Details of a Street

Exploring Guan Zhuang street

between Home and Work

When looking repetitively at Beijing’s streets, some details may reveal the complexity of urban life in unexpected ways. When walking on the same street every day during three years between home and work, these details seen repeatedly become familiar to the attentive passer-by, who traces his own route looking for what has remained still and what has changed on that street. Some details become well-known reference points while others may always be surprisingly new. The formers come from what has been seen, listened to and experimented on a daily-basis intimate meditation, a sort of ritual in walking on the same pavement day and night, in winter and summer, somehow decoding daily life in its similarities and differences. As such, some actions become well-established; some sounds are expected to be heard, some people and objects are expected to be seen, one is grasped by urban rhythms before grasping them and, at the same time, there are constant changes, most of them not being noticed by the same people who walk down their own street every single day. As empiricist, there are details of street life that I might not be able to see, appearing when I am not present, which are the other twenty-three hours of the day, or they may have been there for years until one day I suddenly notice them for the first time. Thus, any representation of that street may be incomplete given the ephemeral nature of the urban space as well as the human and material limitations to observe and make it visible, but imaginative viewers may continue this unfinished narrative by raising further questions on what one individual may learn from the everyday liveliness of one delimited street.

Therefore, the street I chose for my project is known as Guan Zhuang, a seemingly uncharacteristic place at the east of Beijing to which I have a particular interest as an observer, as it joins the residence in which I have lived in the past three years to my workplace at the EWFZ high school. Since my arrival, I have enjoyed this fifteen-minutes’ walk from one point to the other of the street considering its lively but also relaxing pace, thinking that it should someday be portrayed through sounds and images. Sometimes in the morning, after walking, I wait at a bus stop for the 583 to take me on another campus and there is time to slow down and observe what happens around me as if I was every day rediscovering the street.

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There exist several street projects that use images to capture and tell unexpected aspects of reality, ‘to capture the world’ as Susan Sontag wrote it (1979). The large-scale photographic project of Richard Howe, ‘New York in Plain Sight’ (2008), is a visual archive that captures the sense of life of the 11,485 Manhattan’s street corners. Each corner has been portrayed through one photograph, as a memory, a fragment of seconds that shows buildings, sidewalks and the life of citizens in public. The small book ‘Paris sans paroles’ by Sylvain Ageorges (2012) is also a great visual census of the city to explore through different categories, such as floors, doors, signs, benches, statues, pigeons, among other elements that make Paris recognisable almost immediately. These are classified tiny particles that seem to contain the whole city. By contrast, the recent series ‘Windows from the world’ by the photographer André Vicente Gonçalves, explores a city’s windows, highlighting the subtle differences between buildings, and later between cities, when he starts travelling city by city to reproduce the same collection. However, the encounter between social research and art in framing the cityscape is very well achieved in a scene from the movie ‘Smoke’, directed by Wayne Wang in 1995. The main protagonist, a small Brooklyn tobacconist store manager (Harvey Keithel), explains to a recently-widowed writer (William Hurt), why he takes a daily picture of his own shop: More than four thousand pictures of the same place. The corner of third street and 7th Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning. Four thousand straight days in all kinds of weathers. That’s why I can’t never take a vacation. I gotta be in my spot every morning at the same time. Every morning at the same spot at the same time. It’s my project. What you’d call my life’s project […] It’s my corner after all. It’s just one little part of the world but things take place there too just like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot […] They are all the same but each one is different from every other one. You got your bright mornings, your dark mornings. You got your summer light and your autumn light. You got your weekdays and your weekends. You got people in overcoats and galoshes and you got people in T-shirts these shorts. Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same and the same ones disappear. The Earth revolves around the Sun and every day the light from the Sun hits the Earth at a different angle (min. 12 to min. 18).

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The first project depicts the thousands of corners of a borough, the second one presents a city through different categories, the third one displays different cities through one category, and the fourth one shows the life that surrounds a single corner every day over many years. The first three projects are real and the fourth one is fictional but not less plausible. It is certainly the most constraining given that not only space is considered, but time as well. It is also the most personal by involving the photographer to take his own shop in photo, which shows how an in-depth research project may measure everydayness. Further, the first three projects are on the move through the city while the fourth project is rather static. When comparing their methods, the second and third project make close-ups to mostly show city’s material and physical elements while the first and fourth project are particularly attentive to social life.

Whereas there are some divergences among the four documentary projects, let’s now focus on their similarities. All three seek to observe and represent urban life through visual methods. Most importantly, their common ground is found in repetition, not one but 11,485 corners to analyse a borough, not one but dozens of categories being photographed to analyse a city, not one but dozens of windows to analyse dozens of cities, not one but thousands of mornings to analyse a corner. Further, all four researchers highly understand the relation between the process and result of their research by fixing themselves strict rules to attain a certain objectivity, avoiding being carried away by the subjective pursuit of beauty that would ruin their method. In these terms, the first and fourth project are more rigorous while the other two took some liberties in also caring for aesthetics. Although ones are more objective than others, they all realise fascinating results that could also be understood by the audience as thoughtful art works. Last but not least, these projects suggest other projects. Imagine capturing all corners of a city the same day at the same time. What about doing it at night rather than day light, in all four seasons, every five years. Imagine photographing doors rather than windows, all doors of a street rather than a city. With enough inventiveness and resources, projects of this kind are endless.

In my project, I wanted to make coherent the details found in the chaotic information of Guan Zhuang street by classifying and analysing them in the following categories: (1) Floors (2) Walls (3) Urban furnitures (4) Stores (5) Signs and Images (6) Lights and Colours (7) Transports (8) People (9) Objects and Trash and (10) Nature. These universal traits of a city’s street might be studied in most urban environments, given that all streets have floors, walls, people, and when represented visually they will produce unique results of their local life, which are singular characteristics of their identity. Therefore, between summer and autumn 2020, after years of active contemplation, I started filming Guan Zhuang’s physical, social and multi-sensory environment to make a short film that tells a research, but above all a story. It does not take place in the entire street, but in the space between my home and work. Each shot is related to one of the early described categories, with sometimes more than one, as when we see floors in the front and cars or people in the back. At times, the same shot could perfectly fit in two different categories. The bright green of a tree, a plastic bottle on the floor, the light of a car, etc.

Details do not show the street in large sight, but as these particles are brought together, they also show the street as it really is. When filming to access and investigating social life, the small things we see are much smaller than all that actually happens out there, but there are connected to the bigger urban landscape. An image showing a delivery guy resting and looking at his phone may implicitly symbolise all the delivery guys that I have seen in the past three years along that street. As such, images often reveal what is frequently seen. There may also be unusual events caught by the camera that barely happen every day, but they are few as I have tried to keep record on the mundane. Now, although most elements are seen repeatedly and seem identical from one day to the other, there are always variations that may be truly hard to report with the camera. Birds may not be the same, sunlight varies, blue shoes may be followed by red shoes seconds later and only the former will have been seen. As such, there are uncountable details that I have not recorded when they are actually there, or even details that need to be explained with words to understand the image. Also, I have seen more details through the lens of the camera that without it as I was fully concentrated in chasing them wherever they were hidden. The same happened while recording sounds as I could wait in a corner listening to them changing around me or I would look for them walking down the street. Nevertheless, a project of this scale may be enough to portray the street and give others a sensation of it, but not to analyse all with precision.

Stories from Beijing was an Art project while Details of a Street is more analytical but still subjective in the choices made when filming and editing. A colleague who walks down the street everyday thinks that this is a rather unattractive and unimportant place of Beijing, and although he may be right, its apparent insignificance tells more about the city than what one may think at first sight. In reality, every found element is a significant detail that belongs to the street, as a window and a door may be details of a building or a freckle and a nail are details of the body. That street belongs to the city and, without these details, neither would be exactly the same. By looking a little closer, the street tells a lot about life. It has its expected cyclical changes, as birds are heard in spring’s early mornings and crickets in summer’s afternoons, trees lose their leaves in October, school gates are full of children and parents at certain time in the morning and afternoon, queues are longer in some shops in the morning because they serve breakfasts and some others in the afternoon because of their pastries or meats, there is more trash in front of the fruit shop in the morning after unloading, the street is covered in red during the national holidays, street corners’ floors turn black every time a family makes a bonfire to honour their dead, shops close with regularity and new ones open while few remain there for years. There are various degrees of permanence, as some elements may last unchanged for a longer time than others. People change too. I may see the same old man doing his physical exercises behind the bus stop until one day I may not see him anymore. It is somehow tragical to think that one day I will move to another place, to another city, and I will not see this street anymore. I therefore want to capture how it remains now in reality and in my mind before it fades away. The twenty-minutes short film shown hereafter is the result of this introspective reflection, to make us look at our everyday streets in the details that make them special to then better grasp them as they are also parts of us, of our identity.

Posted: September 20th 2020

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© 2014 2020 thomasverbal