Anomalous Acts & Occurrences

In the canteen I choose a mixed salad, which has some dark, round lumps in it. Black olives, I think. When I bite one, a completely wrong taste spreads into my mouth: it was not an olive at all, but a grape.
(“Salad Surprise”, a story from the Everyday Anomaly Archive)

It has just been snowing for the first time for the winter. I have a hyperactive puppy dog at home. I come home from school, open the front door and wonder how it is possible that there is snow inside, too. After a moment I understand that the white fluff is the filling from my pillow and blanket, which the dog has ripped to pieces.
(“Snow Everywhere”, a story from the Everyday Anomaly Archive)

Everyday anomalies are fleeting curious events, taking place in the middle of the familiar flow of everyday life. They are often experienced at a moment when routinized perceptive or cognitive patterns are disturbed by something different from the usual. An anomaly causes the experiencer to pause for a moment when things do not proceed in the way s/he expected. Anomalies can be spontaneously born in the environment or as perception of the person experiencing them, or organized by a prankster or artist. The concept everyday anomaly has been coined by me during this research project, although when searching the concept on the Internet later on, I found also a poem collection by Anton Krueger (2011) and an art exhibition by Troy Coulterman (2013) bearing the name Everyday Anomalies. The concept anomalous experience is often used to refer to more dramatic experiences, like hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

In this dissertation I ask, what can be learnt about the familiar by paying attention to everyday anomalies? Familiar is something we already think we know, and because of that we do not bother to question it too often. The research topic emerged from a feeling that the familiar is far more complicated and marvellous than shown by its surface. The familiar, nevertheless, is not easy to scrutinize precisely because it is so near to us. I needed a tool for reaching the familiar, so I started to focus on the moments when familiarity momentarily breaks up. The anomalies offer something to grab on, and by focusing on their interruptive nature I could maybe see more clearly the familiar landscape these anomalies emerge from. The interest to focus on the familiar stemmed from anxiety towards contemporary life: is it really so, that to be satisfied we always have to get something new and exotic, although we already have so much everything around us? Would it be possible to really orientate one’s interest to the things which are already there, and how would that feel like?

Anomalies can be experienced only in a familiar environment. If everything would be strange, there would not be space for single, curious moments. I will scrutinize the research question from two viewpoints: experience (anomalous occurrences) and production (anomalous acts). I will figure out what kind of occurrences make people experience moments of confusion in order to find suitable ways to produce new anomalies. The two sides (experience and production) of everyday anomalies are not connected in a straightforward way. Producing anomalous acts requires precise perception and analysis of the familiar, exploring the ordinary by immersing oneself in it. On the contrary, experiencing anomalous occurrences suddenly interrupts the flow of familiar, illuminating the borders of (one’s own concept of) it. For a person working with anomalies, these experiences also help to find ideas for new anomalous acts. I have led the concepts of interruptive and immersive working strategies from Yuriko Saito’s classification of two kinds of tendencies in everyday aesthetics: 1) the will to defamiliarize the familiar and 2) to appreciate the familiar in itself (Saito 2017, 2-3). (C.f. chapter 4.2 for details.) In this research I am not interested in dramatic hallucinatory or religious experiences but concentrate on subtle interruptions of everyday experience. Many Fluxus artists and theorists I refer to are more or less connected to the approaches of Zen and mindfulness. Because I do not have a background in these meditative traditions I am not able to write about their practices. Nevertheless, the mindful state of being present is an experience every human can have. I occasionally refer to that experience, using the word presence, with which I mean aware existing in the surrounding environment.

Along with this written report, the dissertation project consists of 1) Everyday Anomaly Archive containing stories of anomalous occurrences experienced by the researcher and other people, 2) a series of artistic experiments planned and conducted on the basis of the information found by collecting anomalies and 3) practical thinking tools aiming to help to scrutinize the everyday and to produce new anomalies. All materials produced in the project can be found on the website 

Anomalous occurrences are sudden moments which can not be commissioned or ordered to emerge but which just happen in suitable situations. Kathleen Steward writes about ordinary affects, which are: “the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences.”(Steward 2007, 1-2). Ordinary affects can take various forms and evoke different emotions from pleasure to shock. What is common to them is the feeling that “[…] something is happening, something that needs attending to.” (Steward 2007, 5). Ordinary affects are events taking place as well in intimate and public spheres, occurring to us in unexpected manner. They can evoke strong feelings, or more contemplative experiences. In these situations, different forces, connections and disjunctures are active and visible (Steward 2007, 1). I have been inspired by the concept of ordinary affect because I recognize those kinds of events it describes. Those events I am thinking of 1) caught a person unexpectedly. The situation 2) demands the person to act or take a stance, and as a result 3) shows him something about his worldview or makes him evaluate afterwards his actions in the situation. Anomalies can work like this, but this kind of situations can also take place without the anomalous effect of confusion. So, everyday anomalies could maybe be seen as a subcategory of ordinary affects. Although they are often fleeting and insignificant, they are mysterious and demand interpretation from the person experiencing one.

One day we were out walking our dogs with my partner. Suddenly he noticed a swallow which was laying on the ground at the street curb. For some reason, even the dogs did not notice it. I had heard that the swallows can’t get on their wings from the ground so I suggested we would lift the bird on the roadside hedge so it could take off from there. There were no marks of injury in the bird, but it was passive, trying not to prevent us from lifting it. The bird could not grab the branches but instead fall inside the hedge. I remembered that there is a place in our town which takes care of injured wild animals. I found their phone number on the Internet, and called them. It was a late afternoon, and a person told me that they could not fetch the bird but if we could bring it to their premises they would take care of it. We were near home, and had our car parked in the yard. We did not have anything special to do, so we decided to take the swallow to the animal shelter. We packed the dogs in their car cage and set off. I drove and my partner kept the swallow in his large hands. The distance was about ten kilometres. Somewhere in the middle of our way the bird closed its eyes. We both were devastated. We did not want it to die now! At last, we arrived at the animal shelter. A member of personnel took the bird and said that it looks like everything is fine, the bird is just exhausted and thirsty. After it would gather some strength  they would let it back to nature. This was a small interlude, but it made us think about chance, possibilities, selection, responsibility, life and death. 

Another useful concept is reality slip introduced by Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor in their book Escape Attempts – the Theory and Practice of Resistance to Everyday Life (1976). They describe these as “moments in our life when we are suddenly overwhelmed by some force or spirit (whether internal or external) which leads to a re-evaluation of the nature of the world, society, or ourselves.” (Cohen & Taylor 1976, 155.) These experiences can emerge in various ways: they can be completely unpredictable or anticipated, or anything in-between (Cohen & Taylor 1976, 156-157). Extraordinary incidents can cause them, but as well the minor everyday issues (Cohen & Taylor 1976, 155.) What is common to all of them, is that they somehow make our current reality seem alien. I find the concept of reality slip fruitful when considering anomalies which often can cause the effect of seeing the world anew. Compared to the reality slips, anomalies have more ambiguous nature: some of them may unsettle the current reality, but others can offer only minor interludes, causing fun stories. Experiences near to reality slips have been described in literature by different names, for example: moment of being (Virginia Woolf), epiphany (James Joyce), memoire involontaire (Marcel Proust) and marvelous (Robert Desnos). 

The concept anomalous act refers to activity aiming to artificially create curious moments. I define anomalous acts as something, which:
1) do not follow the conventional behavioral scripts (but alter them)
2) are non-compulsory, playful (not plain survival)
3) are concrete acts (which often include symbolic meaning)
3) are easy to implement with the materials at hand in the familiar environment (without special skills or budgets)

The first criterion of being an anomalous act is that the activity somehow breaches the conventional behaviour scripts (a script is a mental model of an event or situation. It includes certain roles, as well as suitable attitudes and behavior for the ones acting in these roles (O’Brien 2017, 139). For example, the behavioral expectations differ noticeably between the roles of student and teacher), produces deviant objects or situates objects to surprising contexts. Conventionality clearly varies in different cultures and situations, and its limits have to be found anew in every project. There are many micro-cultures, where, for example, shearing sheep is ordinary everyday work, when for some others it would be highly exotic, even absurd activity. Similarly to a caricature drawing which is fun only if it is based on precise perception, and hyperboles exactly those features of the person which are already a bit deviant, a beautiful anomalous act is based on accurate analysis of the familiar environment it is smuggled in.

Secondly, the non-compulsory nature of the anomalous acts connects many of the activity classes they could be included in: play, games, pranks, art. These activities are mainly made for fun, or at least they are extra, something on top of necessity. Art is one class which includes this kind of activities, but definitely not the only one. There can also be unexpected behaviour originating, for example, from a health condition or distress, but that is a totally different case and outside the interests of this dissertation.

Thirdly, the acts have to be something concrete. I will write later (in chapter 6.2) about Fluxus event-score and the possibilities it brings to imagine the art piece instead of implementing it. I will present my anomalous acts in the form of event-score, but to be acts they have to be concretely implemented. That is the only way for someone to possibly experience them as anomalous occurrences, although when making anomalies it can never be secured that anybody will notice/experience them at all. The acts usually carry symbolic meaning which can be more or less fun/serious/political. Pranks are aimed to poke fun at the one who falls into the trap, and by doing so usually illuminate something of the situation and/or the person. Anomalous acts can resemble pranks as well as conceptual art projects – the variety is wide.

The fourth feature is the ease of implementation. If the pieces are made as “art”, the art status has to be hidden in order to gain the effect of surprise. Contemporary people are widely aware that anything weird can be art, so it would offer far too easy explanation to the mystery. There is obviously no reason why these kinds of acts could not be made with a large budget (which could indeed generate a really impressive outcome), but that is not a precondition. In order to be disguised in the fabric of familiar, they often have to be or resemble the everyday objects which encourages to use familiar materials.