Piero's cough contained a trace of phlegm. He had the sudden itch for a cigarette, an itch he had forsworn after reluctant then successively engrossing readings of The Easyway to Quit Smoking, which had divested him of the addiction while simultaneously reviving his faith in writing's capacity for consequence. It was important to draw a line somewhere, at least with the kids, but if he was really being honest with himself, he had less than a clue about where that line should be.
Josh and Jonah were hovering by his bedside table as he opened his eyes. Little Al Pacino and Leonard Cohen, as if the two had been entrusted by the ancestors with the sacred mission of reviving the tradition of Italian and Jewish heartthrobs. Were they five and seven or six and eight? "Dad, can we have a cat?" They asked in unison, a question offered as if into his dreams. This tactic worked for pancakes. It worked for playdates. But it would not work for this.
The Easyway to Quit Smoking had explained that cigarettes do not relieve or de-stress, merely remove the aggravation of withdrawal caused by the previous cigarette. Of all the book's metaphors for smoking, slavery being the least appropriate, the most descriptive was banging your head on the wall simply for the pleasure of stopping. At the early phase of quitting, Peiro had taken to prescribing ten brisk, hard raps on the noggin to simulate the effect. It seemed the phase had yet to conclude.
Innes, Lily, and Amal arrived, more or less bleary, later that night. Each was met at the train station by an assistant who greeted them promptly, professionally, and with an envelope of freshly-ironed Francs. They were led through almost a mile of covered arcades, past the 13th century clocktower, shown the access road to the swift but swimmable Aare river, and deposited on the fifth floor of a massive stone building, which Piero called, and which for two months they would also call, home. A private donation and public exemption from taxes had had enabled the conversion of the grand, U-shaped structure into an arts hub: four floors of subsidized studios for local artists, a ground floor of artist-run galleries, a restaurant, and a bar, which each claimed sections of courtyard, sending Swiss German consonants into the fifth floor, the building's two-winged living space. When the three residency bedrooms had their residents, and their residents had a night's sleep in their respective rooms, they introduced themselves over coffee the next morning by complaining about the noise of the night before.
It was worst for Innes, they all agreed, because not only did she hear the words, which grew louder as the night wore on, syllables elongated by arguments and alcohol, she understood them. Or, she almost understood them, distinguishing her native German from the Swiss concatenation that claimed this side of the country. "But also, I don’t sleep," she said, dispelling and enhancing their concern. "Insomnia." Amal had claimed the spot by the balcony, for easiest access. She studied the slanted attic windows and the morning light, architecture incongruous to drywall box bedrooms, floral tile, and fluorescent kitchen fixtures of the 70s redesign.
As she often found herself when presented with a group of strangers, Lily toggled between a feeling of superiority and a desperation to impress. The most jet-lagged, she’d made the pot of coffee that sat on the table between them, and even brought back a half dozen pastries from a morning excursion around the block. She resented the effort, regretted the decadence of her expenditure, and feared above all the grotesquely feminine presentation she was making of herself as a hostess. But the butter helped, and she peeled off layers of croissant, studying the two other women, who, same as her, had managed to best the thousand-something application pool to find themselves either gifted an all-expense-paid vacation, or saddled with the impossible collective mandate to rehabilitate contemporary art’s capacity to smash the State.
It went like this: Zurich had its gastronomy and the Kronenhalle, a bar decorated with Giacometti iron and the paintings Picasso used to pay his tab. Geneva had seen the flight of industry which made for cheaper rent, attracting the millennials who need it and the businesses who needed them. Bern was known for two things, the Parliament and the Aare, and a new public-private partnership was working to re-brand both those attractions as simultaneously less murderous and less dull. The promise of the international artist had been exactly their capacity to straddle these two poles.
"It's a contradiction, no?" Amal asked, dusting powdered sugar off her pajamas onto the floor. "Here we are, a group of foreigners, parachuting into Switzerland, to critique the operations of parachuting." Amal talked into the middle of the room, back pressed against her chair, hands forming emphatic circles, as if answering a question for the benefit of a much larger audience, a panel discussion's Q&A. Her "r"s never quite touched down, her "a"s the tongue-depressor version, and she placed the emphasis on the "ei" in "foreigners" and the "chut" in "parachuting," a quirk of Middle Eastern English she allowed, with only a hint of suspicion, to become their first inside joke.
Art's self-deprecation was so like a lover's, Innes realized, conjuring a hazy montage of her ex before a mirror. Were her compliments as fished-for from the first, or was the wane of honesty evidence of repetition's tendency to evacuate? What of insecurity is accusation? And what was she to do about it anyway? At this point, she was a body of water bereft of mackerel. "Should we go for a swim?" she offered aloud. It was judged that the sun was high enough.
The walk was pleasant and downhill. The architecture like a train set. The people, it seemed to Lily, without pretense (another word, perhaps, for without style). A ballroom dance class was making use of the cobblestone square, the sound of which competed for attention with the smell of farmstand Alpine cheese. Innes thought about unheimlich, a word and a concept which had achieved nearly hegemonic status on press releases for painting shows during representation's revival, signifying the familiar made strange. She skated across the thought as Swiss German consonants billowed across the square. Descending to the river, the three skipped over the switchbacks, following a grove in the grass instead. It was their first group decision, wordless. A decent sign. What was culture, Innes thought, besides a collection of paths of desire, a few made, more worn down and followed, just like this?
The teal narrow strip of the Aare river cut sharp curves within thickets of trees and houses on stilts. The current extruded swimmers out of sight in seconds. One didn't swim it, but go for a ride. AARE YOU SAFE? was the city's safety campaign, printed in municipal white on the paved walkways on the banks, the number of the current season's deaths—four—posted by the arched bridge. Lily stopped her stride mid path, a sudden fork for couples passing by. "Do you want me to hold your hand?" Innes asked. A quick nod. Lily felt the tendrils of warmth creeping passed the edges of Innes’s fingers.
Amal walked down the set of concrete steps and pressed herself forward, perfunctorily swept downstream as if she had pushed a button for an elevator. She was out of sight before Innes could coach Lily inside. They counted in unison. They leapt. A too-easy moral in learning to let go of the struggle to tread, Lily thought. Arched stone bridges passed overhead.
They ordered a round of afternoon beers at a restaurant with umbrella-ed picnic tables by the water's edge, accumulating froth-lined empties, with no impact except for an increased hankering for the free crisps, which the waiter failed to replenish quickly enough. Lily stripped off her bathing suit top and draped it over the bench, in no rush to hide a Europe-approved public encounter with her tits. Amal lit a cigarette on the question of participatory art. It went like this:
A few years ago, she would go by the day-laborer center attached to the construction goods warehouse in West Berlin. Sometimes she brought coffee, sometimes a digital recorder. She'd watch the group swell and dwindle, some whole days spent on hope, some regulars and regular meals. Once, she found herself screaming English through the window of a green Nissan, into the puckered face of a blonde German woman, who had offered to accept a worker's bid to paint the exterior of her house at half his stated wage. The blonde maintained her posture, simply rotating her head on its axis to face the un-accosting street, rolled up the electric window, and drove away. "Cheap bitch," Amal yelled, as the next car moved into the wake of her words, its driver shrinking as if to disappear. She turned back towards the row of men, muttering a string of expletives wrapped around the words "entitled" and "German" in the Arabic she thought they shared, expecting congratulations, thanks. They had none. Most of the men had already resumed staring at phones or the empty space in their hands where a phone might be, the luckiest with a curb to raise their asses above their knees, a few resting a foot on the wall behind them, a few taking bites of wraps from awkward squats. Hamishi was wearing white from head to toe. It was his job to lose. "I'm sorry," she blurted. He stared at her. "Fuck her" said one man, seated on a parking hump, legs extended. Amal was unsure if he had seen into the Nissan enough for "her" to mean anyone but herself, but he had said it as if dropping to the sidewalk the tin foil wrapper of a stick of gum, which he had no intention of picking up. Maybe her mistake could be as minor as littering—wrong, quickly forgotten.
The next morning, Amal found Hamishi at the center on the first shift. "I have a job for you," she said in Arabic. "Will you take it? Thirty an hour, six-hour guarantee, for a week." She added into his silence, "Five positions, you choose the team." The museum had agreed to fund her next work. Their labor would fall under a line item named materials.
"Remember when you asked if I was a painter?" She asked, though what he had said was, "you are an artist, there is nothing pretty for you here." "I'm not a painter, but you are! I thought maybe you'd like to sell paintings instead of painting for a change?"
"Everybody knows that there are some paintings in this world that cost more than a life," one of them said. "Who is it for," said another. Amal resisted both pride and surprise, shielding her recorder from sirens and the wind. They put up signs "house painting, cheap" around the neighborhood, Amal correcting English spelling, adding a few German ones of her own. "You practice, you paint, same for both of us," one said. "But one you can frame," said another. "What, you think the molding is nothing?" the first said back.
Then the call came. The group brought new paints and brushes curtesy of the museum, carried new tarps and wore new overalls, even rented a van to drive to the home of their new customer, where they established themselves across the street, constructed a row of easels with nails and 2x2s, set down their new stretched-canvases within them, and got to painting the house.
The camera crew helped, and also it didn't. One woman gave a ten-minute interview about how it felt to be pranked. One, catching her warped reflection in the black eye of the lens, stopped short of throwing a canvas to the concrete, after ripping it from its easel, pressing it into the chest of its maker instead. One couple said they would pay extra to keep the paintings.
They wore their overalls to the opening, a performative element they coordinated without consulting Amal, who might have encouraged more incognito dress. The rows of paintings had been framed and mounted in a row, the edited video playing in an adjacent screening room, from which a burst of speech spilled over at precisely twenty-two minute intervals. She heard whispers that the overalled men were hired actors, not the artists, a theory which a trip around the corner would have dispelled. She saw a gallerist evaluating brush strokes and inspecting the depth of the paint. A collector patted Hamishi on the back, a sound loud enough to pull her attention from the hour's-devours. "Where did you study?" the collector asked, rocking his red wine in its glass. Amal excused herself through a line of "congratulations."
Hamishi faced the man with the curiosity of incomprehension and shrugged. "No English" he said. He turned to Amal and winked. The sale of the works would go to their artists, with a portion to the center for continued organizing support. "That's it?" Hamishi said, standing in front of his own contribution to the show. He had painted a beige apartment building as it wrapped around a corner, row of bay windows popping out in misaligned perspective to the street, a rendering without excellence but full of charm. By the next year, she would pass his face in a slide while speaking on the work as a part of her series on value. Eventually, she stopped discussing the work at all.
Their rounds were drained, and the sun had passed beyond the valley of the riverbed, leaving a chill in its wake. Innes's attention drew towards a trio of pre-teens screeching in the middle of the bridge, throwing one leg over the side and then another, counting, Swiss German counting, one releasing at two to show the others, the succession of her splash and theirs, the laughter a passing burst of sound before a distance fade. "We're going to do that, you and I," she said to Lily. "All of us," she said, "Amal too."
Amal wrapped her towel around herself like a shawl. "I will document the occasion from here."
An excerpt from a speculative, satirical novella that raises the possibility of a critical artwork becoming too successful at its aims. The work continues Rosenthal's broader writing and research on a "Conspiratorial Turn" in contemporary art, and looks to its impact not just as symbol but as industry. Her focus often lies on the commodification of cities and the employ of art in branding gentrification, the congealing of socially-engaged art into an iterative style, and her hopes in the collaborative practice of tenant organizing. The work also continues Rosenthal's methodological and formal emphasis on literary satire, absurdism, and comedy.
Please visit the homepage of the SPK to find out more about Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal and her work.