Serendipity under Surveillance

kioski w hrubieszowie

Kiosks in Hrubieszów, Poland

Ever since I first moved to Poland, I have been interested in the stories I hear and the films and series I see concerning Poland during the Soviet era, such as collecting whatever paper one could find and delivering it to the paper shop (and I mean paper, not newspaper) in exchange for rolls of toilet paper – which were in short supply. One returned home with one’s new, rough, cheap rolls of toilet paper tied together on a string, and hung around one’s neck like some kind of rosary.

I had the idea for this post after completing the above image, a period during which I begin to understand just what it is that I have done. There is this classical dream that one has an idea, which one beats into submission before finally presenting the final product to one’s public – after which observers can be learned in expressing on what the author has done. Real life is never like that, we just pretend it is to avoid thinking about all that we do not know or understand. How could we trust experts if we thought too much about all the things they do not understand?

So reality says that this picture was more like a knot in my thoughts as they progress between birth and death, a knot consisting of the things that I understand and those that I do not. It is also possible that I will die without fully understanding what I have done here. To make all this a bit clearer, let’s consider some philosophy that I keep in my back pocket.

We often talk of two categories of knowledge, the things that we:

  • know (my name is …)
  • do not know (your name is…)

This is a bit simplistic, and does not come close to describing our experience, so I have pushed this out to another layer. These are the things that we:

  • know that we know (my name is…)
  • know that we do not know (your name is…)
  • do not know that we know (oh, I had forgotten all about him!)
  • do not know that we do not know

It is the last of these that most people spend most of their time pretending does not exist, and yet it is by far the largest group. Neolithic man did not know that they did not know that atoms exist as a combination of protons, neutrons and electrons. Yet if our lives seem somewhat random, this is partly due to insufficient planning but also due to the things that we did not know that we did not know going ahead and happening anyway.

When I worked on this picture the original photo I used for the background was already several years old, so the exact circumstances and the surroundings were a combination of those things forgotten entirely and those forgotten until something re-triggered the memory. Once I started work on the image there were things I found there that I was not even aware of. These were those things I did not know that I did not know: the camera faithfully rendered everything that it saw, even the things I did not even cast my eye over. There were many things working to distract and attract my attention at the time; it was, after all, a corner of a town center on a saturday lunchtime. What I returned with was a mish-mash of experience conditioned by those experiences, very little of which I could have predicted when we set out that morning.

Well, other than the difficulty in finding lunch in small-town Poland.

At the time I just wanted to photograph those kiosks, as I could see then that they would not last – and indeed the next time we visited they were already gone, and a metal fence lined the street instead. I had no plans beyond scanning in the picture to put it on my website then store the print in an album to be enjoyed again later. Using the photo in the way I have here was an unknown: and yet I had already taken the first steps toward creating this image by taking the photograph.

What I mean is that we cannot fully understand what we do now, what we did in the past or what we will do in the future. All we can do is view something in the present, and then evaluate it by what we know now. This means that every time I look at this picture I understand it as the sum of all the things I have learned until that point, minus everything that I have forgotten. Every time I view it I am a different sum of what I know.

It is all a form of serendipity, rather than concrete conclusions resulting from our surveillance.


About trevorbutcher

My art is what gets me thinking, and living in eastern Poland gives me more than enough to think about. I generally edit photographs into works of art, a medium I chose through practicality - I don't have to lug heavy thing around with me to do art, and I can still start with a notebook and pencil - or back of a used envelope and pen. My tool of choice is the kind of camera you might take with you on holiday, it only needs to be easy to carry and gather a composition with suitable lighting. Detail is not important, that's the part I deal with, the camera is just a convenient, full colour sketching device. And that is it - well, other than the 20+ hours of toil over a hot computer to produce that final, exhibition quality image.

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