KATHARINA GROSSE | IT WASN'T US


The Austrian author Kathrin Röggla and Katharina Grosse are connected in various ways with one another—both are part of the non-profit alliance "WE DO THAT!" and are engaged members of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. They are each interested, as Röggla speculates, in both enormous dimensions and "questions of spooky effects over long distances."

What do you do when a space gets too big for you? You make a phone call. She’s been watching him for a while now, walking around and saying: “Give me a ball-park figure, come on! Just a number to get the ball rolling… anything between one and 5000, we’ll meet somewhere in the middle… never mind, I can deal with it.” The latter was more whispered than spoken but she’d still heard it clearly—no one could fail to hear it anywhere in the room, and it seemed like a declaration of war against what was going on around him. The real-estate agent appeared to think he was in with a chance—what else could he be but a real-estate agent? It was they who carved up spaces by scaling things down, coming up with bets. Every bet begins with a gesture of division, that much she knew. And she’d thought it was a joint viewing they’d arranged. A preliminary conversation. A moment of common exploration of the situation. And now she knew he would never enter into a conversation with her, either, without a number up his sleeve.

“Give me a ball-park figure, come on!” Had he really said that? She seemed to sense, at any rate, that conversations that start that way need to be abandoned ASAP. Not a lot changed in her face for the moment. “Are ghosts bad?” came her answer after a while, as if he’d hinted at something along those lines. Not that he had. Certainly not. Not at all. Hadn’t even addressed the subject. Perhaps she wanted to create some distance, make some space? “That is: depends what they look like.” His answer had been slightly too witty, so he added: “You think…” Now they both stared straight ahead. One point for her. The surface ahead of them wasn’t moving. He was sure of it. It just looked like it was. “Tell me,” she interrupted the newly arisen silence, “where does your work actually begin and where does it end?”—“If only I knew! Hard to say,” he attempted to joke, “I’m starting to think the same myself.” Then they stood silently again. A whole lot was suddenly playing out in front of them. All the movement came from a group of school kids simply taking possession of the hall, as if they’d been there all along.

“Sir… sir… can I help you?” the woman in the entrance area called after the man walking in, who had simply strolled past her towards the middle. “Who’s saying ‘sir’ here?” the child wondered, three meters away from her, a child who never usually wondered about anything. “You can’t just walk in, you know!” the woman added, beginning to work her way out from behind her desk. The guy didn’t seem to know, saw the child who never usually wondered. He simply walked on. She had reached him by now: “It’s better if I take you back, back to the entrance. Otherwise you might…” heard the child that certainly never heard wrong. She knew how misguided it was to assume that the way out of certain spaces was just as easy to find as the way in, a mistake common among adults and classmates who were already elsewhere. They simply made a plan to enter a hall and then leave it again, taking the door area as a simple interim goal, and then they got stuck after all. Something always got in their way, as could be observed. A difficult conversation, a radio appointment, or the damn school calling to make a complaint. The child already knew certain diversions to take, by no means all of them, so to be on the safe side she stayed on the margins from where she could observe everything, so to speak. E.g. that there was no straightforward middle, towards which the man had allegedly walked. Colors prevailed there, the child said to herself, which she could only now start to engage with. They came her way.

“Can you stop moving so frantically? I’m trying to take your photo!” Here in this exterior area, they had finally got to a fairly suitable situation, a shot that looked promising. It wasn’t working, though. He knew it wasn’t his fault; it was the background. Besides, he’d been standing still for some time. If you looked straight ahead there was that magnificent green, yes, the magnificent green had opened up the game, with a yellow and a red. That is: it hadn’t opened it; it was already there, a ghostly presence, in this exterior area where radical colors were not to be expected. But that was the whole joke of it, as the photographer had put it. Colors in places where they definitely didn’t belong didn’t make for a good background after all, the man to be photographed now proclaimed: the colors were just too big. “Too big?” she asked back. In terms of expression, the colors were in the majority, so to speak. “Majority?” He didn’t know how better to phrase it. Meanwhile, the magnificent green didn’t stay still either, moving on and on. “The background is distracting.”—“No, no, it’s you! You’re moving too much.” He couldn’t move less than he was already. Let her get blurred shots in front of this exterior area, then, he thought—it is called exterior area, the space outside the halls, outside the interplay of color?—all of a sudden he didn’t care. He’d only had ten minutes for the appointment from the very beginning, and why should that change now? It was changing, he’d notice, it was changing. The focus would catch up with him eventually: “It comes over time.”

- Listen, she started imitating you a good while ago. (The one guy).
- You just didn’t notice. (The other guy).
- I didn’t notice? (She).
- Yes, since a good while ago. (The one guy).
- Really, I saw it too. (The other guy).
-
And the two of you want to save me from her? (She).
- It’s up to you… (The one guy).
- It’s really up to you what you do about it, but she won’t stop of her own accord. (The other guy).
- No, she really won’t. (The one guy).
-
Have you seen this before? (She).
- We’d rather not talk about it. (The one guy).
-
No, better not to. (The other guy).
- And now please mind out of our way. You’re stealing our time. (The one guy).
-
Yes, we’ve got better things to do. (The other guy).
- Where’s she gone? (The other guy).
-
Vanished into the green? (The one guy).
- Into the yellow and white! (The other guy).

He couldn’t help turning around. Being stared at like this was actually a breach of all conventions—they didn’t know each other—but he stood up to the stare. A racist? He knew those looks all too well. This one here was too absent, though, staring straight through him. Vacant. “On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the time you spent with us?” he heard the guy not far from the long barrier ask promptly. Only now did he realize the guy had a pod in his ear; he was on the phone and fixing his gaze on him; that is: he wasn’t seeing him. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t him. “Can you give me a more precise ETA?” The person on the other end of the conversation didn’t seem to be able to answer that, either. Saying when you’ll really be somewhere. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Some part of arrival always goes beyond the estimated time. Some part of oneself always gets left behind. The man being stared at wanted to switch sides of the room, gradually. Even though he wasn’t meant to, that stare bothered him. It meant he wasn’t quite there either, and he didn’t want that. Impossible to tell if the other man registered his departure. He headed for an object he thought was a room divider. The stumbling left him no time. Now he was there.

“Are you wearing makeup, ma’am? Are you wearing a little bit of makeup now, maybe, miss? Because you looked different before. Just a minute ago…  you look quite young now, like an indefinable twenty-five. Yes, twenty-five. And that can’t be right, can it? You look as if you could extend that age in you, pull it and pull it... it’s a little bit spooky, yes, that’s it, it’s uncanny—oh yes, I forgot, no one’s supposed to speak to you, you’re preparing for your interview, but it’s given you such a shiny surface, I couldn’t help it, and the color, I mean the color of your makeup, it goes beyond your face, it goes on, the color goes on without you, how can that be? I’ll tell you something, you’re only human like everyone else, don’t you forget that—so... you don’t need to think you… yes, there really is something left on you from the space, the preparation room, I mean while you were getting your mind set for the hour to come. You absorbed something of your surroundings and now you can’t shake it off… but I forgot, no one’s supposed to speak to you, you’re busy, I know, you have to get moving now, to the appointment you’ve been waiting for, you really ought to get a fixed appearance for it, really now…  yes, go ahead, sure, walk right through me!”

So the round-table meeting is going to take place. We organized it over the past few weeks and now it’s really going to happen. The simplicity of its happening surprised us organizers, the fact that all parties really would be present: the agricultural representatives, the individual farmers, gardeners, public bodies, conservation groups, foundations, and academic institutions. They’ll be aiming for a catalogue of measures, setting their sights on a fifty-point plan. “Nobody leaves the room before it’s done,” my colleague just joked, the woman you can see on my right. “The constant objectification of the talk’s content will be on the agenda.”—“Hm.” She sighs: “Yes, that’ll be the main task.”—“You’re good at that, though.” We already know how the meeting will begin. One guy will say, “And why are you here?”—“Because you’re here!” another woman will answer. They’ll be there to keep tabs on each other; not for the content, that still has to be introduced. “Gotta be done!” The result won’t be an end result, of course, far from it; it will be a recommendation for policymakers, for the time being. “But it will be a reality. An initial reality.” Yes, that was her, my colleague. We’re not certain at the moment what the space will look like. We’ve been looking for one for a long time. The air circulation has to be right, the temperature changes, it has to absorb a whole lot of movement, be able to deal with a whole lot of abstraction. How ought a space to look in which the extinction rate is calculated in units of species per minute? It’s already 150 a day. “And we don’t even know them all yet.”—“That too.”

That thought calls for a response: how should a space be constituted to think about high-output agriculture when its efficiency logic has to be circumvented and yet simultaneously served, so as not to put off the farmers. A space in which they’ll always stay in the same argument and yet go beyond it—“In the long run you’ll all lose!”—a space in which thinking can’t take place in the rhythm of legislative sessions. And in the end, the question mustn’t be: who’s governing? The color or the object? The shape or the surface? We know only one thing: there must not be a reverse gear for that kind of space.

© Text Kathrin Röggla
© Images Nic Tenwiggenhorn und VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2020, Jens Ziehe 
© Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2020

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