the lure of the ordinary IV

Sly as a fox and twice as quick: there are countless ways of making do[1]; we make do in life and art by working within the system, not leaving it. Like a collagist (or bricoleur as Levi-Strauss has it), the artist of the everyday uses what is to hand, as opposed to an engineer who wants to invent, and whose skills are more specific. Bricolage is behind blog-making, an activity that is fundamentally about arranging. Objects are collected and placed on top of one another, often unfixed and fragile.

Yet with this fragility comes monumentality, the paradox illustrated in Richard Serra’s sculpture, Fulcrum. Its steel slabs are tenuously poised yet monumental in scale: a collage of opposites. Similarly, the blog and the Internet are fragile forms: they are weightless, liable to alteration and copying; yet they are monumental because of their infinite scale, dispersal and velocity[2]; although not strategically located as monuments are, their omnipresence creates a rhizomatic, technologically sublime monumentality of their own. The city is another example, at once precarious and massive. Its architecture and planning imply a willingness to deal with the odds and ends left over from human endeavour[3]. Richard Wentworth’s photographs of the Caledonian Road highlight its residents’ ad hoc (for this specific purpose) activities that collide and place themselves on top of one another in a fluctuating mass. Alone, each activity might be miniscule, but not so as a conglomerate.

Richard Serra Fulcrum

Whether each element in the collage retains its self or loses it to the mass perhaps depends on the circumstance. For Wentworth, a shoe propping open a sash-window remains a shoe despite its new job. Likewise, John Lanchester writes that the heterogeneous population of a city such as New York comprises a sauté rather than daube[4], each element maintaining its original flavour even while lending it to the whole.
Charles Jencks emphasises that ad hoc activities are not haphazard or aleatory, even while they might be playful or extremely ephemeral[5]. An ad hoc activity happens in the instant, has an element of extemporisation and is performed to solve an immediate problem (even if that problem is how to fill a bored Quiet Afternoon, as in Fischli and Weiss’ games with food and utensils). This type of activity provides a template for life: a large part of our lives is spent in using that very edgy bit of our intelligence[6].

Fischli and Weiss Quiet Afternoon

Angela de la Cruz

The makeshift is evident in much contemporary art, Angela de la Cruz an artist similar to Fischli and Weiss in her use of the studio as an arena where ‘things seem to happen’. Construction is rudimentary and employs any and everything because in this way of thinking, all is available and malleable. The makeshift brings to mind a sense of the prosaic nature of the world[7], and Vladimir Arkhipov’s Post Folk Archive of homemade objects reminds us of this. A fork is wedged into a sink-plug to avoid the experience of getting one’s hand cold or scalded by water when draining the sink. A spoon's centre is removed to transform it into a bubble wand. Objects such as these are displayed alongside statements from the people who made them. The objects and their production are deft and thrifty. 

Vladimir Arkhipov Post Folk Archive

An interesting paradox exists in using the prosaic as art, because in doing so, surely we make it poetic, and thus destroy or alter exactly that which we were trying to capture. As Ian Hunt says, the word 'poetic' has a tough time in art criticism and often describes a secret we are not being allowed to understand, yet part of the charm of the everyday is its accessibilityWe risk pinning butterflies and being disappointed when our framed exhibits do not evoke the fluttering originals. 
A possible example of this is Richard Wentworth’s Making Do and Getting By. A collection of photographs, classically composed and lit, with shadows and soft focus: the work speaks with a poetic intonation. Wentworth documents ad hoc tactics he has noticed over many years, such as shoes or plates wedged to hold open windows. Many photographs have a melancholy absence of humans; feeling as if the person has just left the room, the window still open, the shoe only recently removed from the foot and given a new role. Gravity, pressure and our expectation form an important element of the work, reminiscent of Fischli and Weiss’ Der Lauf Der Dinge and a poetry that comes from materials. This, then, is perhaps at odds with the everyday. Yet does the everyday not brim with poetry anyway?

Richard Wentworth Making Do and Getting By

In another photograph, Wentworth captures a man with plastic bag on his head, protecting him from the rain. The street is grey, punctuated by a London route-master bus.  Here, poetry in the prosaic veers near to the twee, its intonation bordering on the sentimental. The surreal juxtaposition of objects becomes coffee-table material, and the humour is rather like a one-liner. Yet maybe this in itself is appropriate – why force art to be separate from the coffee table or giggle? If the aim is to merge art and life, the ‘popular’ element of art needs be embraced. In one photograph, the message “If Urgent Kick Door” is pinned to an entrance; another depicts an anthropomorphic wedge of fudge that has been squidged under an alarm bell’s clapper to silence it.  These images prove that humour is sellotaped to every door and wedged into every hour. Analysing the everyday’s humour and accidental poetry is like analysing a joke. Perhaps it is better to do as Wentworth does, and just go with it.

Richard Wentworth Making Do and Getting By

But in poeticising the everyday, we also encounter an ethical problem that might be summarised as admiring ‘slum chic’. The possibility of a neutral form of looking is unlikely, Susan Sontag arguing that we always embody the role of Other and voyeur. In framing the everyday as poetic, we collide the artist’s aesthetic register with the subject’s life that will go on even after the camera loses interest. The artist’s romanticisation of the noble worker combines with a contemporary lament or nostalgia for a mend-and-make-do ingenuity, making us into tourists. We seek the quaint as a form of exotic.

Francis Alÿs

Francis Alÿs slow sequence of slides Walking Distance From The Studio contains photographs including a man eclipsed by balloons, and a man carrying a tower of birdcages on his back. The images are uncanny, surreal and absurd; yet depict reality, often a poverty stricken, struggling one at that. Like Wentworth’s images, here is both humour and melancholy. We feel empathy yet also tend to patronise, looking at a social system through a lens of aesthetic entertainment. Yet maybe this guilt is also patronising because it forgets that the subjects have the capacity to enjoy their own situations aesthetically, while being at the same time in them.  
In his defence, Alÿs is open about his outsider status. In a hiring square, amongst labourers carrying ‘farmer’ and ‘bricklayer’ signs, he carries one bearing the profession of ‘tourist’. But being open about something is not necessarily redemptive – in another piece in which he employs a road-sweeper to sweep leaves into stripes all day, one might question whether Alÿs is highlighting or perpetuating inequality.

Francis Alÿs

Alÿs sometimes steps back further, recording situations from afar with his camera. He films the sundial effect that a flagpole’s shadow has on the ground. In this shadow – a slice of cool – people collect and talk. They gradually move with the shadow as it follows its temporal path. From the ground level, or the position of insider as de Certeau would say, one cannot see this social ritual: only elevation and an outsider’s eye can capture what is being ‘written’. The people on the ground are the writers, or to use another metaphor, the cogs in the mechanism. What is interesting is that they use this system (the city and its furniture) in ways slightly different than those it intended. They adopt tactics that use its materials with a twist.

La Perruque is what de Certeau calls this ‘twisting’ of strategy, with examples ranging from workers who photocopy a poster for themselves using office paper and time, to walkers who take short cuts across undesignated parts of the city. The Consumer Sphinx is de Certeau’s term for this mysterious tactic of altering, tweaking and diverting what is supposed to be. Watching television, we absorb advertisements; yet often draw from them narratives and conclusions of our own. Car adverts consistently confuse my mother. They make her giggle. But they don’t make her buy cars. 
Yet sometimes there is a pleasure in negotiating strategy and tactic, and allowing oneself to be led along, slightly. Saussure says we are born into a world in which language is omniscient and so we learn to use it like renters in an apartment. Yet, like renters, we alter it a little; each of us has our own idiolect and can use it like a tactic or a poster for our wall, to make it our own. Rarely do we engineer entirely new words or syntactical structures: our tactics, like collage, use what is already to hand. The speech act is at the same time a use of language and an operation performed on it[8].  The enjoyment comes in part from making do, like a fox, from within a system.

Roger-Pol Droit’s 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life highlight this, the book crammed full of tactics that employ everyday systems (drinking coffee, travelling in a lift) in activities that make us aware of our biology/ a building’s organs/ the artificiality of naming and so on. These activities last a few minutes at most, require no or few materials, and are superbly playful. They provide a template for life.

[1] de Certeau, M (1980) The Practice of Everyday Life
[2] Steyerl, H (2010) In Defence of the Poor Image
[3] Rowe, C (August 1975) ‘Collage City’ in Architectural Review
[4] Lanchester, J The Debt to Pleasure
[5] Jencks, C (1972??????) Adhocism. The Case for Improvisation.
[6] Wentworth, R (2007) Statement
[7] Introduction to Makeshift, University of Brighton 2001
[8] de Certeau, M (1980) The Practice of Everyday Life

thanks to Stephen Johnstone.