Anna Szaflarski is a Canadian visual artist and writer. She is a founding member of the Berlin publishing house AKV, editing publications concerning the gap between image and text, experimental journalism, urban semiotics, practices of appropriation of space and knowledge, investigative documentations and arguments with archives and biographies. Her most recent project Letters to the Editors is a bi-weekly publication featuring her own texts and submissions by a wide range of contributing artists, writers, curators and amateurs. Letters to the Editors is published by BOM DIA BOA TARDE BOA NOITE and AKV Berlin.
I am an object of humble means. I did not ask for the things that happened to me, I did not invite them nor did I entice them. Perhaps it is futile to ask you to see me differently then you already do, but I implore you to see me for what I truly am.
Like you, I am made up of many materials. Those materials are made up of many components, and those components can be split, categorized and named. Arguably, I could be dissected in this manner into the invisible, the metaphysical, the theoretical and finally into the realms of the unknown. Nevertheless, I think it would make more sense to begin by telling you that I was given my visible compounded form by a Producer named Alexander. He had a workshop in the wooded outskirts of the city. He had lovely hands covered in thick calluses. He had machines that could melt, cut and bind. Some were mechanical, others automatized and were directed by commands comprised purely in numbers. I tell you this to emphasize that my shape was not given to me willy-nilly, it was done consciously and accurately. But Alexander did not work alone, he had a workshop full of Implementers. These men and women would arrive early and drink a lot of coffee throughout the day. They talked about work and at times I was passively if not directly mentioned in these conversations. But they also talked about sporting results, parties and people they found attractive and sometimes copulated with. Many of them smoked cigarettes.
As head of the workshop, I considered Alexander my Viktor Frankenstein. He gathered the disparate components from all over the world—milled, shaped, pre-welded, pre-treated, packaged, shipped and delivered. They were then adapted and modified, combined and hybridized to give me shape and arguably life.
During the construction process the Implementers called me many things. I tried to use these names as a mirror in an attempt to better understand myself, but some designations were less helpful than others. They called me things like The Frame, The Hatch, The Rounded Contraption, The Folding Block. These gave me a vague sense of not only my appearance but also my versatility and movement. I was also referred to by other names which were more elusive in meaning: The Three Piece Suit, The Landmine, The Bear Trap, The Junk, The Art Stuff, The Artist’s Junk. The names themselves became an independent game and each day the assistants became increasingly vulgar perhaps apathetic, calling me: The Rump Dump, The Snatch, The Fucking Shit, The Damned Crap. And yet, the brutality shown towards me eventually subsided as Alexander and the Implementers approached completion. They spoke gradually with greater satisfaction and patted each other’s backs. They took pictures of me and sent it to their loved ones.
In this final phase the Implementers narrowed their eyes on me and moved slowly. They prodded me with hand-held tools adding and removing small pieces. I was gripped carefully, flipped, and turned, padded and caressed with brushes. They consulted mysterious printed pieces of paper. They were letters from the Conceiver. These printed directions were evidently less empirical than the binary codes the automatic machines had been given, and evidently left room for interpretation. The assistants questioned the intentions of the Conceiver. They claimed that the Conceiver had no idea how this or that material behaved. They argued how the same effect could have been reached by other means. They vigorously agreed with each other but the letters clearly functioned as commands not correspondence, and so, their criticisms were ignored. How much of the Implementer’s impudence affected my final form was unclear.
I would have never fathomed to keep this general shape for such a long time afterward; long after Alexander and the Implementers returned into mud or dust. If Alexander were alive today, probably only he would be able to notice the gradual changes that time has marked me with.
They packed me in foam and cardboard: my travel companions, body guards and cellmates for years to come. In their insulating embrace, I was placed aside, and I thought that I—the strange amalgam—had found my final resting place in the world.
Early one Monday morning the Implementers were met with Alexander’s barking commands. The loading bay doors rattled open. I assumed that more components, raw materials were arriving, that soon I’d eavesdrop on the negotiations of the how’s, when’s, and finally why’s of building the next composites. Instead, I was jostled into movement. This time not by Alexander or one of his assistants, but by a stranger. I was hoisted into a dolly, tilted to the side and shoved into a bumbling vehicle. The engine was running and it seemed departure was pressing. The bay door rolled downwards, and I rolled down the road. Nothing could have prepared me for this turn of events. I would never see Alexander again.
The vehicle bumped along for days, stopping in quiet parking lots for hours in the night. During the day we stopped often with the engine left running. Paper forms were signed in triplicate and the container trailer was loaded. Boxes, crates, beams, mountains of bubble wrap were strapped down, stacked and wedged together until the trailer was completely full. When the door of the container rolled upwards on the fifth day I wanted to protest, but again I misunderstood the immanent events. We were being pulled out one by one. I was one of the last, carried out by two individuals who waddled like ducks. They placed me clumsily on the ground some fifty paces from the truck. I had no idea where I was, still swaddled in Alexander’s protective blankets of foam and paper, the sounds around me were dampened and my view shrouded. I sat there untouched for days.
Touch became a rare experience for me. I soon learned that a very confusing social etiquette applied to my being, most perplexing was that it was not performed by all people, but most and was not performed at all times but most. When I was unpacked a few days later I was treated like a medieval queen: helped manually by Positioners out of my casing, but once prepared and properly primed I was treated like a divine being, placed in the centre of a room and illuminated by a glowing halo of lights. A physical boundary wasn’t made around me but when a day later an unexpectedly large crowd surrounded me they were held back by what I could only describe as a mysterious force-field. I watched as chairs, bars, wine glasses, earrings and hair clips were constantly fondled with. I was ignored and those who dared to gaze at me longer than a moment appeared lonely and yet kept their distance. Wine swayed back and forth as they held their glass vessels close to their hearts.
My Conceiver arrived. I recognized him from before. I had mistaken him for one of the Positioners because he had been there with the Positioners a day earlier. But I should have suspected that he was somehow different as he stayed with me longer than the others. He shifted my position every few minutes and stared at me as he bit his nails nervously. In the crowd I could identify him only when he pointed at me from across the room and said, “that’s mine there.” I was his. I wondered immediately if that meant he was also mine? I remembered how the Implementers spoke about reciprocation and wondered if such arrangements applied to things like myself.
Eventually the Conceiver floated across the room luring two people behind him. They asked the Conceiver to explain “The Work”, to them. I was delighted. He grinned and began to tell a story about a far off place and a distant time. About a peculiar image he found on an immense database that was accessible to all people. This reminded him of something he had seen while travelling as a young boy. In this land there were apparently men and women who spoke a peculiar language, and as a by-product of their traditions left even more peculiar markings on the ground. The Conceiver drew his small finger out and reached towards me. He almost touched me, but did not. Instead he indicated to a small relief on my surface. His companion’s mouths gaped in awe. In that moment something invisible became visible.
I learned very quickly that his companions were Grubstakers and are particularly interested in the invisible. They have an insatiable desire to own things that they believe can create it. The potential value or capital of the invisible grows out of an incredible tension between those who are blind and those who have the ability to see what was before unseen. In the workshop, speech had been used to describe my shape, or my shape was used indirectly to project the desires or frustrations of the Implementers. But the Conceiver behaved differently. By pointing and explaining to something that was not part of my physical being but above or in front of it, the physical work of Alexander’s calloused hands became secondary; just a frame to carry a magical cloak. And in that moment, I felt I knew what it meant to be naked.
I stayed in that room for months. It had large white walls. A few other composites were in the room but a significant distance was kept between us. At the end of a long hall there were windows. Passers-by flickered a thin slice of light. In the mornings and evenings I stood in the shadows imagining I was the one moving, making the light dance. Administrators would walk through one door, exiting through another. Phones rang and fingers clicked on almost silent apparatuses. A Tidier came every so often to rub the floor with a large rectangular cloth. And sometimes the Curious would come.
The Curious entered cautiously, often alone or in pairs. They were anxious and without fail searched for a stack of paper that was on the window sill. They gained their composure by reading the messages on the paper. I imagined they read something like: Be Calm, or, You Are In A Safe Place, because after a few moments of reading the paper the Curious seemed more composed, and with paper still in hand began to explore the rooms. This new found security was precarious however because when confronting one of the composites the Curious needed their foothold again and would bow their heads to the papers. One day a Curious stood no further than a meter from me, her face turned downwards to the paper. Then she looked at me briefly. She pivoted on one foot to go. She halted. She turned back. She looked at the paper. She turned the paper over as if looking for some missing message. She looked at me again. Approached. Looked around the room before reaching out and tapped me with her finger nail. Her lips and eyelids tensed as if something unknown had been determined. She then retracted. Exhaled. Folded the paper into her purse, took out her phone, captured an image and walked away. This was the most intimate encounter that I have had with a Curious, but not the most troubling.
A few weeks later a whole group of Curious visited. They were significantly younger than the others before and had a Leader. A few were focused, ambitious, and competitive. When arriving to my position, they spoke quickly and in complicated terms. “The work is about therapy versus religion” one said. Another added, “It lies on the precarious boundaries between identity politics and the realm of the subconscious where that becomes entirely irrelevant.” The Leader nodded, but directed to the conversation to a distracted Curious. “What do you think Jake?” Jake was in the middle of smirking to something someone said, but reacted immediately, almost arrogantly. “I guess it’s alright,” he started, “But it doesn’t say much to me. It’s an expensively and elaborately made thing, standing in a ritzy place. How can it criticize anything of importance from this position? It’s been….completely castrated.”
The group of Curious flushed with embarrassment at the last word. The Leader noticed the tension and quickly deflected attention to another quiet Curious that just looked at her feet and managed to mutter, “I don’t know.”
Those remarks never left my mind. I hadn’t fully grasped my potential, direction or purpose but I had already been deemed metaphorically impotent. Perhaps it was so, because after all even if I had been fertile or potent how could life possibly have existed on that sterile planet? Life was the fluttering light from down the hall.
One day the Positioners returned. I was confused but pleased as they brought an energy with them that reminded me of the workshop and Implementers. Boxes, crates and plastic emerged from hidden places. The room was full of movement. I waited for my Conceiver to arrive with the Positioners, but he didn’t. They lifted me from my place and covered me in my wrapping. Securely clothed, I let myself sink into the oasis and the world dampened again.
I learned to not track time by detaching myself from chronological measurement. In my protective covering I retreated into myself. There was little that could irritate me in the palace of my imagination. I dreamt for prolonged periods and lived different lives, among them that of Alexander and my Conceiver. I would form things and then point to them. I visualized what my pointed finger would have looked liked; if my fingers would be taught or loose, if my skin rough or soft. This part of my fantasy would take up the most of the dream. I would meticulously revise the creation of the composite and the gesture of the pointing hand. But the words that should have followed the point, the invisible cloak, still eluded me. And so, the dream would begin again from the beginning. I would return to the workshop, send the form to the white room, bring the people together, turn to the Composite, and point. There was something satisfying in this cycled indulgence, but it brought little resolution.
I am not sure if I lived in that dream for days, weeks months or even years but unexpectedly while I was imagining the thousandth version of a Composite I created and was about to point at, I was tilted to my side and lifted away. I heard an engine roar and a door slam with a muted thud. And off I went again. My attention and awareness were revitalized, and not thirty minutes passed before the vehicle halted again. I was taken out and I felt a hinge loosen somewhere. I was carried up flights of stairs and arrived after what must have been three floors. A familiar voice emerged, but I couldn’t place it. As the cardboard and foam were pulled aside and saw two Positioners. Behind them stood one of the Grubstakers I had seen listening to my Conceiver, the one’s whose eyes had been opened. “Oh, perfect. Let’s try it there first”, she pointed and directed.
The room housed many composites, colours, and textures. In stark contrast to the desolate location in which I had previously been held, things were placed in groupings and many objects touched each other. The Grubstaker retired to the garden to light a cigarette while the Positioners moved me across the room. Maybe because of their white gloves, carrying me became discernably more difficult, and I began to slip from their fingers. “Whoa, whoa.” one said, but it was too late and I fell to the ground. “Shit. Shit. Sorry. Sorry,” the Positioner panicked. I landed upside down for the first time since being at Alexander’s. Golden animal eyes stared back at me from under the soft furniture. The Positioners looked behind them towards the Grubstaker who was oblivious to what had happened. The Positioners quickly lifted me again. The loose hinge had broken off and a piece of me lied on the floor. Ripping off their gloves the Positioners shoved me into place. They dug into the tool box for a screwdriver and bluntly screwed the hinge back on to my side. “You can’t see it. Not if you’re not looking for it. Shit.” “It’s fine” the other said, and rubbed the hinge with her gloved fingers hoping she could stimulate life blood back into the spot. The Grubstaker returned. “Yes, that’s perfect. Great, if you could just help me move this other work into the back room, I think we’re almost finished.” The Positioners shared a secretive glance, calming each other before moving another Composite to an adjacent room. Below me a metronomic tail paced with intensity from under the sofa.
The very next day the room filled with people as it had in my previous location, but this time the people seemed more familiar with each other. Guests lounged in the sofas and music vibrated throughout my materials. The Grubstaker herded people to me and presented me by the usual methods of pointing and explaining. She mentioned my Conceiver’s name and recalled a slightly amended version of the invisible story. As some of the guests sauntered off to refresh their drinks, but a few others lingered while the Grubstaker recalled how much I had “cost” her, and how well she had negotiated the price. These guests listened and tapped their jewellery on tumbler glasses. Women whispered inaudibly into each other’s ears. A man approached announcing a bit louder than was necessary that he had also acquired something a week earlier. It was a “piece” he had bought from a poorly known Conceiver. But the man predicted that the “piece” would increase in value as this particular Conceiver shows “promise”. He recalled how he had also recently successfully resold another “piece” from a better known Conceiver and had made a pretty penny on it. A few of the lingering guests removed small cards from their breast pockets and exchanged them with the man. Earrings were fondled and wrist watches were wound.
It became apparent to me that I did not belong to the Conceiver anymore. Our proprietary bond had been broken, but not completely. I was still directly correlated to the development of my Conceiver, and so I was not only the frame for invisible stories, but also a token of my Conceiver’s well being. A shrill laugh broke out at the other side of the room and the music got louder. The party moved into the garden and I was left to consider my predicament. Across the room stood a green stone shaped into the body of a beast carrying its prey in its mouth. The Cat emerged from the shadows behind it.
The house was often empty and the Cat made a habit of sitting on me. Only the Tidier would come occasionally and sweep my surface with a feather brush. When the Tidier left, the Cat would return to its perch and I welcomed the warmth and touch. Like a fur hat it comforted my deep thoughts. It was clear that I was sitting in another way station on a long journey ahead of me and I decided that I no longer wanted to observe my transitions passively. But how could I do otherwise? I could not move. I could not speak. I had only an invisible story to tell and an avatar that roamed the earth somewhere. I was powerless, perhaps even impotent, but my mind did not recede into dreams but instead churned with strategy. The Cat purred giving voice to my ruminations.
The day came when I was to be packed again. The Grubstaker pointed to me, “that’s it there”, she disowned me before walking into the next room. Two Positioners measured me with their eyes and tools before exiting again. In their short absence the Cat appeared from under the sofa with eyes of strange intention. In her mouth was the limp body of a smaller animal, its tail dangled to the ground. The Cat hopped with ease to its usual perch. It purred and dug its claws into me, more tensely than usual. On returning, the Positioners noticed the Cat immediately and ran towards us to frighten it away. With a screeching sound the Cat lurched under furniture, darting directly into the garden. She had left the dead mouse tucked behind the hinge.
Part 2: To be Continued.