Event 4 notes – Monday 6 January
Exhausting a place in Oxford
viewed from the Turl Street Kitchen, Turl Street, Oxford, UK.
We were: Joanna, Nimmi, Jim, Soo Tian, Ann and Malcolm.
Outline and origins of the project:
We took up up temporary residence in the front window seats at
The Turl Street Kitchen, Turl Street, Oxford.
From there, we surveyed not the well-documented historical landmarks but, following Georges Perec in
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris,
everything that normally passes unnoticed:
what happens when nothing happens. Perec made an ad hoc inventory, which he then kept modifying. It included:
-letters of the alphabet and words (e.g. ‘KLM’ on a folder carried by someone, and various words on signs)
-conventional symbols (e.g. arrows)
-figures (e.g. bus numbers – just an example, as Turl Street is bus free)
-slogans (e.g. on passing trade vehicles)
-various kinds of vegetable and mineral matter: asphalt, vehicles, trees, clouds, foodstuff, litter (mostly subsequently
subdivided, e.g. vehicles into public, private, etc.)
-people (subsequently subdivided, e.g. into what people were carrying, ways of carrying it; what they wear on their heads; groups of different numbers; gestures; ways of walking : stroll, hurry, walk with difficulty on high heels etc.; people’s clothes reveal their job: priest, traffic warden; people labelled by their appearance and bearing: handsome man ravaged by age, grumpy old man/woman, man/woman who looks like a famous actor)
-arising from the above, how far do we rely on binary oppositions (slow/fast, still/moving), how far do we want to nuance them?
-shapes (e.g pyramid-shaped cake)
-micro-incidents (e.g. someone almost trips over; a Japanese tourist takes Perec’s photograph; someone he knows greets him; a man makes a mistake on entering the café and tries to pull the door instead of pushing it); some one has difficulty parking, and passers-by make ironic comments – this causes Perec to reflect on the importance of not only seeing the tear in the fabric (this unexpected event) but the fabric itself (someone parks without attracting attention)
-Events that are programmed (e.g. buses, postal rounds, road sweepers)
-Events that are repeated (‘iterative’ in Perec’s term) as opposed to singular events
-Events that are related to the time of day
-Occasionally Perec offers fanciful interpretations: a little girl between her parents (or her kidnappers) is crying
-He also occasionally adds a stylistic elaboration (the Japanese people in a tourist bus are described as ‘photophages’ [photo-eating]). Does this imply a different level of engagement with the ‘infra-ordinary’ reality being observed?
-Arising from the above, what is the effect of shifts in our own level of attention? Does boredom make us have recourse to fantasy or flippancy?
In the relatively traffic-free ambience of Turl Street, we added:
-people journeys: conjecture on the flow of pedestrians and cyclists. Groups, pairs, individuals… urgent? aimless? instrumental?
Some of the points above arise out of reading Michael Sheringham’s discussion of Perec’s book in Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (OUP: 2006).
Some of the outcomes, in notes:
Account 1 (Nimmi):
6th January 2014
Turl Street Kitchen, Oxford.
Four abreast, sitting in the Turl Street Kitchen. One at the head of the table. What is it we
each see? We have our own view out of the wide window. I spend awhile just looking.
What is it that catches my eye? What aspect of the everyday am I noticing?
10.40am - 11.10am
-Grey cable-knit woolly hat
-Navy/Gold/White headscarf, knotted under chin
-Tweed flat cap
-Multicoloured knitted bobble hat, white bobble
-Black scarf printed with Zebras, knotted under chin
-Quilted black fabric flat cap
-Green tweed flat cap
-Dusky pink knitted hat with light blue edge
-Bright orange cable-knit woolly hat
-Black pull-on hat, thinsulate
-Light fawn tweed flat cap
-Navy knitted woolly hat
-Dark green checked flat cap
-Green and red checked flat cap
-Black Royal Mail baseball cap
-White/pink animal print hijab
-Grey felt Derby hat with red and white felt flowers on brim
-Navy knitted woolly hat
-Light green baseball hat
-Pale mauve corduroy peaked cap
-Green fleece peaked cap
-Black woolly hat, two light grey stripes
-Purple woolly hat
-Grey, small check, flat cap
-Fair Isle knitted hat with earpieces and ties
-Pale red, turquoise and white triangle patterned knitted hat
Then I turn to the colour of trousers, but am quickly bored. Black, black, blue denim, black,
black, black, black, blue denim, blue denim, dark blue denim, tan cord, blue denim, white,
blue denim. I canʼt stand it any longer.
Three teenage girls, enjoying each otherʼs company, skip and bump down the road.
Groups. I will count the number in each group. Some, like those three girls, are easy to
recognise as a group. Others are strung out. I donʼt realise they are together until one
turns their head to speak to the person behind. I see many families; several walk as
unconnected individuals, alone, not even a turned head comment.
11.15am – 12.05pm
Account 2 (Malcolm):
Turl Street Kitchen
At the ATMs
•Male aged about 20 wearing high visibility jacket inserts card, shifts weight to right foot, then left, looks left and up. Folds cash and puts into back jeans pocket
•Female, 20s, dyed blonde hair in pony-tail, knock-kneed, long purple top protrudes beneath black jacket; faux-fur collar – violent colour clash of purple top with red handbag. Cigarette in hand that operates machine
•Three workmen (scaffolders?) in high vis jackets, two wearing white safety helmets. Bopping, nonchalant gait and Jack-the-Lad stance. Two of them draw cash, the third looks away vacantly, pulling on fag. One hands ‘new’ money to another – lost a bet? Paying back a loan? Wages?
•Female 25ish, carrying Shakespeare & Co. bag. Librarian glasses and bookish look. Straggly hair – unconcerned about her appearance. Seems to state she is not there.
•Male, late 30s wheels bike to cash machine which he operates with the bike between himself and the ATM. Front wheel slews out of control.
•Another gaggle of site workers in safety helmets; only one extracts cash – no distribution to others this time.
•Another biker (m.20s) rides up pavement to cash machines; transaction takes endless time. Gets off bike and parks it against wall. Why? Extracts mobile phone.
•During the lull I count 100+ patches of used chewing gum in the roadway. Like blotches on fish.
Life at the ATMs in resumé: most transactions are not conducted by single people on foot, but those that are involve at least two shifts of weight from foot to foot, and at least one lateral head turn, usually left. The majority of visits are group/social in some way; this surprised me.
•Dominant garments: blue hoodie; black puffa jacket (4) - fashion item of the day; yellow sweater; black hood under anorak; red puffa coat; long black coat; baggy jogging pants; wheelchair user dressed in harlequinade and ruff; green overall (market trader?); tartan coat (worn by a dog); painter’s trousers covered in Jackson Pollock paint daubs.
The dominant dress theme is ‘random’ – first things off the hook, out of the wardrobe? Only two people (in 150+?) would get into a shop window or a fashion mag for co-ordination. One of the two who did was a mother (child in arms) in an orange beanie, colour-matched full-length coat and floppy jumper and bright blue shoes. Only two people have ‘dressed a story about themselves’ today.
•Varsity shop carrier bag and large Filofax (rare!)
•Cloth man-bag and cycle helmet
•Flask (rare?) and day-size rucksack
•Black dustbin bag (empty)
•Umbrella as walking stick
•I-pad in new case
•Shoulder-bag with chains
•Cloth bag (Penguin Book cover)
•Green Co-op bag
•Grey woollen gloves (carried)
•Large bag with draw-string – laundry bag?
•White padibag parcel
•Golf umbrella and camera
•See-through carton of muffins
•Water bottle and paper bag
•Sheaf of papers
•Pink see-through umbrella
•Packet of crisps
•Laptop bag without laptop
•Very small baby in front papoose
•Blue plastic document cover
•Bike pump with handle
•Bottle of water (are these getting rarer? Is the ‘must hydrate constantly’ craze over?)
•‘believe in Magic Sparkle’ bags x 3
•Millie’s Cookies bag
•Metallic walking stick (rare style)
•Ben’s Cookies bag
•Punk bag (f.70s – was she a punk?)
•Baguette with end chewed
•Suitcase on wheels
•Great Gatsby cloth bag.
Conclusions? They are bookish and they like cookies.
How do they walk? (A gaited community)
•M.50s. Slow lope, stops; douses fag. Deep frown; gazes middle distance
•M.20s shoulders forward; hands in pockets; looks behind
•F.30s mobile phone in hand; shuffle with darting looks up
•F.40s marching gait, extended stride; horsewoman without horse, but with pony-tail
•F.20s Trippy trappy; slightly knock-kneed in short strides, toes down first in mini-canter
•M.60s walks with a struggle; stooped
•Hesitant stride; reading map against the wind
•Flirting pair: he doing ‘cinema smoking’, blowing smoke in poseur manner
•John Betjeman slow ponderous progress (m.70s)
•Teetering and clutching coat together
•Bouncy stride; knees bend
•Fell-walking gait in flat cap and hiking boots. An urban Wainwright
•M.teens. Gait constricted by cut of trousers
•M.35, Loping greyhound.
•Group of teens m&f out for a laugh. Hop, run, stagger, bend double in laughter, jig about a bit.
I found myself extending the observation from ‘gait’ to body language and it was impossible to resist making value judgements and extrapolating amateur sociological observation from ‘objective’ recording. Some people walk in the road, asserting their ownership. They are not all men. Their demeanour says: ‘this is me in my street. I own this street and I feel confident here. I have a goal; a mission from which I cannot be deterred’. Head up; long stride. Others nervously cross to the refuge of the pavement and betray their relief in regaining it, relaxing their stride and slowing their pace Some people don’t own the street, but have borrowed it for the occasion with confidence. Some people are trespassing in someone else’s street. Some people seem to be aware of the strangers’ gaze and respond by acting a version of themselves; they are stars while others are extras. Some are neither stars nor extras. They happen to be here, but they could be anywhere, alone or in company.
Applying Perec’s procedure from ‘An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris’ turned out to be more challenging than I had expected. It take ten times longer to write than to observe and select, so you miss 90% of the things that don’t happen. I found, therefore, that I couldn’t record everything I saw. This implies some selectivity. In accepting this, I also found myself beginning to forming categories within which to select observations (objects carried; headgear; gait and body language….). This implies more subjectivity than I had hoped the process would involve. I further found that looking for examples within categories led me into drawing inferences, making conjectures – extrapolating from what I saw to give it more meaning than it may have been capable of signifying. I had naively thought that subjectivity could be avoided. But in fact, it seems we constantly and inevitably make subjective judgments all the time. Perception seems necessarily to involve subjectivity. Objectivity is elusive.
There was a temptation to seek out the extraordinary for recording, instead of going with the flow of the quotidian infraordinary. It took me a long to resist, and resisting necessarily leads to repetition; the urge to edit down or redact is irresistible. I’m no Perec.
Account 3 (Ann):
Observing the infra-ordinary
Gestures and walking styles
Carrying coffee (very frequent)
Man pushing woman in a wheelchair
Woman carrying two large bags, with two children
Man looking for a place to prop bike up
Couple stopping to read poster (and spotting the spelling mistake – complicitous contact made with us through the window)
Child eating apple
Man dragging rubbish bags
Man smoking with hood up
Man adjusting bag and helmet slung over shoulder
Man (19ish?) making roll-up, smoking it, stubbing it out
Woman adjusting (toque) hat against the wind
Man swinging arms, thumbs out
Man walking with slight limp, examining back of hand
Woman looking into window (at us)
Woman carrying art file, flouncy walk in high-heeled shoes
Woman hands in pockets, hood up
Man tapping something into phone
Dog in red coat races along, woman following
Woman riffling through red handbag
Man weighed down by large rucksack
Man holding hands with small daughter
Man touching woolly hat (because of wind?)
Elderly man, teeth bared
Woman pulling shopping bag on wheels
Man, hands in pockets
Woman, hands behind back
Man with headphones
Man in red hooded jacket, shuffles from foot to foot by cash machine
Man and woman (20ish) embrace (they have seen us watching and are perhaps performing), one holding map
Man walks with difficulty, large gut
Man walks purposefully
Woman (30ish) and man (20ish with gelled hair) light fags
Woman passes hand through hair
Young man (Japanese?) standing at cash machine, contraposto.
Man pushing empty trolley (will push it back later, with 5 heavy boxes in it)
Man standing astride bike, makes phone call
Man (24ish? Japanese?) look-at-me catwalk walk
Man (78?) walking with stick
Two women, files and clipboards
Woman (25?), buttoning coat
Man (78?) teetering (large gut), carrying pint of milk
Man (51?) tosses hair out of face as he walks
Man coughs discreetly
Man (53?), corpulent, self-conscious walk to point of campness
3 women (18-20), a playful group
Man (45?), talking on phone
2 women and a child, all running
Woman (43?), weary walk
4 men in a group, drably dressed, one gesticulating
2 men in suits, one with umbrella
Skinny man smokes outside window
Man (53?) uses umbrella to stride, carries page-a-day diary
Woman (74?) with Norwegian ski sticks.
Man (32?) shields face from sun, talks on phone
Man (34?) pushes elderly woman in wheelchair
Man (20), furtive smoking
Man (27?), vigorous stride, swinging arms
Elderly couple (man and woman) holding hands
Woman (32?) with child, hand in pocket holding plastic bag
Man (53), keys hanging from belt
Man (27), white guy with massive, ropey dreadlocks
Man (24?) holding half-eaten apple (but not eating it)
Man (55?) carrying long tube of paper
Man (56?) carrying umbrella half unfurled
Woman (27?) holding fruit box
Woman carrying hockey stick and flowers
On opposite wall:
We have moved
Free cash withdrawals
Top up your mobile phone here
Turl Street Kitchen
Inside café, next to window, on fire hydrant
CE (European Community logo)
Tour includes (couldn’t read the smaller print)
Jacket: Irish Express
Drill: Black and Dekker
The first choice in food service
La Cave à fromage
Hedges, Purveyors of quality
Martool (with email address)
Leave it to Parcel Pete
TNT zero emissions
The Great Gatsby (a cloth bag)
Sainsbury’s (an old, much re-used plastic bag)
Russell and Bromley
Sunday Times (a cloth bag)
Believe in Magic and Sparkle (bright blue plastic bag)
Oxford Bus Company
Names of capital cities (a cloth bag)
Breton crêpe company
Nike Air (a duffle bag)
Books are my bag (a cloth bag)
Celebrate (bright yellow plastic bag)
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