

On View
Carriage Trade
Public Image
New York

Among the most poignant images of the current pandemic which, since the beginning of lockdown, have been hitting our screens at vertiginous speed, there are the slo-mo bird’s eye views of the world’s major capitals almost completely deserted. At once eerily post-apocalyptic and coolly detached, these images usually shot by a drone placidly cruising a sky finally cleared of smog feel like elegies for a world in which contact didn’t yet spell contagion and indeed often evoke “a haunting, melancholic nostalgia for what has been lost,” as scholars Patricia R. Zimmermann and Caren Kaplan say in a recent conversation published in Film Quarterly.

Of course, we are perfectly aware that that world was far from ideal. (Another wake-up call has just come from Minneapolis.) Gentrified and segregated, surveilled and in the pockets of a few developers, cities were far from the conduits of brotherly love these videos seem to elegise. Yet, as soon as we see footage of the empty arteries of world’s iconic spaces and urban centers, we are met with such a pang of longing for pre-COVID-19 life—restaurants overflowing with people, crowds cheering at music gigs, streets bustling with passers-by—that, perhaps only for a moment, we are willing to brush off its many contradictions.

Ralph Steiner, Willard van Dyke, <em>The City</em>, Commentary by Lewis Mumford, music by Aaron Copeland, black and white, sound, runtime: 31:39. Courtesy Time, Inc.
Ralph Steiner, Willard van Dyke, The City, Commentary by Lewis Mumford, music by Aaron Copeland, black and white, sound, runtime: 31:39. Courtesy Time, Inc.

Public Images, a virtual exhibition now on view on the website of New York gallery Carriage Trade, a space that often interrogates big social and political issues, bursts precisely this “frictionless” conception of city-dwelling, exposing it as the ultimate illusion. Hotbeds for all forms of contagion bodily and spiritual, cities have always inspired mixed feelings. Throughout history, and especially since the onset of modernity, they have been catalysts of change; traversed with competing ideologies and interests, and rife with conflict. If there is an idea that bonds the six videos on view is then that, no matter how fixed our conception of them, cities inevitably evolve and it is our collective choice as to whether or not they do so for the better.

Admittedly, the first short film on view seems to contradict this affirmation. Accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack and introduced by a voice-over waxing lyrical about the city’s distinctive appeal of speed, grit, and glamour, Traveling Shots: NYC (2014) by Diane Nerwen is a non-narrative montage of clips taken from major motion pictures and lesser-known films shot in New York during the better part of the 20th century. Tailing Hollywood actors around the metropolis, the film foregrounds the urban environment as a lived everyday experience which persists though we might be little aware of it, painting incidentally a quintessential picture of the most filmed city in the world.

Dan Graham, <em>Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon</em>, color, sound, 19:33, Courtesy  Electronic Arts Intermix.
Dan Graham, Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon, color, sound, 19:33, Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix.

This impression of timelessness is however soon shattered by the two New Deal-era socially-minded documentaries from the National Archives which are next on view. The second of these documentaries, consisting of outtakes from a series produced for the March of Time newsreels in 1939, takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to showing neighborhoods including Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and Harlem, thus drawing a comparison between these bustling enclaves of immigration and the then recently-built housing project The Harlem River Houses, which comes last. The movie is silent, yet the progression of the vignettes suggests that a new model of city dwelling—one perhaps less picturesque, but definitely more livable—might be around the corner.

The idea that another model of urban living in which the ills of modern urban living are offset by concerted effort and planning is also at the heart The City (1939), a 30-minute short directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard van Dyke with a script by architecture critic Lewis Mumford. Rigidly structured around a tripartite Hegelian dialectic, it starts in an Arcadian setting in which an industrious community of artisans and farmers live in perfect unison with nature. It then continues in gritty urban settings—dirty, overcrowded, hectic—where human well-being has been trumped by the axiom “smoke makes prosperity” only to culminate in a garden city in which the original symbiosis between people and nature has been restored by careful planning and lush greenery.

Yuki Higashiro, <em>Extinguishment</em>, color, sound, 18:27. Courtesy carriage trade.
Yuki Higashiro, Extinguishment, color, sound, 18:27. Courtesy carriage trade.

One could easily sneer at such a film as overly didactic and naive. The community it portrays, which the voiceover hails as a sort of earthly paradise based on Deweian principles, for a contemporary viewer can’t but recall the monotonous anonymity of postwar suburbias and in fact presents many of its fundamental flaws: labor and leisure are still gender-segregated, and no black or brown face is in sight, not even in the far background. Still, The City stands as a powerful document. First, for its Dziga Vertov-like use of montage. Second, as a testimony of a time when—for all its shortcomings—a spirit of democratic populism and progressivism still informed political decisions and not everything was driven by the market.

Unsurprisingly then, the next two works, if indirectly, give an account of precisely such times in which the progressive hopes of the 1930s have all but faded. Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon (1992), a meandering video catalogue to the installation Rooftop Urban Park Project (1991–2004), features artist Dan Graham going through his creative process and influences. Grand Openings/Public Spaces (1983), in turn, documents a series of façades architect James Wines created for the retail chain Best. Subverting the banality of the mall through irony (one façade looks like it’s peeling off!), these interventions portray a Reaganite America in which corporate and consumerist demands have hijacked the role of the planner by turning him into a mere tweaker.

These five videos, if disparate, when placed side by side tell a story about American cities in the 20th century. Extinguishment (2020) by Japanese Vienna-based artist Yuki Higashino, on the other hand, speculates what might happen if we continue on the path we are set. Comprised of humdrum clips of Japanese wildlife in urban settings re-signified by a robotic voice describing an idyllic, post-human world in which robots have got rid of a senile Japanese population already on its last legs, the work is a wake-up call against the abulic state of our political imagination. The message is clear: we either change our course and fast or the bustling streets of our cities emptied out won’t be the last disaster we will have to witness.


Bartolomeo Sala

Bartolomeo Sala is a literary scout, freelance reader, and reviewer based in London.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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