the lure of the ordinary I

We can employ strategies; impose constraints, ruses and games to capture the everyday. The everyday is like a person, escaping our notice yet constantly here. It outwits us, always returning, surrounding and escaping us. Its very qualities evade us: negative prefixes (unremarkable, indeterminable, uninteresting, unoriginal) highlight its non-qualities. In George Perec’s film Un homme qui dort, the repetition of the narrative phrase ‘you don’t’ makes a similar negation. Perec tries to surprise the everyday by coming at it obliquely. He imposes patterns (the protagonist ‘arranges the cracks in the ceiling’), makes projects (‘visit every site in Paris, the markets at dawn, stations at dusk’), rules (Perec himself wrote a novel without the letter ‘e’) and roleplay (Cindy Sherman and Sophie Calle have been influenced by this). The OuLipo group, of which Perec was a member, used such tools to catalyze productivity. Projects tended to be obsessive and open-ended, completed at an arbitrary point (similar to On Kawara’s I got up). An interdisciplinary approach is also key, reflecting the heterogeneity of everyday life.

How do you notate the mundane? Perec describes a street scene or a plate of food (the protagonist’s steak-frites) without resorting to metaphor or simile. The description is ‘flat’. ‘Tu as 25 ans et 29 dents’ says the narrator, the zeugma of possessing both years and teeth accentuating the ‘flatness’ and non-hierarchical tone in which poetry and bathos coincide.

Guy Debord and the Situationist International felt that revolution had to begin with the everyday, which should not be thought less important because it was mundane. Therefore studying the revolutionary spirit around 1968 requires looking not only at the large gesture, but also the small: ‘What happens when nothing happens?’ Paul Virilio and Georges Perec ask, studying student demonstrators as they become tired, sore-footed, and go home for coffee or sleep. These moments in the revolution are the Infra-Ordinary, an idea influenced by Duchamp’s capturing/ measuring of the Infra-Slim (yawns, cowlicks, sighs).

The protagonist in the film is in the doldrums, a solitary drifter; like Melville's Bartleby, ‘learning how to forget’, ‘how to see without looking and look without seeing’, ‘how to see a painting as a wall and a wall as a painting’. Boredom is a tool. He tries sitting like a sundial in a park, but soon his foot shifts and his eyes wander. In boredom he reads every word in Le Monde, and all of them lose their meaning as he becomes an evermore-passive receptor. Even the soft-voiced female American narrator is ‘flat’. The man’s sartorial or gastronomic choices lose importance: ‘these things no longer speak for you… no longer have the impossible job of representing you’. Paradoxically, the protagonist decides not to decide. Even the poster on his wall shows the back of a man’s head standing before a mirror that reflects the back of his head also: the mirror denies representing identity.

George Perec Un homme qui dort

Repetition and pattern preside: pigeons on the street; clocks chiming/ water taps dripping/ ‘as always’ the repeated sentence adverbial – all of which give rhythm to the protagonist’s day (like Christian Marclay’s montage film The Clock). Also punctuating are the images of ‘six stagnating socks’ and a tube of condensed milk with a bowl of instant coffee.
As in Dziga Vertov’s film Man With a Movie Camera, there is a rhythm of movement and static in the film, and an oscillation between handheld footage (in the scene filmed in Paul Virilio’s class during an exam) and pans (in the scene following children running along railings).

In this way, not only is the film an inventory of what to visit in Paris, but also an inventory of camera and looking devices. Perec loves lists, as non-hierarchical (when un-numbered) systems that can extend infinitely. Annette Messager also makes lists (Terms used for women, 1972-3), collecting words (‘an artist of the everyday is a collector’) and tinkering playfully (perhaps repeating a term several times throughout the list, like the chime of a clock or the narrator’s incantatory speech in Perec’s film). She also collects and archives in a passive ‘receptor’ way, copying recipes from magazines into schoolbooks, and creating typologies (like Hans-Peter Feldmann’s): an album of locks, a book of cisterns.

A study of the everyday is anthropology of the near, an example being washing routines in Mary Douglas’ ethnographic study of the abject (according to Julia Kristeva, ‘matter that is out of place’). Another example is Richard Mabey’s study of urban flora and fauna (‘A weed is a flower out of place’) and Simon Denison’s photographis survey of pylon bases. From the ‘flat’, one can proceed to tell stories from the non-quality’s poetics (Patrick Keiller’s film London being a prime example). Perec does not make critiques, but rather novels: ‘I don’t really know who these people are,’ he says, ‘but I’ve seen their types around’. Thus he undermines Marxist expectations. (On being awarded a writing prize and being asked what he would do with the money, he replied that he fancied buying a speedboat; and when it was suggested he employ a secretary, he appointed his 12 year old niece). Perec demonstrates he is half leftist-student-type and half consumer of ‘things’ (his book of this title depicts a couple who are the opposite of the homme qui dort, in that everything they buy is intended to represent them), and this contradictory position is perhaps the most honest and common one can hold.

Patrick Keiller London

Ethnography requires a certain amount of insider knowledge, or otherwise evidence can be misunderstood. As a result, the artist/ anthropologist is a strange combination of Insider and Outsider (as with Perec, above, who is both immersed in the everyday and slightly removed from it). Some approaches are more outside/ objective (Brecht’s alienation devices exploit this position) and some more subjective (including practices that make daily life the art itself). What is important is that the artist knows where she or he is on the Inside/ Outside spectrum.
In the exterior scenes of Un homme qui dort, the camera glides around the protagonist, sometimes leaving him behind. One shot shows a CCTV camera high above the street, recalling Man With a Movie Camera’s distance and objectification. The camera is more investigative in the interior shots, the man’s room described as a desert island (he is like Robinson Crusoe, possessions arranged just-so) and Paris an unexplored frontier.  In exterior and interior scenes, the camera feels like an ‘Outsider’, yet the rhythm of narration and motifs begins to pull us into the position of an ‘Insider’. We become passive receptors, and in this way, begin to capture the everyday.

thanks to Stephen Johnstone