Stand out of my sunlight – he said.
Blinding me with white light will not be the answer – said I.
The first to speak was a certain Diogenes the Cynic, late 300s BC, when Alexander the Great asked him if there was anything in the world he could make come true. But all Diogenes wanted was for The Great to step away from the sun.
The second person speaking is Myself – cynical at times – confronted by the student welfare manager. She opens a cardboard box and therein lies a small tablet. As she turns it on, it starts to radiate a dazzling white light, and I grimace and withdraw like Count Dracula in the midday light.
But we bought it for you, you´ll be the first to try it out.
All I asked was to move my desk and chair from my bleak, dark room to any place in the building near a window. A view I can look out on so my body has a vague feeling of the natural day/night flow during these dark winter months. I also think – how is one supposed to write anything when one is holed up in a room surrounded by high walls? Visible only through a foggy and distant glass ceiling, the sky has been pushed too far away.
Moving is unfortunately not possible – I am told.
What is happening to the function of windows? More and more buildings today are built with windows that cannot be opened. They are becoming useless infrastructures. A previous boyfriend of mine knows something about how much I love to open them. He could even anticipate when I would do it. During a conversation verging on the thorny I suddenly stood up to open the window and let some fresh air in. When I decided to break up with him he gestured eloquently in an attempt to manually ventilate the room: go on, open the window. Aria, aria, aria. And off he went – into the air.
My school building is the farthest representation of art school I could have imagined. Every morning upon arrival, we stamp our card. Our trajectories, where we walk and what rooms we use are marked by the constant tap of our badge. It gives the whole place a distinct 1984 feel. Walls are naked concrete. The bare sight of them gives me shivers as I walk down the stairs, although the temperature is probably constant in every single part of the building. Surfaces are cold, metallic, aseptic. They make me think of morgue tables. They make me think of scalpels. It is hard to imagine that a new generation of dreamy and naïve artists will come out of here. What I can imagine coming out of here is humanoids or factory workers. Students seem to be already accustomed to wearing uniforms and working clothes. Badges dangle from retractable wires, ski-pass style. Doors do have handles, but most of them have abandoned their original function. Every time I try to push my skinny frame against one of the heavy doors I feel like a modern-time Sisiphus.
I don’t know where I got this idea, and it might as well be a romantic version of art school, but in my mind art school meant old, warm wooden surfaces, smoothed by thousands of elbows, year after year. It meant poetic and obscene words scribbled across bathroom doors and carved on desks by generations of bored students who learnt patience, the way inmates learn how to dig a tunnel with a spoon.
For a long time, the idea of going to art school did not meet my parents’ approval. Now that I am thirty-four and they have long since given up on me, I could finally attend it without feeling guilty. Since this school did not adhere to my preconceived idea of what it should be, I decided to visit other art academies. I wrote desultory applications for exchange projects that would legitimise my presence abroad. I visited the art academy in Gothenburg. In the photography labs I saw the occasional cup of coffee perilously sitting by a computer or a scanner. In the wood workshop, nobody wore safety shoes with a metal tip or protective goggles. People seemed a little more relaxed. I made a mental note to look up statistics for health and safety accidents at art schools.
Last semester I went away on exchange to the art academy in Brussels. Since the Atélier Photo consisted of a bunch of broken enlargers, ancient plastic trays and a chaotic mix of empty or expired bottles of chemicals, I decided to use my time on exchange to focus on writing, which I could do from a bunch of excellent cafes in St Gilles, in the warm embrace of the common people.
As soon as I crossed its threshold I knew it. Verschueren would become my second home, the desk from which I would write, read and practice the art of social observation. The reasons why Verschueren became the perfect place to write are as follows. Firstly, the tables: wooden, old, just about the right size and height to allow a pleasant writing experience; (2) a variegated, eccentric clientele with a few meaningful regulars; (3) a music selection sensibly fitting the energy of the day; and (4) the windows: wide and low enough to let the eyes wander from the old church of St Gilles where gypsies play the accordion and across to the people sitting around small tables drinking un verre.
These days I write from home in a tiny wood-panelled room, under a slanted roof. In the room there is just enough space for a tiny bed, where I like to lie and read or just stare at the ceiling, listening to the noises of the house. The walls have been glued and covered with grainy wallpaper, painted over in white. On the right side of my desk I stick notes, tiny Indian ink scribbles and a postcard where a man lying in bed asks his wife, who is looking out of the window, whether it is dark or light grey. The desk is right in front of the window, facing north-west, so the light is always a little oblique. The window sill is just wide enough for my plant Paolina to sit on. Her leaves used to be a vibrant purple but since I moved to Bergen they have gotten paler and paler.
I feel you, I tell Paolina, as she stares melancholically out of the window, craving the sunlight. Who knows, maybe she is going to become a great existentialist writer some day.