Josh Melnick

Left: Cover of The 8 Train (2012). Right: Josh Melnick, The 8 Train, 2008–2009, still from a black-and-white film, 5 minutes.

Josh Melnick is a New York–based artist and filmmaker whose video portraits of seemingly frozen passengers on the New York City subway, The 8 Train, was commissioned by Art in General in 2009. A recently published book, designed by Project Projects and edited by Angie Keefer, expands upon this work and offers essays as well as interviews with luminaries such as Walter Murch, Lawrence Weschler, and Sharon Salzberg on time, consciousness, and the nearly imperceptible.

I WANTED TO MAKE A BOOK that builds upon the ideas underpinning the 8 Train installation, and it was important to me to create something that employs a process of dialogue and collaboration. I didn’t want to simply telegraph or replay the piece via documentation or descriptive critical analysis, but rather make the book its own project. The book was conceived and developed through a series of conversations with Angie Keefer. We began with an intention to engage in open-ended dialogue with each other and a selection of people across disciplines. Our collaboration then extended to include designer Prem Krishnamurthy of Project Projects, who also served as coeditor. We approached the book as an improvisation of sorts, using the films as a springboard for a multifaceted dialogue and exploring how a book might convey a time-based project.

For the video installation, I adapted a scientific camera to shoot slow-motion portraits of people on the subway. One of the camera’s abilities is to capture things that happen so fast that we can’t perceive them in real time. While I related to a long history of subway photography, the project isn’t about trying to capture anything specific about my subjects in that Walker Evans street photography way. I wanted to make portraits that emphasized the process of how we look and project meaning onto other people in public. I was trying to capture a portrait of the viewer’s projection, not a portrait of what was in front of the lens.

In The 8 Train, you’re looking at people in a way that is unfamiliar because of the camera’s expanded temporal detail. As you watch the portraits you may even begin to realize that what you think you see is not actually what you see. For example, you look at someone and their eyes are squinting and you have all these associations that go along with that––they are “mean,” they’re “not trustworthy,” they’re this or that––but over time you can come to realize that they’re actually just in the middle of some completely normal biological process, like blinking. My hope was that slowing down the associational processes behind a public glance might open up a little gap to think about other things in the world that we might also project meaning onto. Expanding on that, it’s connected to the idea that if art can defamiliarize the world we think we know, it can open up possibilities for shifts in consciousness that I believe can lead to social and political change.

While The 8 Train installation is concerned largely with looking and perception, specifically as it relates to consciousness and interpersonal communication, the book also explores and enacts those ideas by talking about looking with all these people who see the same thing differently. I’m interested in creating a space where multiple perspectives and points of view can coexist. The hope is that by allowing various and often conflicting perspectives to sit in one room, so to speak, one can shift attention to the true subject, which is the role perspective plays in how we construct the world.

We didn’t want to document the piece with installation stills or descriptions, for instance, which often just tell the viewer what they’re seeing, rather than engaging them. The images in the book at first appear identical to one another, but they are actually sequential stills that represent less than two seconds of real time (or four minutes of screen time) in the portraits. So when you look at the book you have to pay attention—or at least think about paying attention—which is ultimately the point of both the installation and the book.