petals on a wet, black bough: the high-speed videos of Adam Magyar


I was unfamiliar with the video work of Adam Magyar until I came across this PetaPixel article detailing Stainless, a series of photographs and super slow-motion videos of subway passengers waiting for their trains.  These videos are shot straight through the subway window, so as the train passes through the station the camera comes face-to-face with the people waiting for the train, capturing the strangely public/private facial expressions in a way that — because we are programmed not to gaze on the faces of others in public — feels intensely intimate at times.

As Walter Benjamin points out in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” the experience of coming into face-to-face contact with masses of strangers — without the geniality of interaction that would generally accompany such a face-to-face encounter — is a phenomenon that is new to history, a function of urban modernity.

That the eye of the city dweller is overburdened with protective functions is obvious.  Georg Simmel refers to some less obvious tasks with which it is charged.  “The person who is able to see but unable to hear is much more . . . troubled than the person who is able to hear but unable to see.  Here is something . . . characteristic of the big city.  The interpersonal relationships of people in big cities are characterized by a markedly greater emphasis on the use of the eyes than on that of the ears.  This can be attributed chiefly to the institution of public conveyances.  Before buses, railroads, and streetcars became fully establised during the nineteenth century, people were never put in a position of having to stare at one another for minutes or even hours on end without exchanging a word.”

And yet, as Ezra Pound’s famous 1913  imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” tells us, there is no escaping the forceful particularity of the face:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

These two modalities, of course, embody the contradictions inherent in public encounter: the need to adopt a mask of blank disinterestedness while at the same time remaining entirely unable to resist the bright attraction of the faces that surround us.

Chantal Akerman’s 1993 movie, D’Est (From the East), filmed in Germany, Poland, and Russia soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, exposes us to the same kind of uncomfortable intimacy that Magyar’s slow-motion subway tableaux do.  The sequence above was filmed, I believe, using a special trolley designed to travel along the same tracks used by the trains that the passengers we encounter are waiting for.  Clearly some kind of bright light is used to illuminate the faces of the waiting passengers, some of whom react to being filmed with bemusement, and some with anger.

In the context of the Cold War the faces and spaces that appear in D’Est are especially interesting — an early document registering the everyday lives of Eastern Bloc residents as had rarely been seen outside of the dueling propaganda machines of the US/USSR dipole.  One of the primary functions of propaganda is, of course, to prevent the recognition of the face of the other, the very event that Emmanual Levinas has theorized as the foundation of the ethical response.  In Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillippe Nemo, Levinas puts it like this:

I do not know if one can speak of a “phenomenology” of the face, since phenomenology describes what appears. So, too, I wonder if one can speak of a look turned toward the face, for the look is knowledge, perception. I think rather that access to the face is straightaway ethical. You turn yourself toward the Other as toward an object when you see a nose, eyes, a forehead, a chin, and you can describe them. The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the color of his eyes! When one observes the color of the eyes one is not in social relationship with the Other. The relation with the face can surely be dominated by perception, but what is specifically the face is what cannot be reduced to that. There is first the very uprightness of the face, its upright exposure, without defense. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. It is the most naked, though with a decent nudity. It is the most destitute also: there is an essential poverty in the face; the proof of this is that one tries to mask this poverty by putting on poses, by taking on a countenance. The face is exposed, menaced, as if inviting us to an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what forbids us to kill.

As we watch the faces in Magyar’s work and Akerman’s work, they unfold — each becoming a uniqueness that begs a response.  Because we are ourselves outside of the normal set of social relations when we watch these videos (because we are not actually ourselves in the crowd) we can open ourselves up to these faces in ways we might not find ourselves doing otherwise.  We open, and they open.  Like petals.

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