Why Anomalies?

My interest in the curious moments can be most accurately depicted by two incidents (which both, accidentally, are related to my wedding over 20 years ago). 

My friends organized a beautiful bachelorette party for me. The participants traveled to a small island by bus and boat, and spent a night making a bunch of traditional rituals needed to achieve a good marriage. My last task was to walk blindfolded through “Jatulintarha”, a round-shaped maze made of stones. My friend told me that I would see my fiancé in the center of the maze once I would get there. Instead of being present in the experience I spent all the walk pondering how I should behave once I reached the center. I really wanted my friends to notice how much I appreciated their efforts and our time together, so I did not want to let them down. Should I pretend to see my fiancé as a mirage, or what would I do?

The surprise was tremendous once the blindfold was undressed: in front of me stood my fiancé, in person. I did not have any idea that my friends could have planned to bring him there, because of the long trip. I had such a strong preconception of the nature and content of the “play” that the deconstruction of it was really a striking experience. The “play” turned out to be real, the words of my friend concrete instead of metaphorical. The other experience was a full-blooded prank, very revealing as such:

In a game played at our wedding party I had to try to recognize the legs of my brand new husband from some other men’s legs. I had to make this blindfolded, by feeling. The task was easy, I was very soon positive that I recognized my husband’s legs, and I exclaimed it in a very certain voice. After a while I got permission to undress the blindfold, still on my knees on the floor. I looked up, and saw my husband’s father standing in front of me. I could not understand, how could I mistake them (of course, how it happened, was that they had silently changed their places after I announced my selection). 

The prank was simple, but in the situation it was really expressive: wedding party as a peak of romantic relationship, he becoming my father-in-law, I kneeling on the floor. The prank played with many taboos of sexual and familial relationships. And, of course, it was fun. Both of the experiences were so striking because of the sudden failing of strong preconceptions. At those (and similar) moments I learned the possibilities dwelling in the illuminating power of the abrupt interruptions of the taken-for-granted, and decided to start to research this phenomenon.

The image below depicts the interrelated processes this project is based on. Everything starts from an unconventional event taking place in the familiar context. We tend to handle the familiar phenomena in a highly automated way (O’Brien 2017, 90) – which, of course, saves our energy for more demanding tasks, and for that reason is a positive force. On the other hand, the routinization can spread to such areas of life where it is not useful anymore (consider reading a story for a child: it really is possible to read without realizing what is happening in the book, compared to really experiencing the story together with the child / i.e. Leon Solomon’s and Gertrude Stein’s experiments on automatic reading / Langer 2017, 112). When life starts to feel far too routinized, we need something new: a holiday trip or a pair of designer shoes, perhaps. 


We humans have a huge classification system in our heads (O’Brien 2017, 19) which makes life much easier and saves time, as we do not have to pay attention to every detail. On the other hand, again, pre-classifying can block from our vision the delicious variety of possibilities (which we often want to discover for example by traveling to other cultures). Confusion can be used as a constructive tool – when suddenly finding oneself in a situation a person does not thoroughly understand, it is possible to learn interesting things about oneself and the possible realities: “What if…the momentary reality I just experienced would become the actual?”

Confusion and uncertainty (provided spontaneously by the environment, or intentionally by a person) are fruitful starting points for perceiving the environment in a new way, because a distraction forces us to act creatively (O’Brien 2017, 90). “Not knowing” can have a mind-opening value in our information-filled world, forcing us to improvise. Giving us a glimpse of the abundance of possible worlds, it reminds us how volatile, constructed and strange our reality is. Why is this particular ”reality” ”real” compared to countless other possibilities? It is important to highlight the constructed nature of reality because by doing so it is possible to reveal the power everyone has to influence our shared reality. The unveiled possible realities can be imaginative, more fun/weird than our own (in the style of Alice in Wonderland) but as well concrete models of action: glimpses into non-capitalistic world and the possibility of generosity (gift economy), or unconventional social interaction. 

Situations which do not allow a person to use the routinized pattern of reaction include emergencies – for example nowadays unfortunately usual acts of violence at public places, which have terrible resemblance with André Breton in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” (Breton 1972, 125). These exceptional, horrific moments break the everyday reality too harshly, cutting themselves out of it by contrast which is far too abrupt. They cause us to be more suspicious and less curious – a lonely bag can include a bomb, or a funny looking young man can shoot you down after a moment. These fear-evoking, confusing situations can, of course, reveal to us many things about ourselves and the world at the moment, but they surely do not promote an active and curious relationship with the world, which this project is concerned with. 

Social norms are often not visible unless something goes wrong. The sociologist Harold Garfinkel made social breaching experiments in the 1960s with his students at the University of California, Los Angeles. These were organized situations, where the breachers intentionally “acted wrong” and interrupted the shared expectations of reality of the ignorant participants. (O’Brien 2017, 450-451). These breaches come near to artistic performances and pranks aiming to interrupt the normal. In the history of art, there has been a continuous interest in everyday life and techniques developed especially for creating disturbance into the familiar. Invisible theater is a good example of anomaly-provoking techniques. It was developed by the Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal as a part of the Theatre of the Oppressed approach, aiming to make social dilemmas visible and evoke discussion (Boal 2007 [1974], 143-147). The audience of an invisible performance does not know it is taking part in a theater play, so it is easy to provoke. Since it is impossible for the spectators to know who has caused the event or made the object, and for what reason, they cannot be sure whether it is ”real” or not. Reality is, thus, a question of definition: take the case of Pilvi Takala’s work The Trainee (2008), which created one kind of reality for several days. The artist raised eyebrows by playing a peculiarly behaving trainee in a large office house, and succeeded to question the expectations contemporary people often have about working and efficiency. She drove up and down in an elevator, and told everybody how movement improves her thinking. She sat on a table without a computer, answering to the worrying questions of her missing work computer that everything is fine, she is just doing thinking work. Another example could be Ahmet Ögüt’s Hitchhiking General (2008), a performative work implemented in Sweden. A performer dressed up in a Swedish general’s uniform was hitchhiking on the roadside. He had two small Swedish flags with him, and if somebody agreed to give him a lift he mounted the flags on the front bonnet in the way of the official state cars. Other examples could include The Yes Men’s media interventions, or the collective pranks of Improv Everywhere. These events have been (at least momentarily) reality to the people who encountered them, evoking thoughts of the performative nature of every act in our shared reality. 

Central meta-method (or attitude) utilized in the above-mentioned works is defamiliarization (estrangement). Russian author Viktor Shklovsky considered art as a method for seeing the everyday objects anew our minds have over time habitually packed to symbols. Art makes things difficult and brings them into our attention, which forces us to take a fresh look at them. Shklovsky wrote in 1917: “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Morson 2006, 216). By using defamiliarization, it is possible to shift the marveling and questioning attitude we have towards unfamiliar to our familiar environment, which helps us to see the emerging possibilities. 

Everyday life can be seen as a bricolage built out of different, often unmatching pieces of behaviors and attitudes. This technique is involved in making new combinations out of found material, like is the case with everyday life, both at the cognitive and material levels. Beliefs and behaviors are readymades, as are all the physical things surrounding us. Our role is to try and combine these elements in the quest for transforming our lives into unique, meaningful “pieces of art”. Situationist détournement is a cunning, powerful bricolage-like technique used as an inspiration in this project. It functions by separating issues from their usual contexts and reconnecting them to form new combinations, thus questioning effectively our accustomed ways of seeing and understanding them (i.e. the anti-ad approach, which alters the messages of ads by retouching their texts and/or images). (Pyhtilä 2005, 59-66.) The anomalous acts made in this project honor the tradition of bricolage and readymade. I call this bricolage activity taking place in the everyday environment reality tinkering, because when making lifelike art in the “real world”, one inevitably affects the shared reality.

Alongside, the theoretical sources utilized here form a bricolage of their own: because the environment of the anomalies is formed of the everyday, human mind and society, I have to consult the ideas of various writers and disciplines (mostly from the areas of social psychology, philosophy and cultural studies). My education and the scope of this research do not allow me to dive very deep into all of the ideas, but introducing them is important for understanding the functioning and context of anomalies. The result is a bricolage of inspiring contents: not complete, but hopefully thought-provoking.