What happens when nothing is happening other than the weather, people, cars, clouds?
On the 18, 19, and 20th of October in 1974, Georges Perec one of France’s most famous avant garde writers, placed himself in St. Sulpice, Paris, and through observation of the everyday and the ‘nothingness’ of daily activity, recorded an extraordinary pen-picture and an endearing and enduring snapshot of Parisian life, the character of a place and its people: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.
On the 40th anniversary of that experiment on the 18th, 19th and 20th of October 2014, I undertook a similar exercise on one of Belfast's most iconic arterial routes. ‘Chasing Perec', was an attempt to ‘exhaust’ an everyday place in Belfast – the Ormeau Road.
TIME: 8.15 AM
LOCATION: Agincourt Avenue (Living room)
WEATHER: Dry with gusty winds. Cloudy.
Signs outside and across the road.
A member of the TVB group
No unauthorised parking
Caution – to all customers
Below this, the writing becomes too small and I can’t read it from here. There are other signs
Graffiti – CAIEAN 112
It begins to rain. A tall blond, thin woman unloads several cases of mushrooms onto pallets, from the back of a small white unmarked van. She is parked on the footpath. There is an orange forklift truck. Its yellow roof-light flashes. The driver, a Chinese man, in a hi-vis waistcoat drives off up Agincourt taking a pallet of mushrooms to a store.
Another Chinese man in a blue hi-vis jacket brings a trolley outside and puts up posters advertising the special offers – middle frame first, then the right, then the left.
The blond woman goes into the supermarket. A Roma man, thin, young, walks by. The blond woman comes out of the supermarket, gets in the van and drives off.
Only the warehouse door of the supermarket is open. It is a large, blue concertina that folds back – right to left. Inside a long yellow tube, like and intestine is suspended from the ceiling. Several Eastern European men go in. A white Mini Cooper pulls up. A young white man gets out of it and goes in.
Inside, boxes and cartons are stacked high on steel shelves – twice the height of a man, in the warehouse.
A Chinese woman moves a huge pallet of stacked trays on a trolley with wheels, through the warehouse, towards the shop. The steel shutter of the shop entrance remains closed.
A grey pigeon with red legs mooches across the footpath.
Roma man, Roma woman, Roma boy. She wears a beige sheepskin bomber jacket and draws hard on her cigarette.
Silver Citroen, immaculately clean. A Chinese man walks away into the warehouse.
White man comes out carrying three large packages, which he puts in the boot of his car and drives off.
Two Eastern European guys come out. They each have cans of something to drink in one hand. The man on the left carries it at hip height in his left hand. The man on the right carries his can at hip height and in his right hand.
Black car. Vauxhall.
The sycamore outside this window still has its leaves, though they are mottled and yellowing. The rain comes on more heavily and the wind gusts up. From bed, at 7.23 am, I heard the City Council sweeping cleaner drive past on the footpath. It’s very clean now, bar one empty two- litre bottle of Coca Cola lying in the gutter at the far side of the road.
The guy from the black car has a list and appears briefly at the warehouse door, then goes away. Two Roma men, entre the supermarket – one in a green hoodie, hood up over which he wears a burgundy sweatshirt.
Five bluebottles on the inside of this window.
Roma man with a monkey hat that has a Scottish Saltire motif on it.
Out the other window, Ormeau Veterinary Clinic, Not So Plain Jane, a beauty parlour and, Gilligan Consulting Engineers.
Roma guys prepare to leave the supermarket and stop to put things in a white plastic bag.
There’s something weird with the bluebottles. I open the window and sweep them out with a floor brush. A Roma man walks past and begins to laugh when he sees me.
A woman in a red raincoat with red lipstick and a brown leather handbag like a rucksack on her back walks past on this side of the road and heads on up Agincourt Avenue.
Blue Transit van pulls up across the entrance to the warehouse.
The rain is steady and persistent. It’s likely to be like that for the day.
Someone is in the country-bound bus-shelter outside the vets and is pacing.
Cars on the Ormeau Road, but not wet. Old graffiti depicting an Orangeman wearing a sash, on the corner of Artana Street and the Ormeau Road,
‘STAND OFF, Drumcree; TRADE-OFF Lower Ormeau’
Woman in a blue raincoat with a bright green plastic bag stops momentarily at the corner of Artana street, as her dog, a Llasa Apso stops to piddle, cocking its leg to a lamp-post.
The sound of raindrops plopping onto the flat roof of the bay window.
Three crows – on to the top of a lamp-post, two on the top of the supermarket roof.
The man in the silver car and the man in the transit van arrive simultaneously but separately to load up their vehicles from trolleys.
A white man wears a Russian Hat and spits onto the street.
Rain gets heavier. The man in the silver car gets in – switches on his lights, indicates right, does a three-point turn in two points and drives off in the direction of the Ormeau Road.
DISCOUNT FIREWORKS & FANCY DRESS, 132 & 193 Shankhill Road – a dark navy transit van pulls up. A big guy in a red polo shirt gets out of it and saunters into the supermarket through the warehouse door.
A tall Chinese woman with a blue tartan umbrella goes in. Still only the warehouse door is open.
520 Translink bus passes the top of the street.
A bluebottle landed on my lap and I killed it swiping it away.
8.55 AM. The small shutter of the Asia Supermarket is unlocked from the outside but it is not opened. A dark blue 4 X 4 jeep arrives and parks. The smaller shop door is opened and the shutter is raised from the inside. A Chinese couple get into a black car and drive off.
Two Roma men – one is pulling up his fly, pass on this side of the street. (New cartridge of ink needed)
Pigeon – grey with red legs pokes about the entrance to the warehouse.
A trolley is abandoned on the footpath.
NO PRAMS ALLOWED – 9 notices on the door of the supermarket, but this is the only one I can read from this distance.
Fireworks van man emerges with a large carton of plastic/ polystyrene fast food containers.
Black VW Beetle – a white, bald man gets out and walks away quickly, holding a bunch of keys in his mouth and pulling up his fly.
Roma man parks his bike outside the warehouse door, limps towards it pulling his trousers and pants out of his arse with his left hand. He is wearing sandals and no socks.
VW man emerges with a big bunch of coriander and gets into the passenger side of the car – No! it’s a left-hand drive Beetle. He does a three-point turn in a single loop and drives off in the direction of the Ormeau Road.
Six bluebottles on the window. Where are they coming from?
4X4 man comes back with eight big packages on a flatbed trolley. He sees me seeing him.
The clouds move quickly across the sky. The rain has stopped and there are occasional patches of blue. Blond woman in a Black BMW 4X4 pulls up. The 4X4 man returns the trolley to the warehouse, opens his door, puts his keys in the ignition and then climbs in.
The blond woman enters via the shop door. The pigeon just moves out of her way as they cross paths, diagonally. The pigeon walks away.
Two pigeons follow each other. Path. Gutter. Path. Tall guy in a grey and yellow raincoat goes in. One pigeon is paler grey than the other. The other is much more green around the neck. The paler one seems to be the leader. They disappear from view behind a car.
A new pigeon arrives – it has strong markings and much more definable dark strips – it is alone and cocky.
Chinese woman with long loose hair and a hi-vis jacket emerges. She is carrying a blue box of eggs (1 x dozen) in her left hand and jogs across the road to a house several doors up.
9.15 AM – STOP – start again. Four pigeons land together – various dark shades of grey.
Now I’m stopping.
10.15 AM – Graffiti
Burt Bacharach on the radio.
Leopard print fabric on the wall of the counter. Mirrors. Eight different light shades in glass, mother of pearl. Three blackboards with menus written on them. So far, two customers, me and a man reading the paper and drinking coffee. There are newspapers and a magazine rack, a huge mural of stylised flowers – a Byzantine style of artwork. The tables are recycled sewing machine tables. The waitress stands on a chair to wipe off yesterday’s specials menu off the blackboard. A man and a woman come in. Today the music is smaltzy romantic ballads from the 1970’s. Behind the scenes in the kitchen, the staff play-dance and gesture miming to songs while getting on with preparing food. Episodically there is the sound of eggs frying.
On the table pepper, salt, vinegar.
The woman customer orders a vegetarian ciabatta breakfast, with no butter. The man drinking coffee, reads the Sunday Times.
HIMALAYAN DISASTER TOLL SOARS TO 39.
Front page of The Observer –
NHS CHIEF URGES HOSPITAL STAFF
TO SET EXAMPLE IN ANTI-OBESITY FIGHT
Michelle and Emma join me to have their breakfast. We were all at the premiére of ’71 – a thriller set in Belfast last night. They went on to the after party. We talk about the film and how things were in Belfast in the 70’s. Michelle makes the observation that the M2 was intentionally built wide enough that in the event of trouble closing the airport then planes could land on the carriageway of the M2. She also tells us that housing estates were intentionally designed to limit the number of entrances and exits, to make security interventions more effective following incidents during ‘The Troubles.’
11.50 AM – Kiln & Loom
‘Love Letters Straight From Your Heart’ is playing. Ketty Lester singing. Terry Wogan is the DJ.
A woman in black with a knitted beret and bright red lipstick sits outside talking to a man who also wears black and has wet, curly hair. She wears red knee-length boots.
The road is fairly quiet. There are few pedestrians. The traffic moves freely.
The dog bowl is empty and sits inside the door. Someone raps the window. It is my cousin Clare. She sits with me. We talk about the wedding and I show her the photographs.
An Asian woman sits outside. She also has a notebook and pen. It makes me curious to know what she is writing about.
‘She Notes’ on the front cover of her turquoise blue notebook. She writes across the notebook in a convention opposite to western conventions. She starts at the top right hand corner and works down the page top to bottom and sequentially right to left across the page, going up and down it.
Makiko is Japanese. The name Makiko translates as ‘tree child’. Clare compliments Makiko on her scarf, which is orange with paisley patterns and flowers. Makiko tells me she used it as a tablecloth when in Japan, but today she just decided to wear it as a scarf.
She is a painter. She tells me and that normally that is how she expresses herself but she had decided that today she would try to write instead to challenge herself about expressing herself in writing and likes the coincidence that I am also there to write. She writes from the back of the book forwards.
Someone has left a black bin-liner of goods outside the Oxfam shop. It is closed today.
The shutters are down on Pizza the Action.
A pigeon flaps its wings and rises off the ground before landing and strutting among the leaves.
What is different today than yesterday? There are many fewer people around. There is a constant drone of traffic. It flows freely. There are fewer buses and fewer pedestrians.
Two young women walk down the road with coffee in paper cups. One of them has slashed the knees of her black leggings open, so the white skin of her knees looks a bit like eyes winking, one after the other, as she walks towards us.
Small signs on the window:
‘KEEN. AVAILABLE HERE NOW. KEEN
SPREAD THE LOVE (ALMOND BUTTER)
PRS for music.
Food Standards Agency – food rating 5
‘3 for 2’ sale of books in Oxfam.
WILL BE PROSECUTED/ REGARDLESS OF VALUE/
SECURITY CAMERAS ARE IN OPERATION/
KILN & LOOM
Graffiti and Posh Pets are reflected and written backwards in the glass of the shop window.
Three older ladies walk past. Pink coat. Mauve coat. Grey coat. A palette of colours that are related in depth and tone.
City centre #77 bus
A black man walks down the road with a small package clutched in his right hand.
In the distance, a turret of a church at St. Jude’s and the bell tower of the apartment beyond.
The traffic lights are green at the crossing at The Pavilion, the Curzon apartments and The Errigle Inn.
A woman with a long grey wrap-around cardigan, with big pompoms on the fringe.
Red raincoat, black polka dot rucksack, black floral skirt, black lace tights.
A large flock of pigeons on the roof of ‘Kurl Up and Dye’.
Black patent loafers with white tassels on my cousin’s feet.
1.30 pm – a cup of leek and potato soup.
The skateboard kid and his mother with the DM boots, who came passed yesterday, come out of the shop. I never noticed them going in. He wears a red raincoat. She carries a canvas bag with a purple motif of the Ulster Museum on it.
Makiko is reading poetry. She has written a poem on a brown paper back in Japanese characters.
Makiko and Louisa greet each other. Louisa is Spanish. They work together in L’Arche.
A light rain begins to fall. There are tiny beads of rain on the plastic cover of a packet of ‘Post-it’ notes.
Suddenly the rain is falling heavily. René outs the awing out as far as it will go. She pokes the awning with the ratchet in three places to pitch the water that is resting on it, onto the ground. Great big splashes fall.
A gust of wind sweeps under the awning and more rain falls.
The whole acoustic of the places changes in the wet and the road and cars sound as if they are being fried.
The rain eases.
Small splashes of rain to the page as I write, so I move inside.
Lou-Ella is nine and shy. She writes and draws on brown paper bags to join in the experiment.
A small chalkboard hangs by a ribbon on the door –‘We Are Open’.
Things in the shop – an apron with turquoise splashes, a canvas bag with ladybirds printed on it and another with frogs. An enamel watering can. A pair of owls, in a blue and white, framed print. A big heart made from a collage of autumn leaves.
I go outside to help Pete to bring in another bench so we can sit in out of the rain. I notice the nasturtiums have a single bright orange blossom on them today, when there was none yesterday.
Makiko begins to sketch, holding the pen at the very top of it. She watches the landscape and not the pen or the page and keeps the pen moving as though it is an extension of her eye, as she traces the lines she sees in the scene outside.
From a long narrow blue pouch, she takes out a small palette of watercolours and a brush. She dips the brush in a bottle of mineral water. She paints onto the paper bag with yellow paint, the brown paint and orange paint.
Pete sits outside under the awning. Lou-Ella is beside me – drawing, writing and eating a Panini.
Lou-Ella says, ‘Hey, I was just drawing that car that drove away.’
The fuchsias to the left of the door as you come into the shop are abundant.
Makiko and I talk about poetry. She says poetry says things that are hard to express otherwise. She paints with a feather now.
A pair of young adults play as they pass; he pulls her by the arms and swings her round. When he turns his back I can see that the seat of his jeans is shredded and so thin, there are glimpses of his dark underpants showing through. He has long curly hair and a skinny frame. She has long, really luscious dark hair and wears a red jacket.
No one is out with their dogs on the Ormeau Road today.
The awning of the Petit Ormeau is retracted. No one is sitting outside because of the rain.
Lou-Ella has pink jeans with flowers and cream strappy sandals. She has long brown hair and looks like her mother. She has joined her dad to sit outside and drink Lemonade.
Two girls with long auburn hair and wearing the uniform of Assumption Grammar School walk together up the far side of the road. It is 2.20pm on a Sunday. It is odd to see girls in school uniforms on a Sunday.
They appear to have disappeared almost as suddenly as they appeared in the first place.
The rain has stopped. The acoustic changes again – it sounds flatter and the movement of cars sounds much more mechanical.
I hear fragments of Gardener’s Question Time on the radio. Hydrangea. Bunny Guinness.
Makiko’s painting has dried.
‘Herbaceous garden – It’s too late to do the cuttings now and the pruning………Spring…….potting………… in the winter…… I think….. very easy………….’
I recognise the face of the woman at the car outside, so clearly. I remember her from school years ago in Enniskillen, but I can’t remember her name at all. She left Graffiti with her husband and daughter and got into a car.
A silver Mercedes Benz pulls up. ‘Michael’ comes in. René greets him. He wears a purple jumper. He wants to buy pesto.
Lou-Ella comes back in and sits beside me. She is wearing her dad’s coat because she was feeling too cold and says he was feeling too warm.
A woman in a bright pink raincoat shops for coffee through the window to the street and asks for full fat milk.
At 3.45 PM I finish for the day.
* * *
A friend and mentor, has a strapline on his emails; it reads, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at, change. In the course of doing this documentation, I discovered that awareness becomes heightened in an acute way. The process of seeing was almost cinematic in its experience. The process of seeing is also plastic in a sense; where the eye goes, sensitivity and curiosity follow. Sometimes seeing feels speeded up and sometimes it is in slo-motion, or stop-motion; the eye is like a camera – wide shots, mid-shots, close ups, macro’s. There is no filter on the volume of detail, only detail upon detail – the eye becomes a zoom lens, playing, lively and promiscuous, tricking the brain and leading one into momentary, ecstatic, trippy experiences of perception - liberating and child-like.
Here is an example:
DATE: Saturday 18th
TIME: 7.21 AM
LOCATION: Agincourt Avenue (attic room)
WEATHER: Clear, dry.
The skylight, a Velux window, is above the bed. It is about 120 centimetres square. In the top left-hand quadrant is a crescent moon, lit brightly against the dark blue of the morning sky. An aeroplane traverses diagonally across that same quadrant of the window. I breathe in momentarily, thinking it will crash into the moon. There are white lights blinking and red lights blinking – white to the left, red to the right.
On the extreme right of the square view of the sky, a crow flies north- south, taking a straight line down the right-hand third of that half of the overall picture. The moon, the plane and the crow all look the same size against the warming, blue October sky.
Within eight minutes, the moon has moved further up the overall picture, more birds fly overhead. The sky brightens. The earth is spinning on its axis and the impact of its tilt becomes more obvious.
* * *
In other ways, it is all about the people; it is about happenstance and how we connect briefly in each other’s lives. There is small- talk, chattering, moments – time to connect and then move on.
Extract from Day 3, Monday 20th October 2014.
Kiln and Loom, Ormeau Road
Prince is on the radio.
Everything slows down all of a sudden. It is a dreamscape, folds of cloth. The women in blues and greens and yellows, Paul Henry-esque purple tones. The terracotta roof of a house.
Rosie McGurran, the painter, Jason O’Rourke the musician and Caolinn his daughter come and sit down to take time a while and talk.
Caolinn draws a picture of herself and her dad sharing their bike. We look through wedding photos.
I do Twitter feed and Facebook feed of the Perec experiment.
An older woman in a pale pink coat, with shoulder length hair comes in for a coffee. She is also different from all the other women in pink coats that I have seen in these three days. She is curious about what I am doing and sits to talk a while.
Joan tells me she was born and bred in Sailor Town down by the docks, but many years ago her family moved to the Ormeau Road and one way or another she has lived there ever since. She tells me that her father, ‘oh away back in the day,’ saw that the development of the M2 would cut such a hole through that community they decided to get out and move before they would be forced to.
We talk about how the story goes that the motorway was built wide enough, for a long enough stretch, so that if necessary, planes could be landed on it; the necessary being the bombing of the airports or other trouble like it.
She says she loves the Ormeau Road, how it is great because ‘in all ‘the troubles’ and all that there, it was never so bad and the people always rubbed along rightly, no matter what was goin’ on…….. most of the time.’
The weather is clear and dry. There is a nip to the air.
It is 4.00PM
* * *
I feel like I belong on the Ormeau Road. I moved to live in Belfast’s Ormeau Road from Enniskillen, in 1983. My children were born here. I have lived at a series of addresses – in the ‘Holy Lands’, the Lower Ormeau, the Upper Ormeau. I have lived in Jerusalem Street, three addresses and three times in Agincourt Avenue, two addresses and three times in Candahar Street. I have also lived in Hatfield Street, Balfour Avenue, Ailesbury Road and Rossmore.
This observation bears witness to a view of Belfast in glorious banality. This project was an intense three day process of paying attention to the ‘here and now’ experience of the quotidian, at a point in time, on one of its most well known arterial routes. I was keen to do this experiment in Belfast – to document, as if it were possible, an ‘absolute picture’, the nuanced experience of my own micro-existence – the daily glue of momentary life.
Ormeau is the most religiously and culturally diverse and integrated area, of a city progressing. In the thirty years or so I have known it, it has just become more culturally and ethnically diverse, more integrated – which is not to say, it hasn’t also experienced some horrendous events. This is but one small area, of one road in a city with a history as a bloody and troubled hotspot. In terms of its anthropology, sociology and psycho-geography, it is fascinating and ordinary.
During the process of the experiment, I was reminded of being a small child, of those times I lay on the living room floor, my arm over the family dog, wondering if the time, the moment and the place existed only because I could think of them and if, by the same token everything that, at that moment was outside of my immediate existence, disappeared just because I wasn’t there. I wondered if every time I passed through a door, from one room to the hall to another room, did that mean that everything else just ceased to exist behind me. It was childish omnipotent thinking on the one hand and enormously free imagining on the other.
For me this experiment was a study of contradictions that co-exist –the quotidian as a mesmerising and enriching ecosystem, the personal as political, the individual as universal. It is life as cinema; a cinema of a time and place, so ordinary, that simultaneously it matters profoundly, at the exact moment that it also doesn’t matter at all.
* * *
Over the three days I did the experiment, many people came and spent time with me. They also recorded their observations on small brown paper bags. There were sketches as well as hand-written notes. For a limited time after the project, these were exhibited in the shop-window of Kiln & Loom as an installation.
The full manuscript and the original hand-written notebook I used, the drawings and observations which members of the public, friends and fellow artists contributed, have all been archived at The Linenhall Library.
I thank all those who came to sit, take time, take part and contribute. I am particularly grateful to the artist Caroline Wright for introducing me to the work of Georges Perec and to the Ormeau Road artist, Rosie McGurran for inviting me to the Inishlacken project in Connemara, where Caroline and I met. Finally, I am grateful to René Mullin, of Kiln and Loom, who supported me by letting me sit outside her shop for three days.