'My trip doing errands'

Sometimes, just sometimes, we are rewarded for those impulsive hours we spend on websites such as ‘Reddit’. For, while much of what we flick through is, of course, interesting for that fleeting moment, rarely does anything stay with us long term or, rarer still, have a direct consequence to something we might already consider, ‘interesting’.

Little over a week ago now, I came across a two-year-old ‘Imgur’ album (posted in a thread I can no longer find), which documented, quite exhaustively, a typical day in the life of a student in Germany. The album, entitled, ‘My trip doing errands’, combines photography and a written commentary to narrate, from a first-person perspective, their experience of that (relatively) uneventful day. The album begins with a photograph and comment as the student leaves their house that morning and concludes with the same, shortly before their return later that day. Between these two points are another 73 photographs with comments, which document, in snapshots: a trip to the pharmacy; the university; the shopping centre; the supermarket; and finally the library. 

Now for me, this has which might be described as a ‘niche’ intellectual interest, pertaining to the theory of the ‘everyday’ (shout-out to my boys De Certeau and Lefebvre) and, even more so, to my own research on the nature of architectural experience. So I was surprised to discover that this album had, in fact, received more than 25,000 views and even more surprised to find that there were many other albums like this, documenting something like “a day in the life”, posted within competing ‘subreddits’ (such as r/aRgRd and r/pathhome). I want to explore this “surprise” for just a moment, because, in the world of the internet, one should never be “surprised” at what they might find, right? But for me, this has only ever been true of the grotesque, the pornographic, the hanging-off-of-cranes-with-one-hand insane. In short, the ‘spectacle’ but never the ‘ordinary’. So what is it about these casually captured photographs of banal everyday existences that should attract such attention? Is it a familiarity with peoples’ own everyday lives? Is it an innocent curiosity into the lives of others? Or, is it something a little deeper? Somewhere in the neighbourhood of those aforementioned spectacles online: a modest dose of voyeurism, perhaps?

As I mentioned, for me this album is important for two reasons. The first of which is in relation to a general interest I have in the ‘everyday’. Those practices, activities, perceptions and perspectives, which occur ubiquitously and often unwittingly within daily life but of which little is really known or understood. Something, that is in part down to the bombastic nature of Western culture, which places superheroes and Kim Kardashian’s arse far above an intimate understanding of our own personal habits and nature. Really though, this comes from the way in which our culture is “geared”. That is, both in terms of its technical structures (its institutions, technologies, methods etc.) and its overarching perspectivism, oriented towards “objects” of value and not those which are necessarily ubiquitous or inconsequential (such as the ‘everyday’). However, as the gap between these distinct qualities broadens, inline with the innovations in technology and desire for sensationalist media, so too do the opportunities to contend with those enigmatic aspects of everyday life. For just as the early development of film, led to a taste for extraordinary cinema, such as the ‘phantom ride’, it also facilitated, at the same time, the close observation of relatively mundane aspects of daily life, such as a galloping horse; finally answering the question of whether all four of its hooves were ever off the ground at one time (yes, they are). This album, therefore, demonstrates this same paradoxical phenomenon. With the methods of capture and distribution, the camera and the internet, both at once responsible for the increased distance between our attention and ‘everyday’ experiences and the increased opportunities we have to contend with them. Moreover, this album has a very specific interest for me in relation to architectural experience. Functioning as both a further source of research and as a model for establishing my own method of generating sources.

In my work, the collusion between the ‘everyday’ and architecture is one that has been going on for a while now and has led not only to a rather curious thesis topic but also, more recently, a dedicated web platform entitled, ‘Openly Critical’. My thesis was connected to the ‘everyday’ via a concept of ‘distraction’. A condition that was seen as the paradigmatic way in which architecture is experienced in daily life and one that was almost entirely unaccounted for within the conventional practice of architectural criticism. ‘Openly Critical’ has been set up since to respond to this as well. Seeking to further explore this concept of ‘distraction’ and to express those other marginalised realities of architecture, unaccounted for across the more established platforms of architectural representation and consideration.

As of a few weeks ago, I published, on ‘Openly Critical’, a ‘retrospective narrative’ of my thesis, which presented a more concise and digestible rendition of my ideas, along with some new material. As part of this, I re-familiarised myself with one of the key aspects of my research, the potential of ‘narrative’, a method I had developed to represent the ‘distracted’ perception of architecture. By using accounts of human experience (what I consider ‘narrative’), I saw that it was possible to register architecture analogously with its perception in a state of ‘distraction’. Not as an 'object' in itself, as it is so often depicted, but as a “background” environment, revealed passively, as it rises and falls at the periphery of an alternative focus. Now, obviously, ‘narrative’ is by no means a new method of representation, indeed it may in fact be the oldest we know, but the media through which, I believe, it holds the greatest potential, is. That of first-person video footage. Which, while reflecting only the visual aspects of perception – itself a cause for concern in relation to the ocular-centric tendencies of Western culture (Pallasmaa, where you at?) – is perhaps, the richest and most indiscriminate method of capture. That is, at least, provided it is formed outside the remit of architectural representation, ensuring the role of the built environment is not inflated or deflated as a result of the author's ultimate objective. I suggested, therefore, that such “second-hand” sources can be found online, from open sharing platforms such as ‘YouTube’ or ‘Imgur’ and - if you haven’t guessed already - this is where the album, ‘My trip doing errands’, comes in. For, while it is not a filmic representation, it does have a similar temporal dynamism; with the chronological sequence of its images effectively stitched together by its accompanying commentary. This and others like it, present an opportunity to build on the conclusions of my Master’s thesis, by observing to what extent they function in regards to my hypothesised method of ‘narrative’. Not only this but they have also inspired me to establish my own first-hand sources that might somehow circumvent the constructive qualities of such representations when formed “first-hand” for the purpose of depicting architecture.

Currently, I’m in somewhat of a unique position in that I am, simultaneously, both “travelling” and “living”. By which, I refer to the fact that I am travelling slowly (or “living quickly”) from city to city across Europe, spending around a month or two in each. The reason that this is so opportune, in relation to this interest in the ‘distracted’ appropriation of architecture, is that, by being in each place so long, I am effectively able to transplant my habitual and day-to-day practices onto very distinct environments, in a way that is otherwise rarely possible. Thereby, giving me an opportunity to compare and contrast my ‘distracted’ experience of each place, while engaging in consistent and routine activities. Not something that is typically available to the tourist, who in going somewhere only for a short duration, is almost constantly engaged with the spectacle and not the ‘everyday’ (which is, of course, why we so frequently become ‘tourists’), thereby having little opportunity to become ‘distracted’ in relation to their environment. The problem that arises for me, as just previously mentioned, is that to document this myself, for the purpose of representing architecture, is to be involved in the potential inflation or deflation of its register. Yet, since discovering this student’s ‘everyday’ album, I’ve been possessed to find a way around this and I think, finally, I’ve got it. Wearable cameras. These, while of course not able to emulate visual perception entirely, are able to capture videos or photographs of an environment indiscriminately and with little conscious involvement from the wearer or anyone else.

Following a bit of research into which device would be the best suited and most affordable, I’ve since purchased (but not yet received) an ‘Autographer’. A little device that actually came on the market a few years ago, with a hefty price tag of around £400, capable of capturing photographs automatically (actually using a complex algorithm, apparently), thereby revealing candid snapshots of your day. I’ve since (somehow?) picked one up for little over £70! So, starting in the next couple of days and continuing for the next three or four months, I’m going to use this device to document my ‘everyday’ practices (or “errands”), such as: going to the supermarket; going to the laundrette; going for a walk; and even going for my morning run. With the aim, later, of producing an article (published on ‘Openly Critical’), which explores my findings in relation to the ‘distracted’ experience of architecture across different environments. If it goes well I might even cough up for a discrete video camera as well. Until then, I’ll perhaps share some of my progress (or lack thereof) here.