Gut Feelings

 

Catalogue essay, in response to the exhibition Goodbye air pollution, the future is here by Anu Vahtra

Published in The Space Conductors Are Among Us by P/////AKT, Amsterdam

June 2021

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Anu Vahtra, Goodbye air pollution, the future is here, 2021, fragment from the installation, broom and concrete dust by back wall, dimensions variable.

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Anu Vahtra, Goodbye air pollution, the future is here, 2021, installation view, P/////AKT, Amsterdam

There is a European trade route not often the topic of conversation or debate. It involves the trade of cadavers, in the name of science. In order to negate the emotional turmoil of a young medical student suddenly faced with the task of dissecting their recently deceased neighbour, cadavers—that is, not bodies in the name of science—are traded from country to country, with Dutch surgeons-in-training tending to the property of Spain, Spanish surgeons-in-training tending to the property of Russia, so on and so forth. The logic being that if you move the cadavers around enough, there is no possibility of resonance. Instead, a network of repurposed remains.

 

A construction site—a plot stuck midway between a demolition that just happened and a rehabilitation that will soon to follow—is also decidedly cadaverous. Despite the developers claim to tabula rasa, waiting in a latent state of renovation, the remains of what stood before will not be left in peace. And while they might not believe it, bringing a cadaver back to life through a process of reconstruction—as if unaware that you cannot breathe life into something inherently lacking in substance, i.e. lacking body (the emptiness of certain forms of architecture)—is not possible when the very process of reconstruction is spearheaded by multinational companies, local governments concerned with private ownership or, simply, the rich. For projects of a developmental nature, hard hats on, suits instructing, generate a kind of destruction in the very act of building up, their stoic imposition going against the oxygenating influence of social movement. Detached from being a body—that which gives meaning, as in writing, as in architecture—a cadaver is put in service to something else. A body, in the best-case scenario, is only in service to itself.

 

Inside the body of a building, a horsehair broom leans against a wall, its labour organised in a perfect rectangle beside it, another construction of sorts. [1] On the price sticker affixed to its base dances a woman—the target customer of the broom as burdened by history—though the sticker is slightly torn, resulting in a poetic decapitation. And so she dances headless and faceless, skirt swaying with movement, apron clean. I am of the belief that the difference between a body and a cadaver is a question of poetics, and that probably, perhaps obviously, poetics are about a coincidental alignment of rhythms.  And maybe also the deferral of function. The headless woman just taught me this. Dancing against the push towards purpose, without a head she still sweeps, probably ineffectually, probably, for once, just for fun. And probably because of this happily headless woman, I realise as I write that: I am not interested in restoration, only in tending to the remains.

 

I first wrote that line as the ending to a text that has nothing to do with this one, but here it is now, repurposed. If I amputate it from the body paragraph above and typeset it in motion, as if in a coincidental alignment of rhythms, then suddenly a poem:

 

I am not interested in restoration,

Only in tending to the remains.

 

Similarly, a demountable sits on a construction site in Amsterdam, branded vertically down one side with the following alphanumeric combination: [2]

   

H

A

K

U

1

 

The internet tells me it could be one of many companies, though most probably one residing in Noord-Brabant, one concerned with the rental and leasing of toilets and showers. Said company has an estimated annual turnover of €1.09 million and I’m convinced that that’s a lot of toilets deployed to building sites around the Netherlands in the span of just one year. And even though there is some solace in the fact that this deployment is temporary, there is something foreboding about the fact that each of these temporary deployments accompanies one of a very permanent nature: the destruction of an aged social housing building to make way for a multistory condo complex, as just one assumptive example. But if you repurpose the letters of the company’s name, as if an acronym, then what you are left with is again a type of poem: this time a HA1KU.

 

At the end of last year a train ran off its tracks and landed in the welcoming arms of a whale’s tail. Crisis averted by two public infrastructures becoming one: public art and public transport. Poetic defuntionalisation. Two months later a yellow claw hacks away at a building next to a train track, its mechanic shoulder rotating back and forth on its augmented axis, ripping out a wall so easily as to appear tender and placing its entrails next to the tracks. [3] Every so often a train passes by and the claw becomes science-fictitious, as if it might bend over slightly further and pick the train right off its rails, maybe place it in the welcoming arms of a whale’s tail. There are people on that train too. And there were people in the apartment and when the mechanic arm twists left you see a glimmer of their trace in the soft coral interior wall. And like that you see the building is just like us: it too is pink on the inside.

 

It is no surprise that the act of destroying a building from the inside out is called ‘gutting’, and that the same term is used for the removal of internal organs, like when standing in line at the market you watch the butcher gut your fish. Or when you get someone else’s neighbour on your aluminum table, in which case you can rest assured that as you dive your hands into the pit (also a term common to building) of its stomach then it is by no means a body but again a cadaver, put in service to something else. And it is no surprise because when looking at images of large-scale building sites in motion there is a feeling of unease in my gut, one which reminds me that while this is apparently the image of innovation, I am also bearing witness to an act of desecration as well. [4]

 

My other gut feeling was originally to call this text HA1KU, and to ruminate on the reorganisation of the city through the reorganisation of those letters, the ones found earlier on at the building site in Amsterdam. I would then affix this observation to a sentence that I could edit incrementally so as to eventually arrive at a haiku of my own. But what’s resulted is this in part plus a series of remains. And I have uncharacteristically tended to these remains over the course of two weeks, every now and then adding a sentence, attempting to restore the original idea slowly amidst the feeling of anxiety that without the rigour of a focused writing session it might just collapse. The thing about all this urban redevelopment is that it is the entrails that make up a city—its respiratory organs have always been considered the people who pump life into it. Social oxygenation. But it is becoming increasingly impossible to pump life into the anonymous buildings that push people to the periphery while self-satisfactorily bearing signs across their towering chests, ones which read THE FUTURE IS HERE. [5] Do they think we don’t know that a synonym for the business they are in, which is that of desecration, is that of pollution too?

 

A haiku has three lines, the first spanning five syllables, the second seven and the third five again. It is also customary that it carries a reference to nature, but in this case it seems apt that such a custom will be evacuated momentarily. For in order for the future to be here we must not turn the bodies of buildings into commercial cadavers at an emotionally gutting rate. We must reduce the rate of expansion, reduce twenty syllables to the conventional seventeen, then set them in rows of five-seven-five and repeat:

 

Not interested,

I am, in renovation,

Only in remains.

[1] Anu Vahtra, Goodbye air pollution, the future is here, 2021, fragment from the installation, broom and concrete dust by back wall opposite 15’20’’. 

[2] Anu Vahtra, Goodbye air pollution, the future is here, 2021, fragment from the installation, video loop projected on back wall to the right, 15’20’’.

[3] Anu Vahtra, Goodbye air pollution, the future is here, 2021, fragment from the installation, video loop projected on back wall to the right, 15’20’’.

[4] Anu Vahtra, Goodbye air pollution, the future is here, 2021, fragment from the installation, video loop projected on right adjacent wall from entrance, 1’50’’.

[5] Anu Vahtra, Goodbye air pollution, the future is here, 2021, fragment from the installation, a pair of photographs installed on left adjacent wall from entrance, inkjet print, 21 × 31.5 cm each.