1. Be alone in public
2. Exhaust a place
French writer Georges Perec, best known for his 1978 novel Life, A User’s Manual, coined the term infra-ordinary to describe the opposite of the ‘extraordinary’ events and objects and communications that dominate our mental lives.
Perec’s obsession with the infra-ordinary was in part ideological – it critiqued the media of his time. ‘What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines’, he wrote in 1973. One can only imagine what Perec would make of the twenty-first-century ‘news’ cycle.
‘The daily papers talk of everything except the daily’, he complained. ‘What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?’ That’s his deeper question: What about everything else?
Perec’s boldest attempt to try to pay the infra-ordinary its due attention took the form of a slender, lovely book called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, published in 1975. To write it, he planted himself for the better part of three days on a particular Parisian plaza – disregarding the spectacular architecture and instead noting everything that came into his fi eld of vision. His list – a postal van, a child with a dog, a woman with a newspaper, a man with a large A on his sweater – became poetry of the everyday.
I think about Perec’s work most often in one of my least-favourite places: the airport. If I’m stuck in a long security line, I try to channel him and make a mental catalogue of the details and absurdities around me. (Instead of disregarding, say, a guy in a T-shirt that reads ‘Old School’, I ruminate on it.) This helps pass the time.
Taking notes would sharpen one’s focus. And I wish some brilliant and diligent observer would try to match Perec, but in the setting of a modern airport. I have spent many hours waiting out flight delays in Atlanta and I cannot think of a more daring literary experiment than An Attempt to Exhaust Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
3. Name that thing
‘I see many more Hollow Ways now that I know what one is’, says Nicola Twilley, the writer and cohost of the Gastropod podcast. ‘And I spot crown shyness now that I know it as a named phenomenon’.
I had to look up these terms. A hollow way (for sunken lane) is a stretch of road sunk significantly below the land it passes through. Crown shyness describes how fully developed trees of certain species avoid touching one another, leaving distinct gaps in the arboreal canopy.
This makes Twilley’s point: knowing what a thing is called makes that thing suddenly more visible. ‘More than an identity, a creature’s name is also a password’, science and nature writer Ferris Jabr once observed; it’s hard to research or otherwise learn much about the small brown bird you just noticed – but you can find out quite a lot once you know it’s a house sparrow.
Start by being alert to unfamiliar vocabulary dropped by expert acquaintances: I have specific memories of learning the terms bollard, plinth and desire path this way (and, subsequently, noticing each all over the place). Don’t let those words slide because they don’t mean anything to you; latch on to them and learn what you can.
You can also ask simple questions of friends or colleagues. If you’re hanging out with a nature buff, make it a point to specifically inquire about, for instance, some bit of fauna – anything from a flower to a weed, just whatever catches your eye. Get an architect to clue you in to the name of some feature of a house or building. People enjoy sharing this sort of knowledge. The more interested you seem, the more arcane they’ll get. Goad them.
Alternately, try the opposite. Go online or buy a book of, for example, architectural terms and set about spotting them in the real world – maybe pick one a week. Finally, keep an eye out for stu that probably has a name, but you have no idea what it might be. Make it a personal challenge to find out.
4. Make an inventory
For a 2015 book called Everything We Touch, London-based designer and researcher Paula Zuccotti asked subjects – of various ages and professions, in a variety of countries – to document every object they touched during a twenty-four-hour period. She subsequently photographed each individual’s object array. ‘The items tell surprisingly intimate tales of the people who picked them up’, The Guardian later wrote.
At its heart, Everything We Touch is a series of inventories. And making an inventory – any inventory – is an easy way to focus attention on things you habitually ignore.
Say you’re stuck in a waiting room, bored out of your mind. Instead of seething or resorting to Facebook, make an inventory. Notice each object around you and decide why it’s there.
This simple procedure is actually the starting point for many creative undertakings, large and small. The artist and educator Kate Bingaman-Burt has her students list and then draw personal inventories: everything they are carrying or everything they own that they want to get rid of.
Use these inventory prompts, then invent your own. An inventory can reveal something about a space. It can also reveal something about you.
5. Ask: how did it get that way?
The writer Paul Lukas loves to spot interesting details in the designed world that the rest of us missed and he has a remarkable skill for this practise that he’s called ‘inconspicuous consumption’. It’s useful, he suggested to me, to question what’s right in front of us. Don’t overthink this, just ask a basic question: How did that get that way?
‘We often take for granted that the physical world, and especially the built environment, just sort of happened out of nowhere’, he says. But actually, everything has a back door handles story – from a skyscraper all the way down to the doorknobs in the offices of that skyscraper.
I suspect we take many human-made things even more for granted than we do the natural. Think about, say, the stop sign. Stop signs are as familiar as clouds. When you look at the clouds, you probably know, or at least have a hunch, that there is some kind of scientific explanation behind their shapes, density or precise white-to-dark colouration. You may not know or even care exactly how each one got that way – but you know it’s a function of something and you know that you could know the details.
Weirdly, the octagonal shape of a stop sign seems much more like something that just is; we are more likely to wonder or at least speculate about the shape of the cloud.
But of course stop signs have a back story. Did you know that road signs are designed to signal the level of danger drivers need to be aware of by the number of sides they have? And stop signs, having eight sides, signal the second highest? (The round and thus effectively infinite-sided sign used to mark railway crossings is the highest level.)
Identify one thing that you’ve taken for granted your entire life and ask how it got that way. Find out the back story. And do the same thing again tomorrow.
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