Other Side

Come rain or shine, come fair weather or foul, whether the wind gusts or nary a leaf stirs in the trees, still you keep walking; whether dawn switches out the streetlamps or dusk turns them on again, whether you are swamped by the crowds or alone in a deserted square, still you keep walking, drifting.

You devise complicated itineraries, bristling with rules which oblige you to make long detours. You go and see the monuments. You count the churches, the equestrian statues, the public urinals, the Russian restaurants. You go and look at the major building works on the banks of the river, at the gates of the city, and the gutted streets that resemble ploughed fields, the pipe-laying, the blocks of flats razed to the ground.1

The central figure in Georges Perec’s second novel, A Man Asleep (1967), wakes up one morning to realise that he does not and will never know how to live. He gives up his studies, breaks off all relations with friends and family and spends his days playing solitary games or wandering about the place. Here, very plainly, walking about in the world does not foster association, interaction, communication; rather it manifests indifference – a lack of contact, a lack of engagement. It seems to me that this paradoxical form of worldly and yet socially distant practice seems to have been largely forgotten within the context of contemporary relational aesthetics. These days we can recognise all kinds of neat and smiling conceits for re-modelling the social through participatory interaction, neglecting that these artistic rules, these earnest or obsessive scenarios and schemas can have darker implications as well. Historically, the artistic re-working of dimensions of social interaction emerges not simply from optimism – the belief in art’s capacity to mend and restore the social bond – but also from the experience of alienation. From this perspective, these gestures, actions and interventions obtain a crucial ambivalence, arising as much from the experience of distance, separation and a sense of the failure and impossibility of sociality, as from any confident presentiment of authentic community.

  1. Perec, G. 1990 A Man Asleep, (first published 1967), David R. Godine, New Hampshire, p.172
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