The Delirious Museum logo

 

Photo display on iron railing, Glasgow

Glasgow, 1979

The Infraordinary Museum, tin monger's shop, Athens

Athens, 2002

The Infraordinary Museum, wig shop, Zaraza

Zaraza, 1998

The Infraordinary Museum, curiosity shop window, Chinon, France

Chinon, 1989

The Infraordinary Museum, fruit and vegetable stall, Soho, London

Soho, London, 1985

The Infraordinary Museum, hatter's shop window, Verona

Verona, 1982

The Delirious Museum: From the Louvre to Las Vegas

The Infraordinary Museum

[ This section of The Delirious Museum was omitted prior to publication. ]

If the Delirious Museum can exist at all it needs some exhibits . . .

But there is no purchasing fund and no accommodation. So, in order to start a collection, here are some stolen artefacts: fragments of film, books and lost rooms that continue the line begun by Baudelaire and carried through by the drunken Peasant and Guy Debord. They can be displayed whenever and wherever a suitable space is unearthed.

The ideas of the Situationist International were not meant to be used in support of the museum. I have taken them out of context and applied them for the benefit of my own argument. The Museum of Situationism (sic)1 is anathema. The Situationists made it possible to examine and document the city in oblique, even perverse, ways. Dérive was eventually set aside by the Situationists to make way for more direct revolutionary strategies. Détournement was adapted in order to fit with this change of emphasis. But the proposals and strategies they suggested drifted out into the world and were taken up in different ways by literary movements, film-makers and individual writers. This is a paradigm of the Delirious Museum itself as exemplified by Zola’s description of the wedding guests lost in the Louvre.

It is no coincidence that the site for many subsequent experiments in urban delirium continued to be Paris. This was the city of Baudelaire’s ‘man of the crowd’, of the flâneur and of the Peasant obsessively documenting the Passage de l’Opera. But these experiments have also taken place elsewhere….most notably in that other quintessential 19th century city: London. The following are not only exhibits in the Delirious Museum but are also incomplete catalogues of an infra-ordinary museum/city.

1. Perec and the infra-ordinary

In the aftermath of the failure of the events of May ’68 others also worked on the idea of urban drifting though using different tactics from those of the Situationists. ‘I would say that rather than a situationist drifter, [Georges] Perec was a drifter who hid. He who hides is often obliged to walk aimlessly on the streets because . . . that is where he best goes unnoticed’2. The writer Georges Perec was a member of the Oulipo group (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) whose members were dedicated to creating literature based on rigorous rules and constraints.

Perec is best known for his book Life: A Users Manual which uses the structure of a Paris apartment block - a defined three-dimensional matrix of spaces - to contain a complex narrative and an elaborate puzzle. In the early 1970s he wrote for a journal, Cause Commune, edited by Jean Duvignaud in which the theme of the ‘infra-ordinary’ was developed. In his piece Tentative d’Épuisement d’un Lieu Parisien3 (An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris) Perec wrote:

Many, if not most, of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, written about or itemized. My intention in the following pages was to describe what remains; that which we generally don’t notice, which doesn’t call attention to itself, which is of no importance: what happens when nothing happens, what passes when nothing passes, except time, people, cars and clouds.4

‘Infra-ordinary’ was the term he used in opposition to ‘extraordinary’ (and ‘the marvelous’) beloved of the surrealists and the term ‘endotic’ was used in opposition to ‘exotic’. In his introduction to Perec’s Species of Spaces, John Sturrock says: ‘The infra-ordinary is what goes, literally, without saying.’5

In Perec’s work this idea manifested itself in various forms. One unfinished project involved the description of various defined places in Paris over a number of years from observation and from memory. In ‘Species of Spaces’ he examined a progression of spaces from that of the page through, amongst other places, the bedroom, the apartment building and the street to the world and Space itself. Talking about describing the street he wrote:

Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you? Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see. You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.6

As Ben Highmore has said, Perec’s work ‘suggests the possibility of an anthropology that has yet to differentiate between the significant and the insignificant’7. In an essay Approaches to What? Perec wrote:

How are we to speak of these ‘common things’, how to track them down rather, flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they remain mired, how to give them a meaning, a tongue, to let them, finally, speak of what is, of what we are.8

In the same article he says:

Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare. Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.9

Their destiny is that they will become infra-ordinary exhibits in that most infra-ordinary of places: the Delirious Museum.

2. Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s film of 1966, Two or Three Things That I Know About Her10 is set in the Paris high-rise suburbs where housewives double as prostitutes. The camera lingers on words painted on walls and plastered onto billboards. At one point the camera lingers on the word BEAUTY spelt out backwards, looking from the inside through a shop window. The narrator (Godard) says:

Why are there so many signs everywhere so that I end up wondering what language is about, signs with so many different meanings, that reality becomes obscure when it should stand out clearly from what is imaginary?11

Then, as if still trying to resolve his own ambivalent relationship with Paris he says:

Perhaps, quite simply, I am an onlooker. Every city-dweller has his own contacts with specific parts of the city. And with what? Ah! Yes. The image is permeated with meanings and memories. The physical clarity…of this image. Paris is a mysterious city . . . stifling . . . natural.12

Godard was inventorizing the city as a collection of objects and signs or artefacts and labels. ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her’ has its own antecedent in Dziga Vertov’s silent film of 1929 ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. The framing device in each of these films was not the vitrine of the museum but the cine-camera. The glass of the showcase can also be seen as a lens.

3. Calvino

In his autobiographical essay ‘Hermit in Paris’ Perec’s friend and collaborator Italo Calvino wrote:

Paris has the kind of shops where one feels that this is the city which gave shape to that particular way of regarding culture which is the museum, and the museum in turn has given its form to the most varied activities in daily life, so that the galleries in the Louvre and the shop-windows form a continuum. Let’s say that everything in the street is ready to go into the museum, or that the museum is ready to absorb the street.13

4. Réda

Jacques Réda, in his book The Ruins of Paris14, sought to unearth the forgotten fragments of the post-industrial city and infiltrated them obsessively and illicitly. In a series of short unlinked passages he relates experiences of sound, smell and views in Paris streets. In one chapter ‘That unfindable something’ he recounts his Saturday purchases: wine, cigarettes, pencils, exercise-books, poetry books, cheese, a model soldier, a Bud Powell record, sheet music. The circumstances and cost of each transaction is documented. The tenth ‘item’ on this list is an account of the failure to buy petrol for his moped and the journey home: ‘…I see a man with two small girls looking for some unfindable thing or other in the humdrum grass on the side of the road.’ He ends watching trains from a heap of rubble on a building site. These ordinary encounters accumulate into a kind of encyclopaedia of a hidden city.

5. ‘Robinson’

The film London by Patrick Keiller uses a fictional journal narrated over documentary film of the city. Ostensibly the journal is the record of research undertaken by ‘Robinson’ and his narrator companion into the state of the capital – ‘the problem of London’ – over the course of 1992 (the IRA bombing campaign, a general election, potential economic collapse) but the voice-over quotes freely from other sources . . . accounts of the city by the Russian exile Alexander Herzen, poems by Rimbaud and Baudelaire and election polls. The camera stays fixed on slowly changing cityscapes with oblique connections to the narrative:

Robinson believed that if he looked at it long enough he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events and in this way he hoped he could see into the future.

The facts here are not those officially promoted, instead they unearth a city already made invisible by the unrelenting desire for destruction and renewal: ‘The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city it no longer exists. In this way alone it is truly modern.’

The cumulative effect is one of melancholy and loss but at the same time it is an inventory of London at a particular, convulsive moment in time.15

6. This history was not written down . . .

Question your tea spoons.
What is there under your wallpaper?16

In a terrace of late 18th century houses in Islington’s Cross Street there was for around ten years an archaeological site. This was the work of a design historian who had moved into one of the houses when it was a squat. After some time the house was taken over by a short-term housing co-operative giving its inhabitant a degree of secure tenancy.

When he first moved in he painted the walls white but soon he began a process of excavation that was to turn up layers of decoration and history. The first experiments in archaeology, prompted by uncovering a hitherto hidden fireplace, took place in the small yard behind the house. This offered up clay pipes, oyster shells and a brass figurine. Rather than undermine the house with further digging the next stage in the process of archaeology took place inside.

In the hallway, behind the wood-chip paper, he revealed first an arts and crafts print, then Victorian floral wallpaper, then combed wood-effect covering, brick print paper and, at last, the remnants of fresco. Each layer was revealed without stripping the whole surface back to the original so that all the layers were made visible. Behind shutters that had been nailed up he discovered men’s leggings and a message written on a piece of wood from one of the house’s builders. Under the floor-boards he found walnut shells and off-cuts from brass engravings and an envelope posted from Cyprus in 1960.17

Through long and elaborate research and co-incidence18 he was able to put together a history of the space in which he lived. This history was not written down – instead it was re-enacted in the spaces in which it had occurred. The house became an extreme example of living within a historical continuum. The house had become its own museum, offering up exhibits from under the floorboards, behind the shutters and the wallpaper and from the earth in the yard. The house has since been disposed of by the local council and has been modernised by developers. The museum/house has now reverted to a more straightforward version of a domestic space; the archaeological process forever effaced.19

Footnotes

Click Footnote number to return to text.

1 There is no such thing as ‘Situationism’. Not only does this suggest an art movement like cubism or surrealism but it also implies instant recuperation. Situationists and situationist tactics – but not the Situationist International - can emerge at any time and in any place.

2 Paul Virillio interviewed by Enrique Walker in AA Files, 45/46 (London, Architectural Association, 2001), p. 18.

3 Perec, Georges, Tentative d’Épuisement d’un Lieu Parisien (Paris: Christian Bourgois Editeur, 1975/2000).

4 Quoted by Adair, Gilbert, ‘The eleventh day: Perec and the infra-ordinary.’ In The Review of fw2 Contemporary Fiction, 22nd March 1993.

5 Perec, Georges, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by. John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 1997) p xii.

6 Perec, Georges, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by. John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 1997) p 50.

7 Highmore, Ben (Ed.), The Everyday Life Reader (London: Routledge, 2002) p 176.

8 Perec: Species of Spaces, p 206.

9 Ibid, p 206.

10 The ‘Her’ of the title is Paris.

11 Godard. Jean-Luc, Three Films (A Woman is a Woman, A Married Woman, Two or Three Things that I Know About Her) (London, Lorimer Publishing, 1984) p 155.

12Ibid. p. 161.

13 Calvino, Italo, Hermit in Paris; Autobiographical Writings, translated by Martina McLaughlin (London : Jonathan Cape, 2003) p 172.

14Réda, Jacques, The Ruins of Paris, translated by Mark Treharne (London: Reaktion Books, 1996).

15 Keiller revisited the character Robinson in his subsequent film Robinson in Space (1997). Here the journeys undertaken are an attempt to discover ‘the problem of England’. In another echo of ‘London’ the pop group St Etienne and the director Paul Kelly made an elegiac homage to the city in an apolitical re-working of Keiller in their film Finisterre (2003).

16 Perec: Species of Spaces, pp. 206-207.

17 The discoveries in the house are documented in ‘The Whispering Walls’ by Deborah Orr, Guardian Weekend, June 15 1996.

18 See Esther Leslie’s piece ‘Magical Properties’ in Peters, Tessa and Janice West (eds), The Uncanny Room (London: Luminous Books, 2002) pp 60-61.

19 Since I wrote this piece the houses has been thoroughly documented by Mary Cosh and Martin King (the occupant who was also the archaeologist) in ‘53 Cross Street; Biography of a House’, published by Islington Archaeology and History Society, 2007.