News / USA

On NY Streets, Life's Drama Silently Unfolds

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

New Yorkers walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
New Yorkers walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
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.

You May Like

Somalia: No Popular Elections in 2016

In interview Wednesday with VOA, President Mohamud says 'one person, one vote' elections will not be possible due to continuing insecurity More

Scientists Predict Climate Change Will Increase Child Malnutrition

Public health expert in Germany says that by 2050, 25 million more children's lives will be put at risk because of lack of nutrients tied to climate change More

Erdogan in China Amid Tensions on Uighurs, Missile System

Turkey's president has criticized China's heavy-handed policies toward Uighurs in violence-plagued Xinjiang region, where China says it is fighting foreign-backed separatists More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs