My hand drawing lines across the page. A blank page, completely white, beautifully white and empty, but now with short horizontal dark lines multiplied across it. Blemishes. A splotch. Marks on the paper. Is that better or worse than nothing at all?
The hand (slightly too big, the fingers too thin) is attached to a wrist and then to a long forearm. All of these things are mine. But they are moving (small movements) in a way that I’m not sure I control. More lines have appeared on the paper (I have drawn more lines). The pencil my hand is holding is coloured dark green, but the lead is grey. A few moments ago, I had picked up the pencil from its place on the desk and decided to draw the lines. That was my agency. The agency which creates art. Intent into symbols, marks which relay meaning, meaning which should be beautiful. More horizontal lines. I can hope that they will look like something. But these lines are nothing. Peterson did these lines last week and they made me feel dizzy with emotion. But here they are on my page and they don’t look like anything. Just lines. No other meaning.
The entry to the Dissemination Gestation Capsule shakes and begins to slide. I hold my pencil still and look forward at my Automated Inspiration Imagery (green grass and a slight, rising hill) as if in deep cogitation. Whoever it is will see me bent over my calculatedly outdated materials, just about to generate something conceptually exclusive, something wild, and untamed (and totally revenue forward). The door is halfway open. I stand and turn toward it (hunched, awkward, non-threatening). Half a body in the doorway – a delicate wrist. Maret. Maret! It was Maret. I sit back down and grimace as her face is revealed. She is looking away down the joining walkway. She hadn’t seen me get up. I looked back at the A.I.I. and scrunch my eyebrows.
‘Smith, I need your help with this copy relocation,’ she says. Her voice is gruff and lovely and not at all like the tinkling of bells. Jameson’s voice is like the tinkling of bells, but her Achievements are poor, derivative, crass. Maret’s work is unique. She looks at the A.I.I. without emotion. She turns back toward the joining walkway. She hasn’t looked at me.
‘I- I can try to help. I mean- I want to help.’
I stand up again and sit back down. She still hasn’t looked at me. But maybe she felt the movement or saw me out of the corner of her eye (she must have). I look back at the horizontal lines. I draw another. When I look back up, she is staring directly at me. She smiles (smiles!). She didn’t notice my standing and sitting. Or if she did, she doesn’t care. She steps forward and walks confidently to my desk (archaic, without the Achievement Hatching input screen built into all other creation Units). She stands over me as I pretend to work.
‘Lines eh? That should appeal to the Horizontal Minimalist Groups nicely. There is something to be said for the aesthetics of specificity. But you know Peterson did lines the other day?’
‘I know. I know. But his lines were so revealing and moving, and I thought that if I could just –
‘Imitate. Mimic. Copy?’
‘Not copy- No. Maybe add to? Be part of the conversation?’
‘Are you part of the conversation? Does your work add to the artistic landscape? When’s the last time you submitted an Achievement?’
‘I don’t – I don’t know. It’s just that sometimes, and maybe today, I mean especially today, I sometimes think that I should just give up, stop trying. It doesn’t seem to be working. I could just leave the Centre and do something real. I could learn a skill. Maybe I could plant trees? Have people tell me what to do.’
‘Achievement Hatching isn’t for everyone. You have to flay yourself alive to produce something that causes a response.’
‘But I want to be able to do it.’
Maret doesn’t say anything. I want her to tell me that I’m wrong, that I shouldn’t leave. That I will create something meaningful. She isn’t looking at me; she’s looking back at the doorway. She pushes her hand into the pocket of her jacket (old, worn, but looking impossibly funky on her; how does she wear it so well?) and pulls out a fist.
‘I found this,’ she says. She opens her hand (perfect, beautiful, steady) and in it is a tiny pool of colour. A statue; a frozen snapshot of life.
The bug is dead. It is clearly dead. Its legs are curled around underneath it, on Maret’s skin. Its carapace is a shimmering, oil-spill, green-blue. There is weight in its immobility.
‘Where did you find it?’
‘It was on its back outside my Capsule. I don’t know how it got there. But I could see that I needed it. Can you help me?
I put my hand out. Maret pulls back (of course she does). It is beautiful in her hand. I bend down under my desk to swipe a command. A door in the wall of the capsule opens. It reveals a dark black space just bigger than a human being. If they were crouching and weren’t too afraid.
‘Your relocator is that big? Is that even sanctioned?’
‘I know, yeah it was expensive. But for the big projects…’ I say. Maret hasn’t moved. ‘How do you want to present it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do it just like it is, like that. In your hand. It’s perfect.’
It is perfect like that in her hand. I prime the relocator. She moves her hand and the bug into the dark space. I swipe my hand again.
‘That easy?’ she says pulling her hand out of the empty space. She has made a fist, is protecting her prize.
‘I need easy.’
We look at the Display Unit. The A.I.I has disappeared and now the insect is floating like a jewel in space (already we have something).
‘Make it bigger. Where’s my hand?’
I make the image bigger so that the bug fills the space of the capsule. Its legs are bent, dead, pushing against the hand that is no longer there. It is still beautiful, a glimpse at something more. Maret’s hand is conspicuous in its absence. Present in its removal.
‘It doesn’t relocate everything. I guess so that you can hold things up into it.’
‘It doesn’t matter. Its better this way,’ Maret says.
It was better. The invisibility of the framework set the otherness of the piece (Art, this is art).
‘Good. Let me send it to my platform. This should cause a response, a visceral reaction in those that allow themselves to see it.’
Maret drops the bug on the ground. She is looking at her phone (perfectly ordinary) she swipes a few times. Now she is smiling.
The phone is buzzing as she puts it in her pocket. How many responses have already come in (how much revenue already generated)?
‘Thanks Smith, I do owe you.’ She looks at me full in the face. I want to turn away but force my eyes to catch hers (such amazing, brown eyes). She wavers for a moment (indecision?) and then leans forward and kisses me. Softly. Her lips and breath are warm against my cheek. I can’t move. Can’t breathe (how am I supposed to react?). The doorway opens once again, and she is gone. On the desk is my piece of paper with a few smudged lines drawn across it.
The room is half-full. Long tables. People standing, sitting. Talking to each other. They stare at their phone hands. Most will already have seen Maret’s Relocation. A few smiles. I can’t see everything. Look down at my feet (try not to walk too quickly). I push the palm of my hand to the front zipper of my trousers (is it open?). There isn’t a long line for food. I wonder what to eat. What would others eat? I’m too hungry. Shepard is sitting with her back to me. She has black beans and rice. That would be fine. Not my favourite but if Shepard is eating it then it then maybe I should as well.
‘Did you see Maret’s Beetle? Isn’t it incredible? So technical. And the decision to have it floating like that so that you can see the full outline of the carapace?’ Jameson is standing next to me (how did I not see her?). I smile a small smile (a weak smile) and nod. ‘It was just so good. And so many responses. She will be able to post anything at all soon. She’ll generate so much revenue. Get a bigger capsule. Maybe she’ll be able to afford a window. She’s genius.’
‘Yeah- I mean yes, it was beautiful. I saw it before she relocated. I – I mean to say. I helped her with the relocation,’ I said. I did not look at Jameson yet.
Her hand reached out and touched mine. She is looking at me. She is breath-taking. I can see why her Figure Work is so popular. Maybe she isn’t derivative. Maybe she has just found her own form of art.
‘No, really? That’s great. But I didn’t see your name. You should get credit. A link to a piece like that would really expand your following, Smith.’
‘I was just helping.’
‘And you should get credit for that. That could be your thing, your brand. You are helpful, Smith.’
‘I want to make art.’
‘Oh well, if you’re sure. What was the reaction to your last Achievement? I’m sorry if I didn’t see it.’
‘It was a drawing. Horizontal lines across a page.’
‘Oh yeah? Like Peterson? His was good wasn’t it? But he’s been doing Minimalistic Emotive Response Pieces for years now.’
‘I wanted it to be good, to be better. I wanted the feeling of the fog over a lake on a cold morning before anyone else has woken up. When everything is fresh and promising, and you know that you will be somewhere warm soon. I think – it didn’t work.’
‘I’m sorry I didn’t see it. But if you’d done something like the beetle… before Maret of course…’
Jameson moves forward. She’s in front of me in the line now. She’s taking her food (not black beans and rice). I step forward as well, but my hands shake as I lift them. I shake my head a little (I’ve just remembered something) and turn away.
‘Aren’t you eating?’ Jameson asks.
‘No- no. I just remembered something. I’m not hungry anyway. See you Jameson.’
I’m outside now. The sky is grey-black. The ground is grey. The walls of the Dissemination Centre are grey. But there is a strip of green not far away. Not the Creativity Garden, of course. But some plants and grass. Behind the Refuse Storage Shed. I shuffle quickly there; I look around to make sure no one sees me. The Centre looms to my right. I’m allowed to be here I think but people would ask questions if they saw me. This isn’t what other people do (it’s a strange thing to do; there is no one else here). If I can find a beetle, something like Maret’s, then I should be able to relocate it. After all I was the one who prepared it! I won’t get as many responses but at least something (why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I? God, I hate myself).
There is less greenery than I had thought. Green-brown grass growing next to a concrete ledge. A spindly bush with only a few grey leaves hanging on to the far branches. Then a gutter and a splotch of paint. Beyond is a wire fence and a black tarmac of the road. I feel a sudden rush at being there; I am doing something unusual, something new. The road is empty, silent. I look at the grass, move a few blades with my foot. There is nothing living here. I look down towards the gutter. A breath of wind moves along it. There is something black, something unmoving. It is a small piece of rubber (is that something?). A little way further and then I look sideway. There are people walking toward me. Who are they? I see it behind the Refuse Storage Shed. A mottled white thing about the length of a finger. Maybe some sort of animal? One end is red against the concrete. A sinewy ball with something white at its end. I look closer (how exciting!). A click from my ankle as I crouch down. There is a stick next to my right foot. I pick it up and use it to press against the thing – it does not want to move and then with a little more pressure rolls over. An unevenly cut, jagged white fingernail. A bony knuckle. At the end the skin sawn and still soft. The deep red of matted blood. It is a finger! But no other blood around, none on the grey of the concrete. The white I had seen is a knob of bone (well there’s a thing).
‘Smith, what the hell are you doing out here?’
Maret’s voice (her shadow next to me on the concrete). Maret! I grab the finger (cold, plastic) and push it deep into my coat pocket. I hope there is no blood on me (I can say that it is paint). I turn around, still in a crouch, and look up at Maret. She is standing with one hand on a hip and the other holding her Synthetic Smoke Device.
‘Seriously, what the fuck?’
‘Looking for nature. For something to inspire me.’
‘Behind the Refuse Shed? What could you possibly be looking for here? You’d fucking better not be looking for beetles. That’s my form now.’ She smiles to show that she isn’t really angry (or can’t imagine that I would be bold enough to imitate her).
I’m standing now and notice how Maret is actually shorter than me, not taller as I’d always thought. She turns her head to blow smoke away from my face, then steps slightly closer (my hands are shaking). Her smile makes me dizzy (a single dimple nestled into the fat of her cheek). I feel a weakening of my legs.
‘Thanks for your help, Smith. I’ve had so many responses. I’m seen now.’
She brings her face closer to mine so that all I see are her eyes, and then all I feel are her lips. She pulls back and looks quizzically at me (it’s not possible, this is not possible). ‘I want to do something to thank you.’
‘Oh – I mean you don’t need to – but maybe, could you give me some credit? Nothing big. Just link me underneath the piece? Jameson said-
‘Jameson’s an idiot. She doesn’t understand that there can only be one conceptualising source for something like that. She’s not an artist like us. She deals with base responses, with lust and love. No, no you wouldn’t like that. Me taking pity on you. You have your own art, fond something that speaks to you; which represents a perspective of reality which is solely yours. How did the line drawing go?’
‘It wasn’t- it wasn’t what I wanted.’
The breeze plays around our legs. In the distance I can hear the buzz of a generator. The roar of a vehicle passing by. I look down at the shabbiness of my clothing. In my pocket I can just about feel the weight of the finger (or imagine I can). It fixes meaning, gives me some hope of being able to create something real. Maret’s looking into mine. She wants to own me to control me. But I want to kiss her again (I’m not worth more than being her pet).
‘That’s not what I meant when I said I wanted to thank you.’
‘I know- I mean, you don’t need to thank me,’ I say. I look away from her so that I can move again, dash back towards the Dissemination Centre. A ledge trips me so that I stumble, catch my balance, stumble again. Maret is still watching with strange expression (I had to look, but it’s too late now, I need to leave). In through the door and safely back in the narrow windowless corridors. Peterson passes by (tall and gaunt, as if empty) but does not look down, does not smile.
The finger is cold but lovely. It is longer and thicker than mine, yet it feels insubstantial. I hold it in the relocator at an angle to show the nail, and then, as the gaze descends, the white, unblemished skin, and finally the sharp contrasting reality of blood and bone. There is a moment and then it is scanned, and I walk back to the desk. The finger can be dropped into the Surplus Disposal Unit, but my hand hovers. Instead I open a desk drawer and push it behind loose paper and materials (I really should clean my desk). The finger hangs transmuted and distorted in the air. I make it larger again, as with the beetle. The same feeling, the same response at seeing something new, something different; nothing like this has been done yet, at least in the Centre. This is mine. It isn’t the what I had imagined creating, but what had I ever wanted to create (had I ever known)? The finger is the thing. A single disembodied reminder that before the Centre, before the sanitation of our lives, the finite nature of ourselves was identifiable and recognisable (that felt good to think, it was a good thought). It is a simple thing to save the image and send it to my platform.
I feel good. Finally, I feel good. This justifies everything, all those decisions. This makes my choices worthwhile. It makes me worthwhile.
‘Smith! I can’t believe it Smith. Who would have thought it?’ Jameson’s white teeth shine seemingly larger than her face, larger than life. A split moment of indecision in that smile and then it is joyful again. She reaches her hand out; it doesn’t quite meet my skin. Here is the response, the one all the notifications indicated but couldn’t properly represent: this beautiful person smiling at me.
‘I was lucky,’ I say. It was lucky (or was it? Did the others go out looking like I did, would they have done the same?).
Jameson shakes her head. There are other faces looking at me now. Other people have moved closer. Peterson is there, reaching out a hand; this doesn’t seem real. When I had sent the finger to my platform, I had known I was doing something big, and the responses that had immediately come in had confirmed it. Being confronted with this growing gaggle of people is dream-like. My head feels light on my shoulders (I’m dizzy) – my breath is coming too quickly. I smile half-heartedly (is the movement charmingly self-deprecating?) and shake my head. Someone has bought me food and Jameson guides me to a table. She is gushing, is nice. I try to eat, but they are still watching me (I might spill food or chew too little). The noise is getting too much. I can’t hear any single voice. Just the murmur of continual speech. Jameson is saying something (still smiling, nodding). I can’t hear her, but scan the faces for something to fix my gaze. Maret is there behind the others. Her expression is rigid, untranslatable.
‘I’m- Thank you- I’m going to have to go.’ I stand and swing my legs awkwardly form under the bench. I pretend not to hear their questions (recriminations). The door. The corridor (back to safety, solitude, to my capsule).
The entry way judders. The wrist and the face. But this time she is not smiling (if only she was smiling!). Her expression is determined, thoughtful.
‘Where is it, Smith,’ she says. She walks into the room purposefully; it’s hers. She has taken control of it, of this space (of me).
‘I – I – What do you mean?’
‘The thing, the dead thing. The finger! Goddamn it Smith you know what I mean.’
‘Why do you fucking think Smith? Because it’s mine! Of course, it’s mine. I show you something real, some true act of artistry and you try to mimic it. Try to copy it. Like you do everything. You don’t have a single original, creative thought, do you?’
‘That’s not fair- I found that- It was my-
‘Smith. Listen,’ she says. Maret steps toward me and takes my hand. She seems calm and forgiving now (was I wrong? Did I steal from her?) ‘Give me the finger. We’ll explain what happened, that I used your relocator and that the finished work was accidentally sent to your platform when it should have been sent to mine. After all it is a clear progression from my beetle. It is a clear delineation of the evolution of my art. Now, where is it?’
‘In the drawer,’ I say (she is right, it was crazy to think that I had created the piece). I point at the drawer which Maret opens and rummages through until she finds the finger. Her frantic movements find the touchscreen and the relocator opens behind her, a black mouth in the whiteness of the capsule wall (how easy to step forward and with both hands give her a push).
‘It’s very real isn’t it?’ she asks. ‘How come this was relocated when my hand wasn’t?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say (although I can guess).
‘I can guess,’ she says. ‘Now relocate it again, and this time we’ll send it to my platform, with an explanation of the truth. And then maybe, who knows, you and I could- could spend some time together.’
I can feel the warmth in her tone; the promise of acceptance, of healing. Yes, it was impossible to believe that I had created art. This is where I belong, as Maret’s helper. I could be Maret’s assistant, her shadow (her pet).
As I’m bent over to reach the finger into the relocator I feel the sudden weight of hands on my back. The flash of black and pain as my head hits the wall. I’m on the ground and still feeling a weight behind me, pushing at my legs. Then the light disappearing as the opening of the relocator closes. I can’t see anything. Can’t feel anything but the solidity of the wall against my side.
I feel happy in here, in this darkness. There are no sounds, just the distant thumping of the beating of my heart. The temperature is constant, the space cosy. The only unpleasant sensation is the stickiness of the blood that has seeped lava-slow down my temple to my right eyebrow. I feel no need to try to slide the door; I cannot even find which wall it is on. Maret (beautiful, genius Maret) must be outside but I can’t hear her. She’ll leave soon, will have to resume her normal life; only when she knows I’m gone will she be back to relocate.
I think I’ll enjoy being art. I’ll be seen, and not judged on what I say, what I do or don’t accomplish. I’ll be called beautiful just for existing as an observable product. It’s hard to think in this space, but I do wonder how they’ll see me. As I am now or in some way altered? Will they see me as I was young, when I held promise, or old, geriatric, having accomplished nothing? Will they see how difficult it was, every day to live with myself? Not that any of that matter now. The space is warm and cosy. I think I’ll enjoy being art.