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May 29, 2015

14

Georges Perec – Exhausting a Place

by soundlandscapes

HAVING BEEN IN hospital recently for surgery to replace my portable life support system with a newer model I thought I would take this opportunity to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Soundlandscapes’ Blog by posting something close to my imperfect heart.

For the last seven years or so I’ve been recording and archiving the sounds of Paris, the agglomeration of individual sounds which, when woven together, form the sound tapestry that surrounds our everyday lives in this city. When people ask me what I do I usually say that I’m a professional listener, or that I’m a flâneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris observing through active listening.

My sound work in Paris is influenced to a large degree by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century street photographers including, but not confined to, the work of Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Brassaï. Eugène Atget for example created a tremendous photographic record of the look and feel of nineteenth-century Paris just as it was being dramatically transformed by modernisation while the others featured the human condition in public places. I’ve learned a lot about recording the sound tapestry of Paris from studying the work and techniques of these photographers.

While these great photographers certainly influence my work the inspiration to begin my detailed exploration and documentation of the contemporary sound tapestry of Paris came from a different source, the French novelist, essayist, and filmmaker, Georges Perec.

01

Georges Perec 1936 – 1982

Georges Perec was born on 7th March 1936 in Belleville in the east of Paris, the only son of Polish Jewish parents who had emigrated to France in the 1920s. Both his parents died during WWII, his father from untreated wounds whilst serving in the French army and his mother in Auschwitz.

Adopted by his parental aunt and uncle in 1945, Georges went on to study history and sociology at the Sorbonne, he spent a year in the army as a parachutist, got married and then took up a job as an archivist in the research library at the Neurophysiological Research Laboratory at the Hôpital Saint-Antoine, a job he retained until four years before his untimely death at the age of 45.

Georges Perec’s talents ranged from writing fiction to compiling crossword puzzles for Le Point to creating the longest palindrome ever written to working in radio and making films. In 1965 his first novel Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties) won the prix Renaudot and in 1978 his most acclaimed novel, La Vie mode d’emploi (Life a User’s Manual) won the prix Médicis and finally brought him financial and critical success.

Perec was a member of Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians devoted to the discovery and use of constraints to encourage literary inspiration. One of their most famous products was Perec’s own novel, La disparition (A Void), written entirely without the letter “e.”

02

Journaux Place St Sulpice : [photographie] / [Atget]

Just over eight years ago I emerged from a Parisian hospital after an uncomfortably close brush with death. Having been given a second chance in life’s lottery I was in need of a new challenge … but what?

The answer came unexpectedly. Browsing around a musty second-hand bookshop one day I came upon a small French book, just sixty pages or so, written by Georges Perec, someone I’d never heard of. Scanning through it my first impression was that it was a journal of some sort, lists of what seemed like random observations. I was curious so I bought it for next to nothing. As I left the bookshop I could never have imagined what an impression this little book would have on me and how it would fundamentally shape my work in Paris.

The book is called, Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien, published in English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, and it’s a collection of observations that Georges Perec wrote down as he sat in Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The point of these observations was to record “ce qui se passe quand il ne rien se passe”, what is happening when nothing is happening.

For three consecutive days in October 1974, Georges Perec flitted from one café to another in Place Saint-Sulpice recording everything that passed through his field of vision. Rather than describing impressive or notable things such as the architecture, he describes all the things that usually pass unnoticed.

In Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien Perec begins by setting the scene:

Il y a beaucoup de choses place Saint-Sulpice, par exemple : une mairie, un hôtel des finances, un commissariat de police, trois cafés dont un fait tabac, un cinéma, une église à laquelle ont travaillé Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni et Chalgrin et qui est dédiée à un aumônier de Clotaire II qui fut évêque de Bourges de 624 à 644 et que l’on fête le 17 janvier, un éditeur, une entreprise de pompes funèbres, une agence de voyages, un arrêt d’autobus, un tailleur, un hôtel, une fontaine que décorent les statues des quatre grands orateurs chrétiens (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier et Massillon), un kiosque à journaux, un marchand d’objets de piété, un parking, un institut de beauté, et bien d’autres choses encore.

But it’s the last paragraph that outlines his intention:

Un grand nombre, sinon la plupart, de ces choses ont été décrites, inventoriées, photographiées, racontées ou recensées. Mon propos dans les pages qui suivent a plutôt été de décrire le reste : ce que l’on ne note généralement pas, ce qui ne se remarque pas, ce qui n’a pas d’importance : ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien, sinon du temps, des gens, des voitures et des nuages.

My rough translation :

Many, if not most, of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, recounted or recorded. My purpose in these pages was instead to describe the rest: what one generally does not notice, that which does not matter: what happens when nothing passes but time, people, cars and clouds.

Georges Perec made his observations while sitting in three cafés facing the Place Saint-Sulpice, the Tabac Saint-Sulpice, the Café Fontaine Saint-Sulpice and the Café de la Mairie. When he got tired of one he would move to another. Today, only the Café de la Mairie remains.

Place Saint Sulpice - Café de la Marie

Café de la Mairie, 8, Place Saint-Sulpice

The other day I went to the Café de la Mairie with my second-hand copy of Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien. I took a seat outside by the door and turned to one of Georges Perec’s entries for 18th October 1974:

La date : 18 octobre 1974

L’heure 12 h. 40

Le lieu Café de la Mairie

Plusieurs dizaines, plusieurs centaines d’actions simultanées, de micro-événements dont chacun implique des postures , des actes moteurs , des dépenses d’énergie spécifiques : discussions à deux , discussions à trois, discussions à plusieurs : le mouvement des lèvres, les gestes , les mimiques expressives

modes de locomotion : marche, véhicule à deux roues (sans moteur, à moteur), automobiles (voitures privées, voitures de firmes, voitures de louage, auto-école), véhicules utilitaires, services publics, transports en communs , cars de touristes

modes de portage (à.la main, sous le bras , sur le dos)

modes de traction (cabas à roulettes)

degrés de détermination ou de motivation attendre , flâner , traîner , errer , aller, courir vers, se précipiter (vers un taxi libre, par exemple), chercher , musarder, hésiter, marcher d’un pas décidé

positions du corps : être assis (dans les autobus , dans les voitures , dans les cafés, sur les bancs)

être debout (près des arrêts d’ autobus , devant une vitrine (Laffont, pompes funèbres), à côté d’un taxi (le payant)

Trois personnes attendent près de l’arrêt des taxis.  Il y a deux taxis, leurs chauffeurs sont absents (taxis capuchonnés)

Tous les pigeons se sont réfugiés sur la gouttière de la mairie.

Un 96 passe.  Un 87 passe.  Un 86 passe.  Un 70 passe.   Un camion « Grenelle Interlinge » passe.

Accalmie.  Il n’y a personne à l’arrêt des autobus .

Un 63 passe.  Un 96 passe

Une jeune femme est assise sur un banc, en face de la galerie de tapisseries « La demeure » elle fume une cigarette.

Il y a trois vélomoteurs garés sur le trottoir devant le café.

Un 86 passe.  Un 70 passe.

Des voitures s’engouffrent dans le parking

Un 63 passe.  Un 87 passe.

Il est une heure cinq. Une femme traverse en courant le parvis de l’église .

Un livreur en blouse blanche sort de sa camionnette garée devant le café des glaces (alimentaires) qu’il va livrer rue des Canettes.

Une femme tient une baguette à la main

Un 70 passe (c’est seulement par hasard, de la place que j’occupe, que je peux voir passer, à l’autre bout, des 84)

Les automobiles suivent des axes de circulation évidemment privilégiés (sens unique , pour moi, de gauche à droite) ; c’est beaucoup moins sensible pour les piétons : il semblerait que la plupart vont rue des Canettes ou en viennent.

Un 96 passe.

Un 86 passe.  Un 87 passe.  Un 63 passe

Des gens trébuchent.  Micro-accidents.

Un 96 passe.  Un 70 passe.

Il est une heure vingt.

Retour (aléatoire) d’individus déjà vus : un jeune garçon en caban bleu marine tenant à la main une pochette plastique repasse devant le café

Un 86 passe.  Un 86 passe.  Un 63 passe.

Le café est plein

Sur le terre-plein un enfant fait courir son chien (genre Milou)

Juste en bordure du café, au pied de la vitrine et en trois emplacements différents, un homme, plutôt jeune, dessine à la craie sur le trottoir une sorte de « V » à l’intérieur duquel s’ébauche une manière de point d’interrogation (land-art ?)

Un 63 passe

6 égouttiers (casques et cuissardes) prennent la rue des Canettes .

Deux taxis libres à l’arrêt des taxis, un 87 passe

Un aveugle venant de la rue des Canettes passe devant le café ; c’est un homme jeune, à la démarche assez assurée.

Un 86 passe

Deux hommes à pipes et sacoches noires

Un homme à sacoche noire sans pipe

Une femme en veste de laine, hilare

Un 96

Un autre 96

(talons hauts : chevilles tordues)

Une deux-chevaux vertpomme.

Un 63

Un 70

I haven’t included the full entry for this particular observation session but you can see from this extract, whether you understand French or not, that Georges Perec is what one might call a contra-flâneur; he sits still and observes as the world moves by. Incidentally, the numbers that he lists are the numbers of the buses that pass and, as I could see for myself the other day, buses with the same numbers still pass.

From the time I first discovered it, Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien made a huge impression on me. I could immediately see how Georges Perec’s detailed observations of everyday life, his quest for the infraordinary: the humdrum, the non-event, the everyday “what happens when nothing happens” could be replicated equally compellingly in sound. That revelation inspired me to begin my own observations of Paris, detailed observations of the city through its intricate and multi-textured sound tapestry.

Because Georges Perec inspired me to undertake my exploration of Paris in sound I couldn’t possibly have left the Café de la Mairie without making my own infraordinary observations of the Place Saint-Sulpice.

‘Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien’ in sound:

From my contra-flâneur’s seat outside the Café de la Mairie, probably a seat once occupied by Perec himself, I recorded my own Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien, ‘what is happening when nothing is happening’, which is both my homage to Georges Perec and my ‘Thank You’ to all the loyal visitors to Soundlandscapes’ Blog who have supported me over the last five years and who inspire me to continue with this work.

 

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 29 2015

    Very interesting, Thank you !

    Reply
    • May 29 2015

      Je vous remercie. Georges Perec a été une grande inspiration pour moi. Il m’a appris à observer la vie quotidienne de la ville et de reconnaître que l’ordinaire peut souvent être «extraordinaire».

      Reply
      • May 30 2015

        Tout comme moi. Je m’en inspire encore souvent dans mes (dé)marches.

  2. May 29 2015

    Although I have commented before, I have not thanked you enough for your work and your generous sharing. I too have explored Paris as you have but alas only one short trip a year going back to the mid 80s. Like you I have sat at various locales and photographed many things that I have then turned into paintings. They have “recorded” things that have turned my head and I have shared those experiences with others through my paintings as you have through your photographs and sound recordings. Your work has inspired me, brought back Paris to me with the sound recordings, and encouraged me to keep on. My inspiration has been the photographers you mentioned and others painters.
    Thank you again for transporting my thoughts, however briefly, back to Paris with your sounds playing in my studio while I am painting.

    Reply
    • May 30 2015

      Thank you so much for your comment Richard, I much appreciate it. Having seen some of your ‘Watercolours of France’ I’m very envious of your talent. And I’m flattered that my sounds may have played a small part helping you to create such wonderful pictures.

      Reply
  3. hmunro
    May 29 2015

    Tout d’abord : I am immensely relieved you’re out of hospital and in good health, Des. And beyond that, I’m almost as immensely moved by this beautiful piece you’ve produced. I can’t really adequately describe in a comment how deeply it has touched me, except to say that you’ve made my world bigger — both with your introduction to Perec’s work, and with you own continuation of his work. As Richard Ewen said, “I have not thanked you enough.” There is no way I *can* adequately thank you, actually, for the many ways you’ve enriched my appreciation of Paris. Merci infiniment, Des.

    Reply
    • May 30 2015

      Thank you Heather, you’re very kind.

      A little book with a big idea set me on a course to observe Paris through sound and that has dominated my life ever since. It has, and continues to be, a challenge but it’s hugely satisfying and immensely rewarding. Hospital visits are a mere bump in the road!

      Reply
      • hmunro
        May 31 2015

        “Hospital visits are a mere bump in the road!” That’s the spirit, Des! And isn’t it amazing how a small idea can spark such a huge and encompassing passion, such as sound recording has become for you? I think Georges Perec would be very delighted indeed.

  4. May 30 2015

    Hope you will feel better soon following your recent surgery. Thanks for sharing this experience as well as the writing of George Perec. It was interesting to read some of the extract from Perec’s Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien. I think it would take me a lot of patience to sit, observe and make notes of what goes on around me!

    Reply
    • May 31 2015

      Thank you, Angelina. Good to hear from you.

      I’m pleased you enjoyed this piece about Georges Perec. Concentrated observation can be very therapeutic, or so I’ve found.

      Reply
  5. May 31 2015

    Sorry to hear about your surgery, Des. Hope you will fully recover in no time. Sending you best wishes from Dublin.

    Reply
    • May 31 2015

      Thank you, Susanna – much appreciated. All is well, je suis en pleine forme – well almost!

      Reply
  6. Lu Noe
    Jun 1 2015

    Des, the recordings added to the great photography and historical background make me feel like I’m actually there. This piece was especially interesting to know how you got started in Soundlandscapes. I have often thought you must be very healthy getting out into the fresh? air and walking so much. I wish you a speedy recovery and continued good health.

    Reply
    • Jun 3 2015

      Thank you for stopping by and for your comment and good wishes. Much appreciated!

      Reply

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