Random Acts of Commuting

Taking a cue from Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975, 2010), I decided to document a routine experience for me. Like Perec, my subject was bounded within a type of frame. Rather than a café window with a view of a particular street corner, I would survey a series of what seem to be entirely random experiences bounded my experience contained within one of the most mundane rituals of most New York City residents who work outside the home, beyond reasonable walking or biking distance: the daily commute on public transportation. In some ways it is unbearably predictable, five days a week, twice a day, morning and evening. Even the constant delays and disruptions in service are predictable. (They may occur at different times and in various places, but they surely will occur.) On some days the twice-daily routine is augmented by the weekly visit to my therapist’s office and, for past four and a half months this spring, a weekly commute to my class at the Graduate Center. Weekend trips into Manhattan or Hoboken are generally not interesting in themselves, as—contrary to the self-help mantra­—it is only the destination I am focused on, not the journey.

Downtown 4 soundscape

In some ways, the experience is as unremarkable as brushing my teeth morning and night–and like my dental hygiene, I just want to get it over with. But each trip away from home also is unlike any other. Although the present circumstances of my life circumscribe my movements around the city, countless events are taking place within this geo-spatial manifestation of Perec’s café window. For the purposes of this survey, I defined “event” as something that caught my notice, and involved another person, rather than, say, a mental or physical activity of my own, with no outward manifestation. Some events were predictable, as they have become familiar experiences to most commuters: encounters with candy sellers, buskers, and panhandlers, for example. Some events were actually non-events: they were experienced as such only because, in that moment, someone caught my attention.  As Georges Perec explained, “My intention…was to describe…that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens…” (Attempt, p. 3).

While the temporal-spatial design my project may resemble, in the most generalized way, Perec’s, in almost every other way the process differed. I was not the Perec-like invisible observer. This was not a three-day recording session in a static location. I conducted my survey on the move, over a period of two weeks, and was a very visible (but not active) participant in my object of study. In addition, unlike Perec, I created criteria and categories in advance, and structured my observations according to these rules. I would note what I considered “interesting”­–what engaged my attention– and apply one of the following labels: Commerce, Art, Situation, Behavior, Dress. Standardizing varied events in this way would allow me to reduce them to statistics. This, in turn, would enable me to visualize them for this project.

The wildcard in this process–and only other way in which it resembled Perec’s–was the critical role randomness played.  The events I recorded were evaluated, categorized, and labeled, and my experience of those events was noted in more detail. However, what I happened to notice and the way I chose to record and describe it was dictated by the unpredictable: where I happened to be within the circuit of my comings and goings; my state of alertness; my mood; available resources for notation; what distracted me versus what caught my eye. This tension between content and form constantly threatened to deconstruct the process.

Perec’s translator, Marc Lowenthal, articulates the inevitable way that what we notice is determined, in part, by who we are­—it is intensely personal—and the way this works with and against the tools we have developed to formulate a world that is transpersonal.

[I]t tends to be made not so much of primary materials, but of a more elusive substance, difficult to translate: the word “Gudule” on a shopping bag, a palmier being consumed by a child, the “Que sais-je” series of educational books. One could find equivalents in American culture, but to do so would be to write another book, one that attempted to exhaust a re-created “place.” An American sitting in the same cafes that Perec haunts…would undoubtedly take note of very different details…Reading through Perec’s Attempt makes one realize the degree to which the world is formulated through categories, genres, and classifications, many of them specific to the cultures we come from (p. 52).

The points on the map indicate events, and are color-coded according to category. Place the cursor over a point and a (more or less) detailed description of the event noted in that location. Most of the observations took place on subways within the MTA system, but they also included events on the bus, which I often take to and from the two subway stations I use, and in the immediate vicinity of subway stations or bus stops. Although each observation is time-stamped, it is unnecessary (and in most cases difficult) to trace a single sequence of events, unless doing so interests you. You may discover that events are not consistently recorded from day to day. Some days are not noted at all, while others are associated with several events.  I attribute this to variations in my state of mind, level of preoccupation, or­—of course—the possibility that nothing of interest happened to me that day during my commute.

Walking to the Bedford Park Blvd. subway station (D,B)

Read the map

You may also notice a degree of randomness within my own regular comings and goings. As a subway and bus rider, I interpret “transit schedule” to mean “at random.” This extends to the time I leave home in the morning, which can vary during the week by more than an hour, anywhere between 8:30 and 9:45 AM, sometimes later. The same is true for my evening commute from work. In addition to events prompted by what I saw, there were some prompted, or accompanied by, what I heard. The aural experience of the subway can run from familiar white noise that is easily tuned out, to ear splitting and/or unbearably intrusive mechanical sounds or music. The content of that sound can generate feelings of annoyance, joy, pleasure, fear, and tedium. I managed to capture a few sound experiences, and have included them as background. In a subway car they may be mundane and unremarkable, but here, sounds provide some sensory experience of events. And, like the structure of this project, sound represents movement through space (in fact, it is movement through space).

Candy on the 4

Because it is collected in such random ways, the data seems minimal. If it suggests any patterns, those are more likely my own patterns of observation than of particular categories of activity on the MTA. It is clear, however, that a not insignificant level of commerce takes place on the #4 train, especially between 125th and Bedford Park Blvd. I didn’t record as much performance on the trains as I’d expected. And there were fewer observations of notable dress uptown, than downtown or in Brooklyn.  The map is a record of what caught my eye, when, and where, rather than a vague indicator of socio-cultural trends. I am the unique demographic it charts.

In many ways this project may have been an exercise in narcissism; the effect of the exercise, however, was quite different. As the project progressed, I noticed that my capacity for paying attention and receptivity to random visual stimuli significantly increased. But this was coupled with the awareness of conscious effort. Intention was intruding into the process of “random noticing.” I would look at people and evaluate their suitability for the project. Was that woman’s blouse a good candidate for my interest? Is that little boy someone I should watch? An impulse to curate was threatening to derail accidental observation. This compromised the plan to a degree, but also created a new experience for me, one that continues beyond the course of the project. The effort to remain attuned and receptive to what I might see and hear­—whatever it might be—altered the way I looked at everyone. Individuals stood out, not against a crowd of unremarkable people, but in relation to the commonplace, unremarkable experiences we were all sharing. My (admittedly) arbitrary and ad hoc definition of “interesting” began to lose meaning.

Interestingness, as a quality, is in the mind of the beholder: a transitory impression, the realization of random potential. Marc Lowenthal suggests that Attempt is not just an experiment in exhausting a sense of place; it is an attempt to create a new sense of place, one within the text. This is possible only because Attempt establishes an interactive relationship with its readers (or attempts to). This dynamic also informs my approach, in which Perec’s work is analogous to my map.  As Lowenthal observes, “Perec’s text is open ended enough to allow readers to bring in whatever baggage they wish, and to leave with anything they wish- from a cellophane wrapper on the pavement to an unseizable, overflowing world…” (p. 53-54).

What say you?