So began M.Perec in his short 1975 work. He sat himself down and observed the comings and goings in Place Saint Sulpice, Paris, over a period of three days. His aim was to discern the minutiae, the details of the place rather than the obvious public buildings, statuary and other objects which usually catch the casual observer’s attention.
His purpose was to be other than the casual observer. The intensity of his gaze, the relentless concentration on the small things, were meant to reveal the underpinnings, the true workings of a single place.
His technique rested largely on a lack of discrimination; everything he could see was written down some things several times accompanied by a wry again… Here’s an example:
There is a curious fascination involved in reading his lists. They are almost free of comment and interpretation and the blank, unemotional way in which he renders his observations invites the reader to form their own imagined images. I can see the Danon advert on the bus along with the cheese box picture alongside.
Here are some of the things I saw in the small westcountry town of Axminster one Thursday morning.
It is Thursday in Axminster
This is what I can see from a parked position in the main street.
At some point a parking warden will arrive and tell me to move because I am in a loading bay
From this position seat of the car a 180 degree view this is what I can see
Traffic lots and lots of traffic
Far too much traffic for a small market town with narrow streets
Commercial vehicles trying to get through, long, with caravans, trailers
There are grandparents with small children I guess they’re looking after one of their parents won’t work
There’s a market, busy for a small town
Even though there is no sunshine people are dressed in summer clothes
Dogs looking somewhat distressed, trying to stay out of the way of people’s feet
Shoppers burdened with carrier bags
Families crossing the road at the road crossing
An elderly guy in a turban; The turban is bright orange his shirt is purple
The church is open but nobody is going into it or coming out from it
The new religion is retail
The sky brightens
There’s no let-up in the amount of traffic
A post-box faded red bleached by the sun
A scaffolded shop front
Advertising “A” boards, there is a new Indian restaurant opening
Spiky palm plants planted in the wall around the church
Knots of people chatting
A few people passing in the cars are eating
Snatches of conversation as people walk past
Harassed mothers with children another 6 weeks to go
Children who are taller by a long way than their parents
Spending more time looking at a scene reveals detail which might normally go unnoticed. No great insights or revelations, just the quotidian events of a fading town. Perec found a certain cohesion in these observations, a sense that the whole was made up of myriad tiny details, which could themselves be subdivided into smaller details and so on. A richness in the everyday.
Perec sought an alternative to what he saw as the sensationalism of the newspapers – the train crashes, the floods, wars and earthquakes. He employed the techniques of psychogeography and the maxims of the Oulipo movement in his writing, followers of which employed its constraints as a means of encouraging creativity.
This is Place Saint Sulpice today:
The brief asks us to consider whether this approach might make for an interesting project, but to my mind it is a triumph of technique over content. The framework, the scaffolding of the method is apparent throughout the work and I feel that this adversely affects the creative possibilities rather than enhancing them.
This was my Axminster vantage point: