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May 03, 2013

On NY Streets, Life's Drama Silently Unfolds

by Kate Woodsome

Inner dialogues captured by a curious anthropologist reveal the theater of life in New York City

A man walks across a bridge. He looks unremarkable, maybe even boring. But he’s thinking of the love of his life, the woman who committed suicide some years ago. He’s silently, urgently thinking the only way for him to move on would be to meet someone who has suffered a loss like his.

No one would know, but anthropologist Andrew Irving recorded the man’s thoughts in an ethnographic experiment and video project called New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens.

The video series is a kind of meditation on inner dialogues, the conversations that deafen the “rooms in your head” before falling silent on the city’s streets. 

“Within that single street, you pretty much have all that life has to present, from the trivial to the tragic. The street is this amazingly complex place, highly theatrical except we can’t see or hear any of it that’s going on,” said Irving, who works with the University of Manchester.

New York Stories 1: The Lives of Other Citizens: STREETS (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

The anthropologist became fascinated with inner dialogues in the 1990s, when he was doing his PhD, trying to understand how people’s perceptions of religion, self-image, and spatial relations changed as they approached death.

New York Stories was a side project he didn’t think would amount to much. Taking his cue from Manhattan Transfer, John Dos Passos’ 1925 novel about individual, overlapping stories in New York City, Irving hung out in different spots in New York and asked a question of the people approaching him.

“I’d say, ‘Excuse me, can I ask you a quick question? It might be a strange question, but can I ask what you were thinking before I stopped you?’”

If the person was receptive, he asked if they would carry a live microphone and speak their stream of thoughts into it, while he followed and filmed them from behind. Wherever the person stopped, he would retrieve the microphone and then ask if he could follow another random stranger heading in the same direction.

“I asked very little information from people because I wanted them to have a kind of facelessness,” he said, adding that people were often more candid because they could slip away after their confessions.

New York Stories 2: The Lives of Other Citizens: BRIDGES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

Capturing true inner dialogues is impossible.  The closest thing to it are the fictional accounts created by authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, since our experience interacting with the world through thought is different than our interaction with it through words.

“Our bodies have evolved to give attention to the world so that all the sensory organs are on the periphery. So when we’re walking, we’re processing information across 16 or 17 modalities. The most obvious ones are sight, sound. They’re all being processed simultaneously,” Irving said.

“In the time that you just look out the window, to put what you see into language would be an extraordinary amount of time to be anyway close to the detail of every leaf on the tree, every brick opposite the building,” he said.

The linear stream of speech is representative of the senses, mixed with memories, moods and emotions, but it can never fully capture what goes on in our heads.

New York Stories 3: The Lives of Other Citizens: SQUARES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

Irving is working with Ricardo Climent, a colleague at the University of Manchester, and Climent’s PhD student, Ignacio Pecino, to share more of the inner dialogues with the world. They’ve applied for a grant to develop a smartphone app with GPS technology that would play the inner dialogues as you cross the path that person walked before.

Some might not like to hear the inner dramas playing out around them, but Irving expects amateur anthropologists will be curious.

“If you’re an anthropologist, you have to study the human in all its guises, in all its different ways of being,” he said. “So you’re going to be present to all that humans have to offer, which can be the spectrum of the most amazingly sublime, wonderful, generous acts to the most dark, tragic, cruel acts. And that’s the planet we live on. Unfortunately.”

New York Stories 4: The Lives of Other Citizens: CAFES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

Andrew Irving has asked that we mention support from the Economic and Social Research Council of Britain and New York's Wenner Gren Foundation made his research possible.