Working on a collaboration puts you in the unenviable position of being able to interrogate yourselves. Nathan Penlington and Sarah Lester, the writers of Burning Eye’s part-poetry, part-documentary book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London, ask each other questions and demand the answers.
Sarah: What did you hope to achieve by writing this?
Nathan: To me the idea of celebrating the documenting of what was essentially a series of insignificant events was hugely appealing. I wanted to capture the spirit of urban life now in the 21st century, document those tiny moments that make up our lives but to which we pay no attention. It is easy to miss the tenderness, humour, absurdity and feeling in a city because everything moves so fast. More than anything I hope the book will encourage readers to sometimes slow down and observe their immediate environment. That is where the real life is.
Sarah: Were you not tempted to use photographs instead of writing? Is writing the best medium?
Nathan: Documentary photography certainly has its place, but I think it would flatten the life out of the square to present 5000 photographs of a weekend. We all take hundreds of photographs we never really look at, we are all presented with thousands of images every day that we never really pay attention to. Writing is an act of resistance and transformation, the power is in the way the words direct attention. For example – there is poetry in the flow of buses as text that wouldn’t exist in image. But image also has power – in commissioning artists to capture the life of the square they have also transformed the ordinary into something special.
Sarah: How do you think our accounts match up?
Nathan: I think the dual accounts are one of the unique parts of the book, the fact that what we see is not the same as what we choose to see is made very clear. I love the overlaps and deviations in the sections in which we are documenting the same moment, it adds another layer of life to the events, a dynamism that occurs through the simultaneity. We live in a world in which we are constantly presented with multiple streams of information, it was only right to apply that to ‘An Attempt…’.
Sarah: Who do you think has the best line in the book? Be honest.
Nathan: That’s not really a fair question! I’d have to be a bit of a dick to say one of mine. I would really like to think it is not about best lines but about the accumulative effect of moment after moment, word after word. But to answer your question, I think you do. Honestly. There are so many great images that you’ve captured/created it is hard to choose, but my favourite line at this moment in time for its evocativeness is: “Two very old women. Could be mother and daughter, or friends. They are both holding on to a shopping trolley as if it is an IV stand”.
Sarah: If someone was going to replicate this experiment in 40 years’ time where would you like it to be done?
Nathan: I think you’d have to take into account physical presence in a virtual sense, in a way that in 2015 isn’t relevant. Perhaps actual physical moments will more important to catalogue, even if more interactions happen in an environment that is electronic. Maybe each individual would experience a different space – I might be bombarded with the equivalent of Brad Pitt, while you might be swamped with Prad Bitt’s latest 360° film. But where would I like it to be done? Somewhere like Tokyo would be really interesting. In fact, if it wasn’t Hackney, Tokyo would’ve been my second choice.
Nathan: Do you think any of the Hackney locals were aware of what you were doing as you were writing?
Sarah: I was typing directly onto my laptop so I felt pretty inconspicuous most of the time. I did feel slightly creepy a couple of times when I caught myself staring at people for too long or following them with my eyes across the square, but on the whole people are too absorbed in their own world to notice. In fact, the only time a passer-by made eye contact with me was actually a really nice moment and it is recorded in the book. I was writing about a man who had a strange gait, which is later explained by the fact he has a child pulling on each arm. As I was writing about him he turned around and smiled at me. He helped me to finish my sentence with a positive ending so I was really grateful to him!
Nathan: What I’ve found most interesting in this process is that you come to writing from a different route to me, can you explain your background?
Sarah: I used to work as an assistant editor for a magazine called The Journal of Wild Culture where we were told, within reason, that we had pretty much free rein over what we could write. Essays, interviews, personal pieces and so on. Although I’m not sure how much discipline working in that kind of environment gave me. Before that I was at Goldsmiths where I was studying for an MA in Anthropology and Cultural Politics. There is probably more overlap with An Attempt and what I did there. For one assignment I wrote an ethnography of a non-place (a phrase conceptualised by the French anthropologist Marc Augé). I described a journey from the Tescos on Bishopsgate across to the concourse of Liverpool St. Station and, even though I can’t have covered more than 50 metres I remember laughing to myself as I was doing it about how absurd the world is when it’s put under that kind of scrutiny. Just the sheer information overload, for one. I’ve thought for a long time that it would be interesting to develop that piece into a series of ethnographies of non-places around London or the world perhaps.
Nathan: What line in the book do you think captures Hackney the most? Either of yours or mine?
Sarah: “A smartly dressed man with a shopping trolley holds the door of the phone box open for the next person in line – some kind of art exhibition? A miniature gallery?”
I’ve been magnanimous and chosen one of yours.
Nathan: I know you don’t have much experience reading in front of an audience as me, did you feel forced a little in that regard? How was the launch for you?
Sarah: I love performance generally, but I hate public speaking myself. Mainly because I go red easily and quickly lose control of what I’m saying if I’m not careful. Even if I’m speaking coherently, in my head I am making no sense. Still, I didn’t feel forced to read at the launch because it was something I really wanted to do. I was interested in how it would work onstage, and wanted to see how people would respond to it. Obviously I was completely terrified, and I still think I could have done better, but I’m really glad we did it. It definitely helped to have the accordion players from outside Boots as a warm up act.
Nathan: How do you feel about the project now it is a finished book and in people’s hands?
Sarah: I’m very happy about it! Initially I was really tempted to start tampering with my account, to try and make it more polished and insightful and replete with wry observations. My vanity was taunting me and telling me I should improve what I’d written, but I had to remain loyal to the project and not think about my ego too much. It was really counter-intuitive to not spend ages on the editing process, but I finally came round to the idea that we had to remain true to the account as we observed it. I have enough faith in the book to stand by that decision now. I’ve met three out of four of the illustrators and they’ve all been amazing in their enthusiasm and contributions to the project. Someone said to me at the launch “I just want to go out and pay more attention now” and that one sentiment made me think that the whole thing had been worthwhile.
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London is available now: