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This post originally appeared on Volume

Filmmaker Kit Chung has created a series of fascinating and hypnotic GIFs that are intimate portraits of Beijing metro passengers.

Beijing metro commuter

Subway systems can be seen as the heart of a city: a visitor must ride the tube in London or the subway in New York to truly experience their essence. Chung’s GIFs give similar insight into the heart of Beijing with intimate “moving portraits” of passengers on Line 2, the city’s oldest metro line.

Beijing metro commuter

A city, especially a massive and sprawling Chinese city such as Beijing, can easily be conceptualized as an undifferentiated mass, a swarming and anonymous populous that moves pointlessly over its landscape. With Chung’s GIFs, we get access to individuals’ stories and glimpses into the lives that make up Beijing’s diverse social landscape. You can see more GIFs on his Tumblr.

The other day, for some reason, on the subway travelling along the Bloor Danforth Line, the stops were not being announced as they usually are.

A typical day’s subway rhythm is punctuated by the steely voice of an anonymous female announcer:

“The next station is Christie, Christie Station”

“Arriving at Christie, Christie Station”.

Without the regular announcement, I had a wholly different experience of riding the subway.

The stops quietly presented themselves without being promtpted. The rhythm of the train was smooth and continuous, without being interrupted by the announcement of the stations.

Without the announcements, it was quite easy to fall into a trance of motion and non-motion, doors opening and closing in an endless and undifferentiated cycle.

It was also quite easy to lose track of my placement in the system, without the aural prompts used as a constant standard for reorientation.

I found I missed whole stops in the rhythmic, unpunctuated  trance I fell into — I was in Ossington, then Spadina, then Sherbourne.

Between Sherbourne and Castle Frank, I hadn’t a clue as to where I was, and felt a true sense of disorientation as I anticipated the Don Valley views between Castle Frank and Broadview that never came.

This experience gave me the opportunity to meditate on the complete lack of disorientation that accompanies modern forms of transit and telecommunications. With smart phones, and smart cities, we constantly know where we are, and it’s pretty hard to get lost.

The feeling of not knowing where I was between Sherbourne and Castle Frank stations — that was rare.

As someone often in a state of wanderlust, but with a strong sense of direction, it’s very difficult these days to be lost. I understand and support new apps like Drift that encourage, through a set of random directions, people to become lost in their own neighbourhoods.

I don’t yearn for disorientation, but this experience presented a different world to me, a less know-able world, where fun and mystery accompanied a healthy sense of not knowing where-the-hell I was. It was a welcome change to the routine of transit.

The Bloor-Danforth line is almost completely underground east of Landsdowne Station, all-the-way to Kennedy Station in Scarborough.

Looking out the subway windows between these stations, the view is limited to moving darkness, punctuated by quickly passing light and glimpses of tracks travelling off main routes to unknown service stations and emergency loops.

This is the case for most of the line. A repetitive scene that eases one’s transition from tired to sleeping.

But between Castle Frank and Broadview stations the subway is catapulted out of the darkness, and over the Don Valley, travelling under and along the spectacular Bloor Street Viaduct.

I love this moment. And recently travelling often to the east end for Art of the Danforth has given me the opportunity to enjoy it regularly.

As the sound of train moving along  tracks supported by solid ground beneath drops, I anticipate the expansive views of the city in the moments after leaving Castle Frank Station. I relish the effect of the skyline slowly emerging from the western banks of the Don Valley. I take pleasure in feeling myself hovering above the valley.

But what I enjoy most is the effect this portion of the subway route has on fellow passengers.

Awakened from their subterranean somnambulism, the expansive valley views cause a stir in fellow riders. Heads are lifted from their slumber, and curious passengers turn their gaze outward, investigating the presence of a bona fide beautiful view from the subway car.  It’s a moment when the subway’s passengers are unified in alertness toward the sudden awareness of their surroundings. It lasts for more than a moment but less than a minute — and quickly the subway tunnels itself back into the underground before Broadview Station.

Being here is realizing that fundamental uniqueness of place.

Being here is that very particular weather at this time of year; The voice of Metro Morning on the Radio.

The Sound of Streetcars scraping against their metal tracks. The Sound of the Subway wooshing underground as you bike north, past chirping intersections;  the stale scent of the TTC.

Being here is knowing that Here is always — the constant clockwork of place that is fundamentally tied to some space, somewhere.

Inspiration