A test run of Alice Finbow's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place at 2014 Edinburgh Art Festival

This article is from 2014

A test run of Alice Finbow's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place at 2014 Edinburgh Art Festival

Our columnist Alice White tries her hand at contemplating life in a cafe in anticipation of artist Alice Finbow's 'contemporary reconfiguring' of the Perec classic

Ahead of artist Alice Finbow’s residency at the Manna House bakery, we asked café lover and bon vivant Alice White to foreshadow this project by hanging out there for three days. Was it a period of revelation, restitution and reconfiguration? Well, kind of …

In 1974, Georges Perec wrote the book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, an observation collection of nothing much in particular. Filmmaker and photographer Alice Finbow is going to spend a week doing a ‘contemporary reconfiguring’ during the Edinburgh Art Festival. I’m doing a take of a take of that project because my dreams of becoming a crime scene investigator fell through several years ago.

Day One

I arrive at the Manna House. When does the musing begin? This is mainly people asking about feta, or people sighing at their toddlers, or people telling me I can’t sit here because they got there first. It’s all background rhubarb so I end up with intrusive thoughts about everyone else’s stream of consciousness and how meaningless individual human existence really is. I don’t get paid enough to face my own mortality so I go back to secretly watching people and eavesdropping as they talk about cake and divorce.

I see a woman on her phone. She looks at me and I forget to stop looking at her. She awkwardly goes back to her screen-sized safe place so I decide to do a Twitter search to see if anyone’s talking about their experience from inside this building. I would then stalk them online, abusing their privacy-setting mistakes. No one’s saying anything, which is lucky for them. Lucky for humanity. I don’t know when it all turns into trying to access Steve Coogan’s voicemails. I’ll get the hang of this tomorrow.

Day Two

Finbow is going to be speaking to the patrons during her residency here so I should really try chatting to some people too. There’s a woman in front of me crying a little bit. ‘Are you OK?’ I say. She nods and shifts her chair in a mind-your-own-business type of way. There we go, interviewing complete. Somewhere, Paxman gets an uneasy feeling about job security.

This is a very one-sided project. Not one single person even cares that I have dried blood splattering out the leg of my jeans from where I walked into a roadworks sign on the way here. While trying to scrape it off with my trainer, I watch a bunch of clean-looking English girls in their mid-20s discuss what sandwich they’re each going to have.

You know the type; they’ve all got their natural hair colour and Orla Kiely purses. ‘What are you going to have?’ one asks. ‘I don’t know, what do you think you’ll have?’ I want them all to shut up so I can hear the old couple talk about how it would be quite exciting, in a way, to be on a cruise ship that was being chased by pirates.

Day Three

I look at the space on the wall where Finbow’s picture is going to hang. She’s going to draw her experience here in one long scroll which is quite nice. To mirror that, I sketch some stickmen talking about nothing in particular. As the father of people-watching, Perec commented that very little happens when you sit in a café for days on end.

I hum the Seinfeld bassline while I give my stickmen thought-bubbles and accept that Finbow’s take might be a little bit more profound. But hey! The cakes here were just incredible.

Alice Finbow: An attempt at exhausting a place (in Edinburgh), Manna House, Easter Road, 0131 652 2349, 4–10 Aug (residency), 11–31 Aug (artwork display), Mon–Sat, 8am–6pm, Sun, 9am–6pm, free.

Alice Finbow: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Edinburgh

In 1974, French writer Georges Perec (Life A User's Manual) sat in a café in Paris for three days and created a description of everything he could see and hear. The result, Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien, is one of his enduring celebrations of what he called the 'endotic', the opposite of the exotic. Filmmaker…