“I Want to Get Out!” – Supermarkets as Non-Places

While browsing a shopping aisle in a Tesco supermarket some time back I witnessed a young child sat in the constrictive rear-facing child seat of a shopping trolley. I would have passed little notice of this regular occurrence had the child not been in some consternation as to its current predicament. The young fair-haired boy wailed repeatedly at the top of his voice, to the pained facial expression demonstrating his busy mother’s exacerbated patience “I want to get out!”

It may have been the fact that I was on the way to the Electric Picnic music festival with my girlfriend, full of anticipation for impending youthful whimsy and unsolicited feelings of freedom from the rat-race for a weekend at least, but the repetition of the phrase, and in particular the context of uttering “I want to get out!” repeatedly in the anti-labyrinthine supermarket geography made me turn and muse whimsically to my better half, “Is that not the perfect social statement?”

It amused me to picture a whinging child trapped in reverse inside the floating capsule of the unsteerable supermarket trolley making a statement for the youth of today; one simple phrase that defined to me not just the supermarket experience, but the experience of living within a consumer-driven contemporary culture that is failing our youth.

“I want to get out!”

I was reminded of a wonderful ethnology book that I read several years ago, and subsequently based an art project on (which is the source of the lead image for this post), named Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity by ethnologist and anthropologist Marc Augé.

Rest assured that with a title like that you are not putting yourself in for an easy read, but it is a profound and fascinating study nonetheless and I can only highly recommend the book and other writings by the deep-thinking French observer. The book is an in-depth analysis of a phenomenon that the author coins “Non-places”. The theory is well constructed and the explanation long-winded, including investigations into our notions of time, philosophy, anthropology and place.

Essentially (and bluntly) a non-place is a space that contains no inherent identity or memory for the person or people who are interacting with it. It is instead just a functional space that is passed through and leaves as little of a historical imprint on the mind as the one that was offered from it on first entering the non-place. One example is barely different from another; Augé points out that when you take off from one airport it can regularly feel like you have just landed in the same one – getting from A to A as it were. To qualify as a non-place, a space must not have any reason to be remembered, either before or after a current visit – it must be functional only and have all other aspects a secondary nature. Examples include hotel rooms, ATM machines, motorways and supermarkets.

Which returns me to the original point. Anecdotal social observations on supermarkets are few and far-between. People tend to avoid thinking about these mundane places as much as possible, unless a shopping excursion is necessary. Here is a brief list of casual observations on supermarkets:

  • The layouts are designed to assist the shopper in emptying their coin-purse
  • The crude lack of decoration is glaring, the ceilings and floors are always industrial to a fault
  • The closest thing to an artistic touch is the bright yellow and red discount signs or the photographs of smiling managers held against their will for shaming public snaps
  • The aisles are straight and uniform, designed for a quick in-out

The underpaid and thus uninterested staff simply langour, and often do not communicate at all – If you are paying by VISA the machine tells the customer what to do – ENTER PIN…PLEASE WAIT…REMOVE CARD. A thank you is usually the height of the conversation between the living creature behind the counter and the shopper who is determined to leave this unwelcoming place as fast as possible.

There are rules of supermarket etiquette too – don’t shop on an empty stomach. Make a list if possible. Shop in the correct order (doubling back for bread that you forgot can result in shopping-trolly jams and all sorts of shopper uncertainty. Also, only buy a discount item if it compares to something that you were already looking for, etc. And, as Eddie Izzard observes (see video link at the end of this post), we are all experts in contemporary supermarket theory.

One of the rules that does not get mentioned very often is an odd one that I have discovered – do not stop moving in a busy supermarket. This causes an atrocious amount of confusion and social ostracism. Stand in an aisle not looking at any product on the shelves with keen eyes and see how long it takes before someone shoots you an awry look. Another unspoken rule is “do not take photographs in a supermarket” – one which I have politely ignored on many occasions and have yet to be pulled on. A good example of what can potentially happen in this instance is below – a pre-Christmas shot taken by a friend Aaron.

Photo by Aaron Robinson, taken from Broadsheet.ie

It’s a bit moot, I know, but I love it. Supermarkets are a fascinating cultural anomale that are a focal feature of late-20th Century capitalism, and for this reason they are a wonderful scourge on our existence. Although this point can be further explored under the concepts of globalisation or free market trade, that debate is for another post perhaps. The main point here is that the observation of supermarkets as non-places could potentially create a sense of place in individual supermarkets. If there was something unique and individual about one supermarket that made it stand out, it could potentially achieve a sense of place. Herein lies the possible value of having art on-site; an artistic input of any kind could give a supermarket a different image; something to remember or view, and something to separate it from other members of the same chain. But public art in a supermarket would also slow the movement of shoppers, which, at the end of the day, is contrary to the goal of these non-places.

At the end of all this, I can still rarely shop in a supermarket these days without thinking to myself “I want to get out!”

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