Chen Sisters Looking at Things

Chen Sisters Looking at Things

by Anelise Chen & Angela Chen


The prompts and exercises in this syllabus are designed to retrain your brain to feel rewarded by novel experiences that unfold in front of you in real time. If you feel like there aren’t many opportunities to engage with your surroundings, these exercises help to cultivate a sense of belonging in place. But mostly, they’re about paying attention! Get to know who and what you’re surrounded by—plants, people, animals, structures.

Prompt: Sit somewhere for 20 minutes and log as many observations as you can.

Anelise: I recently had a baby, and for the first two months of the baby’s life, I was mostly confined to the apartment, or to the nursing chair, specifically. In between feedings, the baby and I would look out the window, and I would describe everything that was going on in the street below. “Oh, there goes a blue car. There goes a red car. There goes the guy pushing the shopping cart of scrap metal. There goes the doggie daycare bus.” The hours passed. Before, whenever my partner asked, “Tell me everything!” I would happily recount my classes, my students, everyone I had spoken to, the gossip, the ideas they had, the stories I had read in the news. But I didn’t know how to narrativize this seemingly featureless, in-between space. It was in this context that I read Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974). My friend Eugene had published a piece called “Redacted Gratitude Lists from the Second Year of the Plague” on Triple Canopy, where I encountered a quote from Perec’s book. “In splendid unity, the pigeons go round the square and return to settle on the district council building’s gutter.” That was exactly the kind of mundane, barely-above-notice observation that the baby and I were having all the time.

A light blue sky with two clusters of birds flying.

Put simply, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is a log of everything Perec encounters while he sits in the Place Saint Sulpice, a public square in Paris’s Latin Quarter. His assignment is to log everything—what people are carrying in their grocery bags that he can see (curly endive), what buses are passing and who is getting on them, what dogs are being walked, what advertisements, what colors. If this inventory sounds boring, it’s not! I was so moved by the book. Why was it moving? Because not only did someone bother to write down these seemingly unimportant details, but he took the time to publish them, as though to say, this, too, is valuable. His gesture of care lifted mundane moments from the “dross in which they remain mired” and legitimized them. All of a sudden, I felt that it mattered what the baby and I noticed from the limited perspective of our window.

A companion text to An Attempt is another essay by Perec, “Approaches to What?” which I see as a kind of manifesto. Perec wants to lift the invisible ordinary from the background to make it visible again. To allow us to experience it anew. What is this stuff we’re wading through all the time called life? It’s not, in fact, what is extra-ordinary and exotic; it’s the opposite: what is “infra-ordinaire” and “endotic.” We’re so conditioned to think that life is what’s in the headlines or what we scroll through on our phones. Perec writes that what we need to question, instead, is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms.

Here are three prompts from Perec that he includes in “Approaches:” 

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.

Question your teaspoons.

A cluster of birds flying in the blue sky, with the tops of houses just barely visible at the bottom right of the frame.

Prompt: Talk to one neighbor. Then, talk to another neighbor.

Anelise: The Balcony Movie by Polish director Paweł Łoziński is a minimalist masterpiece. It’s lo-fi and replicable by anyone with or without a camera. The premise is simple. Over the course of a few years, Łoziński trained his camera on the sidewalk below his balcony and interviewed the passersby who walked into the frame. He would ask them about the meaning of life and about their hopes and dreams. Cumulatively, interview by interview, snapshot by snapshot, a collective portrait emerges, not only of Łoziński’s neighbors but of human experience at large. All over the world, on every block, people fall in love, get their hearts broken, start families, lie to one another, get kicked out of their homes, argue, make up. All over the world, people start jobs, end them, do the laundry, walk the dog, buy groceries, park the car, fall down and skin their knees and cry about it, march in parades, and check the gas meter. Word got out around the neighborhood that Łoziński was doing this balcony film, and people would come willingly and share their stories. It became a kind of “secular confessional.” The takeaway for this syllabus: You don’t have to travel very far to have the whole world open up to you.

Birds flying in the sky, green leafy trees visible at the bottom of the frame.

Prompt: Imagine yourself as another being, and move through the same space as though you were that being. How does the landscape change?

Anelise: Last year, I taught a class called Animal Tales, and we read a lot of stories that were written from the POV of other sentient creatures. We read stories that got inside the heads of dogs, polar bears, parrots, monkeys, axolotls, which described our human world as they might encounter us. One through line was how absurd and meaningless human constructions are to animals. For instance, as a parrot, you have no use for powerful telescopes; what you really care about is that your habitat isn’t destroyed. (See: Ted Chiang’s story “The Great Silence”). One of my students from that class very smartly summed up an idea from James Bridle’s book Ways of Being, about non-human intelligences. Environments are a byproduct of one’s specific embodiment. For example, a self-driving car only “sees” roads and stoplights; whereas a beaver navigates its environment by assessing water flow and available trees to cut down. Self-driving AI can’t “see” anything it’s not designed to see, just as a beaver could care less about your garden being flooded.

It’s a common trope in animal stories to make a familiar place strange by “seeing” it anew from an animal perspective. So, using this idea, the prompt is to visit a familiar place and see it from different angles. A photography exercise that would be simple to do would be to take pictures from the perspective of an ant, or dog, or fox.

A big leafy green tree appears against the blue sky, with birds flying in the background.

Prompt: Choose a place and revisit it often. How is it being used at different times of day? On weekdays or weekends? During different seasons? On holidays?

Angela: It started like this: on a Sunday afternoon in October 2011, the photographer Hayahisa Tomiyasu left his apartment in Leipzig student housing to take a walk. On his walk, he saw a fox. The fox sniffed, squatted, and “did its business.” Before disappearing into some bushes, it looked in his direction. Later that October, Tomiyasu looked out of his south-facing apartment window and saw a fox crossing the athletic field in front of his building. He watched as the fox stopped briefly to look at a ping pong table.

Tomiyasu never saw the fox again, but he began looking at the ping pong table. From 2011 to 2016, he photographed the ping pong table from his room, taking something like four thousand photographs of the recreational furniture and its myriad uses—as a bench, a platform, a lounge, a bike stand, a place to meet, read, exercise, take a call, have a potluck, wash clothes, set down the baby, place your things. 

Tomiyasu waited by his window almost every day for scenes to unfold and photographed them with a telephoto lens. (He sometimes canceled plans and deliberately stayed in on major holidays if he thought something exciting might happen.) The composition of each photo is roughly the same: verticals with the ping pong table in the center. A railing zigzags backward through the frame, bisecting the bottom half, a swath of dirt, and the upper half, a dense wall of greenery. In this upper half, we see the seasons change: leaves drop, flowers bloom and die. The weather is sunny, or rainy, or clumps of wet snow obscure the table.

The composition sets the stage for a rotating cast of characters. There are sniffing dogs and a gathering of crows, but the majority of the photos consist of people: children, couples, families, friends. Tomiyasu describes his anthropological attention to the ping pong table as a way for him to observe German behavior and culture; he says, “as a foreigner it gave me a way to understand how people think and behave.” 

What did he learn? There is not a single photograph of people playing ping pong in the entire series. People are inventive, finding all sorts of practical uses for the table and for public space. And in Germany, public spaces like these are diverse: Tomiyasu photographed people across all demographic sectors. By following the fox’s gaze, Tomiyasu shows us a microcosm of German urban life.

A green leafy tree stands next to a house, and birds fly in the background.

Prompt: Find a group of people who notice things together—birders, environmental restoration volunteers, trash cleanup clubs—and join them. 

Angela: For decades, farmers, environmental activists, and locals in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a commune north of Nantes, opposed a plan to build the Notre-Dame-des-Landes Airport in their municipality. The proposed airport, paradoxically approved in 2008 by the French ministry for ecology and sustainable development, would take over 1,650 hectares of preserved farm and wetland, destroying local ecosystems. In 2011, a report by Biotope, an agency hired by Vinci, the airport developer, to conduct an ecological survey, described the site as “a rich environment” for frogs, toads, and birds, and identified seventy-four species protected by French law. Vinci countered that any loss could be compensated for through biodiversity offsetting, and began contacting farmers in the surrounding area in a bid to purchase their land. 

In 2012, a group of conservationists calling themselves the Naturalistes en Lutte (Naturalists in Struggle) banded together to do their own inventory. Shortly after the new year in 2013, they posted an open invitation to their first collective action inventory, writing, “No special knowledge is required since, in some cases, people are needed to take notes, count, check, etc.” Photographers would have work to do to “promote the operation.” The Naturalistes en Lutte met every second Sunday of the month. The inventories were always open to all, and the photographer Bruno Serralongue attended five of these outings, offering his photos “for the naturalists to use as they please.” 

Serralongue’s engagement with the Naturalistes en Lutte from 2015–17 resulted in the series Naturalists Strike Back. In one sequence from May 8, 2016, Serralongue photographed volunteers walking to, encircling, and shin-deep in a pond. The agenda for the day: “floristic monitoring” of pond 107. Serralongue’s photos show volunteers pointing at, reaching for, plucking, holding, and examining pond flora; consulting field guides and one another; crouching, kneeling; taking notes cross-legged. There are close-up photos of flowers and plants: the white, five-petalled Ranunculus omiophyllus; the leaves of floating water-plantain; the pink Geranium robertianum. In an April 2017 inventory, he photographed the “counting of crested newts.” In August 2015, during the “search of Gentian pneumonanthe,” he photographed from a perspective low to the ground; tall stems of grass punctuate the foreground in several photographs showing volunteers on their hands and knees.

Ultimately, the Naturalistes en Lutte identified over 2000 species and found one hundred thirty with protected status—nearly double that of the Biotope inventory—along with many others that were rarely seen or seriously threatened. In January 2018, five years after the first collective action inventory, the airport plan was scrapped. Though the naturalists celebrated that month that “this Earth…[would] not disappear under the concrete,” their engagement with the site continues.

A cluster of birds sit atop rowhouses, mingling with satellite dishes. The sun shines on the top floor windows of the houses.

All photographs taken by Angela on an after-work walk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on September 23, 2016.