TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1995

A FLASH . . . THEN NIGHT: BEAT STREULI’S PHOTOGRAPHS

A CITY CROWD: we know nothing of the people who stream past us, their states of mind, or even what has brought them out in the street—perhaps some errand, perhaps simple pleasure. And it is precisely this not knowing that attracts us to Beat Streuli’s photographs.

Consider a sequence of images: a girl in a green T-shirt, seen from the back, stands in front of the blue cab of a truck. By the fourth photograph she has disappeared between the white shirts of two passersby. In a single photograph a boy in a jeans jacket, bent forward, is glimpsed between the rear of a bus, above, and the roof of a car, below. We can deduce that he is on a bicycle and waiting for a traffic light to turn green. Another boy is photographed several times in black and white; he appears among men who are dressed as he is, in a winter coat and sports jacket. He is the focus of the image, and the backgrounds are cast in shadow; the men, who seem to squeeze him into a scrap of space, are fuzzy and indistinct.

In Streuli’s images context is always elusive, thanks to the use of a telephoto lens that blurs the background in favor of the subject. Space is at issue in his images only to the extent that the characters portrayed drag it along with them into the rectangular frame, which seems determined entirely by their proportions. In Streuli’s work, in fact, the subject—a person, the face of the character encountered—is virtually the only point of interest.

Yet while these faces and bodies give the impression of being locked into the frame, cropped from a flow of life, we are just able to grasp the nature of the space they inhabit: it is urban, the streets of large cities—Rome, Paris, and particularly New York. We know this from Streuli’s titles, and from the few clues that the images offer: a sign against the light, the back of a bus, car windshields, details of construction sites. Yet while these minimal locational clues are enough to make it clear that Streuli’s characters are plucked from the urban multitude, it is precisely the scarcity of signs telling us about the space that points to the experience of the metropolis, of being one in the crowd, as the core of Streuli’s poetic. Because he is so much a part of the urban landscape, so much the “man in the crowd,” the agency of the crowd is everywhere implicit—there is no need to depict it.

In this respect Streuli’s work recalls Walter Benjamin’s discussion of Charles Baudelaire.1 (Baudelaire, Benjamin argued, "describes neither the Parisians nor the city. Foregoing such descriptions enables him to evoke the one in the form of the other.”2) It has to do with a certain shock described in Baudelaire’s sonnet “À une passante” (To a passerby): from the crowd, from the indistinct flow of people in the Paris streets, the figure of a woman in mourning, veiled and black, impresses itself on the poet’s eyes and heart. Streuli similarly isolates affective images from an indistinct flow—indeed he has said that his primary motive is passion: “I don’t think you should ever press the shutter-release unless the subject you see in the camera sparks a passionate interest in you.”3 But the shock he experiences, and we along with him, is clearly more attenuated than Baudelaire’s in the capital of the last century. The figures selected by Streuli’s telephoto lens have nothing exceptional about them. In fact their life-styles seem generic, and they barely differentiate themselves from the crowd. As they are, others are too, and Streuli’s presentation of them matches their own self-presentation: both are anonymous. Streuli isn’t looking for the individual, the exceptional, but for their absence. If his characters are beautiful—and they are—it’s in terms of the cliché, the general type. He seems attracted to what’s in the middle, equidistant from the extremes.

So the images have a certain neutrality, yet they become the terms of a discourse that touches on the nature of both sociological documentation and fiction. Streuli’s photographs are individual works, but in both exhibitions and catalogues he arranges them in sequences, tracing the time he has spent following a particular person. The single image, on the other hand, fixes the salient moment—that of a person’s appearance before his lens. In both cases Streuli’s images give life to a sort of micronarrative that we can watch unfold—or at least, in the case of the single image, to the possibility of one. The photographs, in other words, establish the conditions of narrative.

Perhaps this is best achieved in the videos in which Streuli, using a fixed camera mounted in some inconspicuous spot, shoots the crowd as it moves down a large metropolitan avenue. Unedited, the videotape is in real time; the time you take to watch it corresponds to the time passed through by the people you’re watching. The tape, then, replicates the experience of the flaneur. It makes that spectatorial experience a subject for a spectator—the viewer of the video, in whom it encourages the same stone-faced ennui that seems to affect most urban passersby. Thus the viewers are made to perceive their own ambiguous nature, both part of and alone in the multitude.

In the video Allen Street, New York, 29-5-94, the camera, hung high and motionless, is set to catch a portion of sidewalk and a portion of street, dividing the scene into two horizontal streams. Car wheels run continuously through the upper strip, the tops of people’s heads across the lower. The randomness of their appearance in this time and place attests to the randomness of real time, and it is this experience of the barrage of rapid-fire intensities that creates the particular affective quality of Streuli’s work—an almost vertiginous emotionality.

The effect is intensified in Streuli’s slide projections, in which his images fill the walls, dominating the darkened rooms they’re shown in. Fading in slowly, one per minute, they record their characters’ slightest movements, as in a slow-motion film. Watching, you feel as if you’d entered some strange aquarium, a noiseless place where fragments of commonplace reality suggest a chain of apparitions.

Streuli’s signs—bodies, faces, clothing—belong to figures of highly generalized significance. His subjects, though anonymous, connote a generic identity through dress and gesture, suggesting particular milieus and by extension a kind of contemporary social history. This focus on the common, the average, the banal, makes it easy for viewers to identify with the subjects depicted. That the flaneur has become a category of the (Modernist) spirit is reflected in Streuli’s images to the extent that viewers become aware of their own performance in the technological theater that the artist constructs.

The metropolitan streets that Streuli’s videos explore with such inexpressive attention include places of no obvious quality: neither wealthy nor poor, neither central nor suburban. If the city is New York, the place isn’t Wall Street or Chinatown; it’s no place in particular, a general part of the city, where the crowd embodies the very concept of anonymity—and, precisely because each person is different, of uniformity. This is no particular kind of crowd; all lifestyles, all values, converge in the mundane act of walking along the street. This is why New York—with its dramatically divergent population, the city of multiculturalism par excellence—is the most compelling location for Streuli. He interprets the city as a multitude of relationships, showing us its problems and its possibilities. The multicultural metropolis incorporates economic inequalities, power relationships, and contradictions that can explode into class or ethnic conflict. But it also embodies possibility of respectful coexistence.

A series of photographs from 1994 makes this idea clear. Shooting from the window of his home, Streuli photographed a narrow area of the street where a group of black and Hispanic kids gathered each day. We see them in moments of communal relaxation: they meet, sit on car hoods to talk, or listen to music through headphones. They seem absolutely contemporary. Ranging in age from 14 to 18, these young people seem more susceptible than adults are to the culture’s dictates—from the fashion industry, say. On the other hand, they clearly enjoy their consumerism, which can create, if not utopia, at least a surrogate for it. Thus we see Streuli’s kids as handsome and healthy, elegant and relaxed. Their dress and behavior make them recognizable as a group, but they don’t fulfill the negative expectations usually triggered by signifiers associated with disadvantage: though they belong to minorities, they show no sign of marginalization.

As social products and historical subjects, these teenagers also represent “intermediary” figures to Streuli. As adolescents, he says, they are at a stage when "they live in that interval between childhood, which is another world, and adulthood, where they will run into all kinds of problems, where they will be hardened by life, and where they will be trapped by the dearth of possibilities that the world offers them. These teenagers actually have a double status. There’s the utopian, almost paradisiac aspect to the impression they give. . . . Yet at the same time all the problems of adulthood are already present, and suddenly all of that tips over towards a form of ‘paradise lost.’” 4

Everyone, eventually, is cast out of paradise, and perhaps Streuli’s youthful subjects give us only a contemporary world of appearances. But as surrogates for utopia—that vision of joyful life, its promise in this case made by earphones and sportswear—Streuli’s images of neutral people in unspecified urban settings let us glimpse the possibility of a harmonious sociality.

Giorgio Verzotti writes regularly for Artforum from Milan, and is a curator at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.

NOTES

1. See Jean-François Chevrier, “The Physiology of the Image,” in Beat Streuli: Projektionen und Fotographieren, N.Y.C., 1991/93, exhibition catalogue, Lucerne: Kunstmuseum, 1993, n.p.

2. Walter Benjamin. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet In The Era Of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn, London: Verso, 1983, p. 122.

3. Beat Streuli, interviewed by Martine Beguin and Jean-Paul Felley, in Beat Streuli, exhibition catalogue, Saint-Gall: Kunsthalle, and Dijon: Le Consortium, 1994–95, p. 3.

4. Ibid., p. 36.