Copyright 2007-2019
Built with Indexhibit

Scenarios for going private (2016)


Someone once said to me that one-to-one communication modes, when the “I” addresses a single “you”, are the absolutely most boring. It was spoken not as an opinion, but a matter of fact. This person was a professor of semiotics, and also the man in charge of the seminar I was attending. Afterwards I had to go home and think about it for a very long time. And I think I disagree. Most of the things I do and what interests me are items of letter-writing and telephone calls, eavesdropping, speaking to strangers, laughing in improper places.
*
So, instead of a mass or crowd, can we consider the public as a chain? Like hearsay and Chinese whispers, how every time we tell something, the construct changes. You tell something different than I, but I also tell things different from myself. Thoughts and stories, though my own, adapt to circumstance. My favorite poet says that all ideas and descriptions, though embarrassing and inadequate, have participatory value. Your own failures can still, if shared, be rethought by someone else. I'm going to tell you a story I've told many times over the past few months. I've told it in tutorials, over tea with friends, I've told it drunk, tired, laughing, anxious and confused, so naturally none of the stories align, but I think them all as equally valid. This is a story of a book, a philosopher named Olav and myself. Maybe it's a story about description.
*
Since November 2014, I’ve been tanning the pages of a book, a collection of poetry. I’ve tried several methods, leaving it out in the sun, in the window, going to the tanning salon. It’s always open on the same two pages. The paper gradually bleaches and the ink, when exposed to UV-rays, fades. It's mostly just “a thing that I do”, but I thought that it at one point would turn into a work, or reveal itself as a work, by which I mean as something that could also allow for others to imagine things, that could hold some meaning for other people than myself.
*
When we were asked to do “scenarios for going public”, my initial reaction was that I would create a project where I took this “thing that I do”, and somehow got help to make it into a work. I thought that if I could get someone else to simply describe it as a “something”, in their own words, it would already be verified. I told myself that this person should be some kind of authoritative figure, but it didn't really matter if they were artists, or connected to the art field. I didn't need it to be described as good, or even as art. It just needed a description in order to properly exist. I found Olav on the University of Oslo web pages. He's the leader of a research center called The Study of Mind in Nature. His main field of interest is mature action and defective agency. Meaning, he is concerned with negating the idea that belief and desire are the cause of our actions. He looks kind. He's born in 1966, turning 60 this summer, just short of a year older than my father. I show his picture to Dora, and she tells me how I'm beginning to resemble the women from screwball comedies, you know, the crazy but intriguing whimsical femme leading an innocent nerdy guy into pointless trouble. I rent Bringing up Baby from the library and watch it in bed on my laptop. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant are running around with a disoriented stumbling baby leopard, and I think Dora must have gotten it all wrong, out of all of them it's the cat I relate to the most. I play the last half of it without sound and with my notebook pressed against a pillow I begin formulating a letter. Dear Olav. It's difficult to decide on how much I should play into the erotics of it all. Why does attempts of communication always have to have the air of romance? Is it like this for everyone?
*
In early March I send him a package. It contains the book, open on pages 34-35, and a short letter, signed only Miriam. A week later, I phone him at his of fice. He picks up on the first ring. I tell him my name, and ask if he has received a package the past week. “No,” he responds. “No?” I hold my breath, my mind racing through the possibilities. “No package. But I did receive a book. It had a note on it, instructing me to place it near a window, where it could get sunlight.” “And did you?” “Yes, but my window faces north, so I'm afraid it won't get much sun.” I can't contain myself so I start laughing and assure him it's fine, no worries. We agree to meet the week after, at his office, for a talk. Before we hang up, I ask him if he thought it was a strange thing, receiving a book like that. He says “I didn't think much of it. I just did what the note said.” Excitement turns to anxiousness and back. I do feel happy, somehow, and I have a nice time spending the following week imagining his of fice, the book almost acting as a telepathic spy device, allowing my day-dreams to occupy a new and unfamiliar space. It's rewarding, but what scares me is that I'm doing this purely for my own pleasure. I realize that I always imagined the receiver would be intrigued by the sudden appearance of a small book, especially a book which seems to be preoccupied with it's own business, not so eager to communicate. A thing to watch or just be around. Like a cat. But what if Olav doesn't like cats? What if Olav likes clean communication, likes to be asked things properly, likes topics and specificity?
*
When we meet, we talk for a long time. I take the elevator up to the fifth floor, and walk down a long corridor. His office is smaller than I imagined, but the bookshelves stretch across the whole wall on each side of the room. I spot some old friends, and think to myself that my book has been kept in good company. Olav asks me to sit down. He's polite, reserved, and seems genuinely kind. I get the feeling he's a bit confused and I feel sorry for him, but I'm at loss for how to make it better. I try to pry him for clues as to how he has been affected by my intrusion into his life, but he seems strangely unable of or uninterested in wondering. The closest I get to an answer is at one point when he says: “As a philosopher, you could of course spend your time contemplating your of fice chair, but that would get in the way of you doing what you need to do, right, which is to sit on it and do your work.”
*
I just want to ask him questions, but he seems more interested in making sense of what it is I want to convey, and whether or not I've succeeded in communicating it. He strikes me as very practical and goaloriented. I think it is important for him, personally, to get his ideas across, and so by default he attributes that same desire to me. He tells me, in a very polite manner, that showing someone a poem midway does not make that person interested in reading the whole thing. It's a flawed strategy, and should therefore be discarded. I try to say I'm not interested in sending someone a poem, necessarily, as it seems to much like a puzzle or some other interpretive game where your aim is to locate the message. I try to ask him if its possible to consider that I didn't send the book as a means of telling something, but rather to see if something could happen, myself unsure of what - but open to all possibilities?
*
He thinks for a while, then he says he's just confused about where the art is, just here. I say I don't know either. I say that for me, doing that thing, purposefully placing a book in the sun, it makes me think of certain things. About reading, about care, about mobility. And I tried to think of a way to introduce him to that, but in a way that would allow him to act alone, and make his own reflections. And as a strategy maybe it's flawed, but I had hopes that it would give him some joy, or excitement. Then I think of something my mother always says, and to make Olav feel better I decide to tell him he's right. I say my mother is always giving me these self-taught psychoanalyst readings on how I act, and she tells me I have a defense mechanism so that when I want to communicate something that matters to me, I subconsciously cloud or confuse what I say, to the point where it no longer makes sense. She says it's because I'm scared of giving things away. I look out the window, and when I look back at Olav, I can tell that this information did not make him feel better at all. On the contrary, he's staring at me intently with a worried frown, tilting slightly towards me in his chair. He begins to apologize. “I did not mean to upset you,” he says. He must think I admitted something very private to him, just now. I don't know what I can say, so I just shake my head and smile. I imagine box-laughter off screen. We sit quiet for a little while, and then, as a peace offering, he tells me a story about his friend, a poet. They were study buddies at Oxford, many years ago, and one time they were going out for supper, Olav had gone over to Robert's room to pick him up. When his friend opened the door, he was completely frantic, the room behind him a mess, papers and books scattered everywhere. He told Olav he had misplaced 40 pages of poems, and it was absolutely crucial that they found them before doing anything else, as Robert simply could not eat without knowing they were safe. Poets, Olav says to me with a small wink, they're always writing poetry, constantly producing pages, so it's understandably difficult for them to manage where it all goes. They searched the entire room until they finally found them, under a chair, and then they went out to eat, both feeling very happy.
*
Olav tells me that one of his friend's books has been translated to Norwegian. Spirit machines, it's called, a reference to computers. When we say goodbye shortly after, I collect the book from the window sill and close it before putting it in my backpack. I go by metro to the library and ask if they have a poetry collection by Robert Crawford. They get it for me from the basement storage. It's small and green, 80 pages long. The paper has begun to darken, turning ash brown around the edges. I read it on the bus home, feeling happy, but also some other things that are still not easily reflected on or distinguished from one another.