Kristian Vistrup Madsen, “Doing Time: Essays on Using People” – Floating Opera Press, Berlin
Cover design by Dan Solbach
Excerpt from Kristian Vistrup Madsen, Doing Time: Essays on Using People – Floating Opera Press, Berlin. From the chapter “Skin Hunger”: “This is how it began: my new project. A series of short stories about how we might encounter the signs of our time in bars and in our beds, personified. The collection would be called ‘Skin Hunger’, and each story would bear the name of a man that I had met, using that encounter to thematize some issue pertinent to contemporary life.”
Already by the next one, it was too late. By “next one” I mean both man and story. His name was Harm, but pronounced in Dutch, like a cough, and we started kissing after I lifted my pint glass of gin in his direction, with at least three of the buttons of my shirt undone. “Guys go crazy for this,” I said, much too loudly, to Ali as we leaned on the bar at Betty F one Saturday morning.
By too late I mean: reality began to anticipate the fiction
—or: I was looking for narrative hooks
I mean I understood already when, a few days later, I texted him to say I just happened to be in the neighborhood, could I drop by, that it was the thrill of dramaturgy that pushed my impulse into action,
I mean that I knew when it started snowing as we were walking home,
just as I knew when the snow was washed away by rain the next morning
—that pathetic fallacy—
I knew that it was a good time to say to Harm:
I think you can manufacture intimacy with someone you don’t know very well. I think you can cling to their arm on a Monday night when it snows, and it’s not even like you’re pretending.
And I knew it when we were swaying along to The Cranberries in his living room, and when he called from the bathroom at 9 a.m. that Dolores O’Riordan, the band’s lead singer, had died that very night, I knew, then that it was gold.
In a documentary from 2017 about the writer Joan Didion, her nephew Griffin Dunne asks her about her famous portrait of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in the late 60s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
“How was it for you as a mother,” he asked, a misguided appeal to her maternal instincts, “to see a little girl, 5-6 years old, about the same age as your daughter, high as a kite on acid?”
“Let me tell you,” she said, pausing for a breath, “it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”
So: Harm and I were touching each other lightly, swaying to The Cranberries. “It’s Sinead O’Connor,” Harm interjected. A different yodelling Irish—but does it matter?
There was nothing wrong with Harm, still I never saw him again. He didn’t stand a chance against the poetic slowness of the U-Bahn the next morning, the well-timed death of Dolores O’Riordan; Harm had long become but one part of a Benjaminian constellation of grunge ballads and weather that eclipsed his potential as an actual relation. I got my story—and it was better than real life.
“This is the danger,” Tank said to me—I had started reading the short stories aloud to anyone who would listen—“that you become seduced by your own voice and forget about the people.”
“You gotta leave it,” went her advice, as she’s so often advised me on matters of love, “before you become too invested. You have to stop writing.”
By then I had written another story about someone named Cooper, who had stumbled into my bed drunk with rapid assertive movements—a “choreographed fall,” I called it—thinking it was my flatmate’s. Not believing my luck, a cost-benefit analysis raced through my mind: “Do I insist on waking him up and returning him to Alessio’s bedroom? What if I don’t? Since life has dealt me this card (who has dealt me this card?) should I use it? That is, should I touch him?” I did touch him. This is an aspect of the story that I would since play down. On his back, arms over his head, the covers pushed off, he looked hot. I traced his armpits, his lightly hairy chest, the protruding abs; embarrassingly, I spooned him until he rolled over onto his side, rejecting me. I left him alone.
John Updike’s 1968 novel Couples lay next to me on the mattress. Since Valentine’s Day I’d been listening to Ester Perel’s podcast about couple’s therapy, I’d been thinking about Chris, and how we fucked it up, how used I had become to carrying that wound, no longer as wound but as lack of certain things, like complication, frustration, as well as an opportunity to read more novels. Cooper falling into my barren nest fit perfectly with the narrative debris already there.
Resting my head on the palm of my hand, at 10 o’clock, free of the pathetic hesitations of the night, smile awry, I asked him:
“So, are you ready to tell me who you are now?”
He woke up instantly, and looked around the room.
“Do you even know where you are? If you say Friedrichshain you’re in trouble.”
He had some questions too: “Who is your flatmate? Is he nice?”
“Medium height, dark hair, charming—you did well.”
“I have a boyfriend,” he said. “Fuck. Probably good that I came in here.”
This is how I felt: Mrs. Dalloway taking a nap in the afternoon. She sleeps in a room by herself at the top of the house in a single bed. “Virginity clung to her like a sheet,” Woolf wrote in 1925, a line that always stuck with me. I said to Cooper: “So that’s why you came into my bed! A safe and sexless destination.” We laughed though I was only half-joking.
Then life—or whoever—dealt the story another ace. We turned out to have graduated from the same art school and in the same year. I was editing the school journal and had rejected Cooper’s proposal. He’d since grown a beard and cut his hair short, a miraculous kind of makeover available to some of the male sex that makes them instantly impossible to recognize.
I pulled the publication out. I hadn’t looked at it for years. We were both a bit shocked at being confronted with this weird fragment of our past. “We wanted everything to be political,” I told him, “like, if it isn’t that, then why at all? An unreasonable thing to ask of culture, it strikes me now.” It had been the last great gasp of that logic for me, and somehow for Cooper too.
And so our serendipitous meeting spawned a critique of the political paradigm within which that journal was produced. The story became serious, and with that: valuable. Work. It contained analysis and description that, as someone whose livelihood is writing cultural criticism, I could not necessarily afford to throw away.
At the same time, it seemed the critical value of Cooper’s story, when it came to writing it down, could not be disentangled from its more embodied and far too tender aspects. The reference to Woolf, the musty joy I took in making a caricature of my own chastity, and using Cooper as a spotlight for my loneliness—it was both too embarrassing to share with its subject, and too irresistible to give up. When Tank said “you gotta leave it,” what she meant was, “there’s no way you can publish this.” But couldn’t I have made this up? Who says I haven’t?
In the autumn of 2017, I toured a lecture called “Using People” in which I parse the problematics of employing experiences, particularly those of others, as raw material in art. The occasion was the publication of a Swedish translation of an excerpt from “Doing Time” in the literary journal Glänta. “Doing Time” was a product of the same mindset that had produced the very political school journal two years earlier. And as such, in its aftermath, I’d become fixated upon this issue: What does it mean to use people in the first place?
Not the prison-industrial complex, not the philosophy of freedom and difference and in- or outside—what I had intended as the real subjects of that work—but: Can you? Gothenburg, Zurich, Berlin, Stockholm, I toured this anxiety: Am I even allowed to write this?
In the lecture I argued that, though it’s no easy task—yes. But in the Q&A I’d always say, anyway, that I wouldn’t do it again. I mean: next time, it has to be less complicated. Next time less exhausting. Writing is exhausting enough without ethical dilemmas trailing unresolved in its wake.
Yet, here I am again, too deep in Cooper and Ryan and the rest, not taking my friend’s advice, not leaving it alone, but asking myself: Why can’t I just write fiction?
So I kept not leaving it alone. As winter turned to spring, I walked to the top floor of a Kreuzberg apartment building carrying groceries and Bordeaux to find my stories beginning to thematize themselves, to strike the core of what “Skin Hunger” had thus far only skirted around: what it means to be present, together or alone, and how presence is reproduced in art.
Alex is a 23-year-old Internet performance artist via some elite New England liberal arts college, who happened to grow up in the house next to Gwyneth Paltrow in Los Angeles. After a failed attempt, on my part, at having a nice time at Berghain with him three weeks before, Alex recovering from the flu seemed the perfect time for us to finally have dinner; him semi-sedated, me in my element.
It started out promising. We began texting on Facebook Messenger after meeting at Möbel Olfe about a month prior, and Alex immediately changed the color scheme and the default emoji. It was like decorating a room: light purple, more Miami than Provence, and a bright yellow sun with a halo of pointed teeth. It became more intimate. Gave me the feeling that he had invested something in “us,” an admittedly extremely tentative “us.” Really just a: “we seem to get along.”
Intimacy, as it would begin to dawn on me, means something very different to Alex, looks very different to Alex. I mean: if we were to have a group chat, the color of the speech bubbles would revert to blue. I mean: I could never (and have never) really touch(ed) him, except, weirdly, awkwardly, the knots of his spine when he was stretching in Berghain’s endless toilet queue.
What’s weird about Alex is that there is no difference between how he speaks and how he texts. His tone of voice is like graphic design, it bears no relation to what is said. That is, the physical reality of his body is subordinate to a matrix of mediated presences of which the body is just one.
Let me unpack: When you are in front of a screen—regardless of who or how many people you communicate with—your body is physically alone. And this is the reason for its subordinance, because you don’t feel alone; rather, these very mediated interactions constitute what you have come to know as togetherness: being non-alone. It is not a devaluation of togetherness but its icon.
That night in Kreuzberg, when I went to his flat in the most physical of ways, a visitor from the twentieth century with my Dijon mustard and that goddamn Bordeaux, which I would empty on my own, I felt like we were more non-alone than together. That is: I couldn’t reach him. Our togetherness was moderated by a teak desk that Alex used to guard his personal space, and the intense conversation of the sort that one might get dragged into unexpectedly online. (There is an intensity to this “non-”; it is not negation but exacerbation.) Each message carries the same weight, because there is no intonation. Every lilac speech bubble exists on a plane of total equivalence. Because no feature of analog presence has installed a minimum of stability, any utterance has the power to change everything, while simultaneously leaving all that is tangibly there as is.
And by one such utterance Alex’s and my conversation was derailed: “It’s not very funny,” he said, “when people reiterate your reads instead of making their own. I’ve had enough,” he said, “of your boring niceness. I had to call it out.”
My first thought: What’s a “read”? Then: it’s true. Not being able to understand Alex through his lack of intonation, of gesture, I’d found myself repeating his words back to him rather than protesting, but this time with feeling. See, my speech is the diametric opposite to Alex’s digital deadpan. Rather a classical composition, many elements are there to offer atmosphere and depth to whatever’s in the Golden Ratio. But, hey, if Alex’s presence hadn’t been digitized to begin with, there would have been something in my Golden Ratio. And besides: How dare he force all the details out of the shadows? I smelt blood, but something else as well. A story. Gold.
The derailment produced an acute realness between us—hyper-realness?—a sociability different from more typical kinds in the same way that art is different from the rest of life. Like art plays with its mediation to derail the viewer’s experience of space or surface, so Alex had broken our joint contract with sheer presence. At the time of our dinner that Friday, I had not yet seen Alex perform live—that is, interact with his screen in front of an audience—but I had seen other of his works on his website: the wig, the cap, the abs, the Valley Girl speak are all regular features. The videos are well written, poorly produced (I assume, purposefully so), and share with real-life Alex this atonal flippancy hovering between sarcasm and plain nonsense. As the distinction between Alex and his art became blurry, I wondered if my writing about our encounter would also amount to a kind of art criticism. The post-internet years had passed me by without me ever understanding what it was all about, but it seemed Alex might be my chance to make up for lost time. Of course, I couldn’t have put it like this to him then because I, as ever, remain the humble servant to smooth sociability; because freelancing for both love and money, the most important thing for me is to generate and sustain.
But also: as the single person looking for love self-annihilates as they shower their candidate in hopeful projections, so the writer must become one with their surroundings while they scout for their hook. Does this comparison work? I mean, since working as an art critic, I have, paradoxically, had to become less critical and more patient, more open. I come into knowledge through ekphrasis (description). It is my job to be on the side of the work, to help it exist in the world. Looking back on it now, perhaps my compliance with Alex reveals that even if I hadn’t understood him as such at the time, I already hovered carefully around him like the critic around the art work. With my smooth conversation I was treading water, waiting for him to reveal himself. “I had to call it out,” he told me.
In a Bookforum review of Rachel Cusk’s 2018 novel Kudos, Sarah Nicole Prickett describes the narrator, Faye, a writer,“as a pair of eyes in a jar”:
“Faye appears contre-jour—’against the day(light)’—as she would in a documentary, an anonymous source. Mostly she listens while other people tell their stories. She speaks as little as possible, with the cagey, barely-here affect of someone in a witness-protection program. When asked what kinds of things she writes, she says it’s hard to explain. I would call it selfless autobiography, which doesn’t make sense.”
It doesn’t make sense because it’s not exactly true—this is what makes Cusk’s trilogy so intriguing. Faye is manipulative and judgmental, her portraits do not aim at truth but narrative cohesion. As such, the writer of fiction is not so different from the art critic: whether describing a character or an art work, both write mostly about themselves.
The artist plays the same game. But when Alex and I were not really together, not really alone, but non-alone, it was for very different reasons. From Alex, I was looking to spin a fiction, but to Alex, reality doesn’t exist. As we began to patch up our derailment, and I learned about Alex’s online Bildungsreise, I came to understand what this really meant. Alex’s art, in his own words, is about what he owes the Internet; what all those hours invested yielded in return. The recognition of nothing less than a different way of existing; of speaking without sound, of being simultaneously never and always “there”; never and always alone.
From witnessing Alex IRL I finally understood this—the guiding paradigm of the post-Internet—not as a theoretical provocation but simple description: no difference between URL and IRL, no difference between representation and presence, screen and physicality, being and signification. What happens to fiction when reality is always already mediated? Alex doesn’t care about the real world. He wanted me to read him like an art work, so I did.
When Alex was ten years old he won an award among thousands of users for making the best room on a massive multi-player online game called Disney Magic Kingdom. This is probably where the Facebook Messenger decoration impulse came from. Conversation ran smoother once I gave up on participating, and let him just go on. After Disney, it was chatroom game called Survivor, an online version of the popular reality TV show, where alliances and betrayals determine who gets to stay on the virtual island. A snake with a cute picture, Alex won again. He was the one who everybody liked, he told me, because he seemed innocent. The reality of the game was that there was no card he wouldn’t play, it’s just that innocence was his strongest one, and it worked.
His next avatar was on Cam2, a public webcam masturbation channel. “Having lived your online life, until then, rendered as a character or a still image, did your relationship to your body change as it appeared on the screen?” I asked him, feigning naivety.
Since the age of ten, Alex lived the scrawny kid’s classic escape from the brutal world of real-life children into the virtual, devoting himself to one virtual identity after the other, parked for years in front of a screen in the house next to Gwyneth Paltrow’s. This narrative was somewhat incongruent with the off-the-charts Herculean man, so immensely physically present, although seated at a safe distance from me. But Cam2 made it all come together: this body constructed as a way of winning yet another game. Like the prestigious Lilo & Stitch-hat Alex could afford for his avatar on Magic Kingdom, on this platform, ab-apparel was the ultimate currency. And just as the sleight of his voice is detached from the words that it speaks, so his gorgeous torso is an image (on Cam2 decapitated), an isolated component that contributes to a whole in the same way that a desktop computer needs a keyboard.
I too have spent unending swathes of time on these types of cam websites, but never dared consider that time significant; it was too grim, somehow, too private and dark. The endeavor to privilege randomized cam life and its affective attachments, I think, is the strongest aspect of Alex’s art. It reminds me of what the writer Josefine Klougart said when I interviewed her: “a writer’s job is to place themselves, not above experiences in order to write about them, but to let themselves be led to a place where they dare realize the fact that these experiences are meaningful.”
And what Travis Jeppesen wrote about Ryan Trecartin’s 2007 film I-Be Area (a seminal precursor to the post-internet turn): “our own physical containers can no longer contain us, if they ever did. I-Be Area is the drama of this failed containment, a literal and ritual purging of the frame. Don’t tell me what something is; rather, inhabit it.”
This is almost exactly what Alex told me: Don’t talk, be. Online, being and discourse take place in the same breath (the same push of the enter button). When Alex speaks (texts) that is the essence of his presence—completely irrespective of his body. When he is tired, an electric sigh takes him into a forward fold and I count the knots of his spine as they protrude through intelligent fabric. Conversely, my mindless chatter is the elevator music sound-tracking my being in the room. What I didn’t know is that I may as well not have been. Music is a non-sequitur.
Where in Klougart’s approach to writing you “lean toward language” to become part of its flow, in Trecartin, the “physical container” from which you would lean is, at best, leaking—you are already there: you are language. As such, it is clear why the Internet has made such rich material for artists: the immersion that it offers is the always-already formal mediation of the self:
Simply by using you are naturally producing.
I almost wish I had met Alex on the Internet now in the same way as one would want to read a novel in its original language. Hearing his story was a kind of revelation as to where post-Internet art comes from: building the non-alone out of aloneness, that is, making a strength out of what might have been a weakness. For hours and hours, years and years. Perhaps, in Alex’s case, what Jeppesen extrapolates from Trecartin’s work holds. He writes: “If there is any true reality, then it is in the machinic nature of shifty becomings, the drive to escape the inescapable” . . . what, existential solitude?
He had been yawning for two hours when finally I got up to leave. Write me a scathing review of the performance, he said, and publish it in Frieze. They don’t publish negative reviews, I said, sheepishly. Longing for the sun emoji intimacy of our lilac chatroom, I hugged his hard body and said goodbye.
Doing Time: Essays on Using People is available here
Kristian Vistrup Madsen is a writer based in Berlin. He is a contributor to magazines such as Artforum, frieze, and Kunstkritikk, and the recipient of the 2020 Broken Dimanche Press novel prize. Doing Time: Essays on Using People, a collection of essays about prison correspondence, appropriation, and the boundaries of fiction, will be published by Floating Opera Press (Berlin) in 2021.