work 5

Tentative d'épuisement de
Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien de Georges Perec,

by Philippe de JONCKHEERE (France), 2000

Philippe de Jonckheere occupies a singular place as an artist in transition between the world of print and emulsion and the digital realm. His site, Désordre, builds a clever interlacing of material inscription and digital media, a multi-dimensional labyrinth that includes notions of transitivity and randomness and in which visitors can lose themselves in the adventure. Désordre's home page displays an interactive image: a photograph of a drawing of the site, a panel of sheets roughly put together and spilling out of screen space. Recursive vertigo: mouse-activated icons, buttons, and hand-drawn elevators are knit into a complex network of referrals rather than a standard machine-language tree-structure. If this first image suggests a Perec draft, it's no coincidence. From many pages of the site, through work on puzzles, classifications, and memory games written with a programmer's assistance, Perec is celebrated throughout, as inventor of creative techniques, surveyor of imagination and memory. Many components of Désordre are named after works of Perec's: thus Tentative d'épuisement de Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien de Georges Perec.

Types of writing: in a café, sheets in front of him, Perec spends three days in 1974 writing down the micro-events occurring on place Saint-Sulpice, changing his observation post, imposing on himself the one constraint of only recording the visible, of describing the never-named sub-ordinary; no novelizing, no discursive purpose. As experimenting subject, he only appears in the text to trace the space-time markers of the here-and-now of writing, to comment his influence on the object of study, to explain strategic choices in the itemization of the real, or point out the weariness that could hinder a human being in carrying through with the plan. Its title, Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien,1 indeed marks the limits of writing in the attempt to grasp the real.

In 2001, Philippe de Jonckheere created a hypertext based on Perec's text as a single Web page containing almost 800 mostly external links.2 In this initial paratext, he withdraws as author in favour of a revamped figure of the commentator,3 and for technical know-how, lets the visitor's browser take care of displaying links. Tentative d'épuisement de Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien de Georges Perec provides minimal interactivity: viewers can activate links that open in a new window and can come back to the original one. Every lexical element whose new function is emphasized typographically points to iconic or verbal elements. Nothing to show a link has already been visited. While the initial text is short and fragmentary, the volume of the hypertext discourages extensive reading in favour of repeated visits and a familiarization with the site. On the fringe, the commented electronic exchange with a surfer brings out two particular instances of readers: the reader who identifies with a character, and sees him or herself in Perec's recollections; and the reader who shares the adventure of reading with another reader.

In this exploratory space, links are neither calculated nor adaptive, the visitor isn't disoriented by a disconcerting process: the cognitive load is here displaced from understanding the mechanism to discovering a labyrinth and the play of unpredictable associations that de Jonckheere concocts from the source text and Perec-like constraints.

De Jonckheere proposes in his reading to show what Perec is pointing to, to transpose the latter's intentions in hypertext. He composes a kind of virtual double of this Parisian city space, incorporating Web sites of the bus transit agency, of travellers, of hotels, of libraries, of stores, surprising and amusing links, the photography archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale, and all the streets precisely named... To clarify Perec's allusions, he relies as much on institutional sites as on the personal Web pages of collectors and fans. Hypertext reveals itself in its capacity for reproducing the trajectory of the mind, as when de Jonckheere elucidates an allusion to an actor or personality: the link then calls up a mental or visual image, depending on various rhetorical and (sometimes flippant) devices.

As author, from the initial constraint put on the linguistic material, de Jonckheere takes up Perec's gesture so as to attempt a critical review of cyberspace such as it erupts, in the fragmentation of unrelated sites. At first glance, the masterly accumulation of sites seems to answer to a desire for designating what presents itself, indiscriminately, regardless of the sophistication of the interface for instance. Navigation takes you through the ages of HTML, and activating links becomes an exploration of sites legitimated as new vehicle of collective intelligence and memory. At the same time, however, a construction of the author's identity is engaged through external links: through discrete allusions in the correspondences, one finds aesthetic and thematic echoes of Désordre, whether in reappropriations, playful or complicit pointers, nods to photographers, the love of literature, of music, of colour.

To reproduce Perec's creative method, Jonckheere had to provide a poetic equivalent to the constraints Perec confronted: a tension between the discrete naming of each element in the order of their serial repetition and the generic inventory, the paratactical build-up. Jonckheere varies the granularity and cardinality of the links: a word, a phrase, an expression, even a sentence, can refer to links that visitors cannot know if they have seen or not. Perec's text appears then as a theme on which a musician might improvise.

Tentative d'épuisement de Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien de Georges Perec manages to pull off the hypertextual adaptation of a literary constraint with a device conducive to exploration, and it establishes the author as one who knows how to compose with links.

1 : Georges Perec, Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien, Christian Bourgois, 1975 (republished in 1982 and 2003).  

2 : As opposed to Je me souviens de Je me souviens de Georges Perec, most of the links of which point to pages within Désordre.  

3 : I borrow, here, from Medieval distinctions, as defined by Barthes, between scriptor, autor, commentator and lector.
(See Barthes, Critique et Vérité, 1966).  

Isabelle Escolin-Contensou
(Translated from French by Ron Ross)


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