warehouse warehouse

I ♥ Email

by Max Grau

The first time I ever told another human being that I loved them, was via email.
It must have been ca. the year 2000.
My just recently registered email account still provided some fresh-out-of-the-box excitement, furtherly fueled by having only sporadic access. Online time was still payed for by the minute and thereby strictly limited to an hour a week. I guess at the time, I used email mostly to forward those chain-letter things that were popular for a second. I remember at some point writing emails to small bands I liked, but this must have been later. I’m not really sure, what made it seem like a good idea to use this wildly unfamiliar tool for such a personal act 1. It was probably all about access. Having somebody’s contact. Being to shy to talk on the phone. Not owning a mobile. Not finding out about texting until I was 17. What other options would there have been?

I really don’t remember the email’s exact text. Only the message. Back then, I probably did use the words ›love‹, ›I‹ and ›you‹ 2 and even though I keep reading that all our data will be permanently and forever accessible on the internet, I couldn’t retrace that 17 year old email for the life of me.

Of course back then I didn’t receive the daily ton of emails yet, and therefore was unsure, wether the online interface of my webmail provider would automatically show unread messages in the inbox or if I’d have to hit F5 to refresh the page manually. eBay used to worked like that 3. This was probably the first email I ever wrote, were the answer was eagerly waited for.
So I spent my online hour hitting refresh.
A lot.
I don’t remember how long it took the other person to reply, but it was long enough for my provider to update its interface, introducing a small pop-up window that would hover on top of whatever other online activity you could think of, showing a neutral looking grey pre-emoji face, that would change to smile-y yellow in case of unread mail.
I still hit refresh.
Just to be sure.

In a weird way, I think: Not that much has changed. Many of my intense interpersonal experiences still seem to cary some traces from that first innocent proto-cyborg-love effort 4.
Physically, I like being alone. Of course I also like meeting people, hanging out together, getting drunk, go dancing, making out, having sex whatever. Just not… every day. I don’t know. Those things are rarely up for free configuration.Circumstances never seem to be easy. Living in different cities or countries, leading different lives, being busy, being difficult, being anxious… Once there’s a certain level of intimacy, app-based communication on a semi-daily basis becomes an element as crucial as seeing each other. Texting somebody when you see funny stuff in the street. When you had a weird day. Writing to somebody about all the incoherent random things that happen during a day, thereby transforming them into narrative. Producing sense. Producing form in formlessness. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Sometimes it almost seems like the intimacy is easier to keep up that way. What’s hard and difficult, is to facilitate actual bodies in space. I’ve been through intense periods texting, and facebook messaging and whatsapping and telegramming and skyping 5. My last somewhat serious relationship produced at least a hundred pages of emailing. So in a weird way, that moment of waiting for a reply, waiting for the emoji to turn yellow, waiting for a very specifically designed high-end notification sound or vibrating pattern is still very much part of my life. Sometimes I’m surprised about the bodily response towards a technical notification. The small bump of endorphins. Brief involuntary smiles, triggered by a stupidly shaped black object vibrating in a pattern, that I would find very confusing, were any other object to employ such movements.

I sometimes wonder about the weird gap in between these very private or intimate affective reactions to highly normalized notifications. How many times have I sworn to myself to change the sound of my phone, after unsuccessfully checking for new messages, because another person’s device triggered a (proto-pavlovian?) response in me?
But then we don’t.
And I really don’t know why.
Sometimes this corporate synchronization does produce moments of sheer beauty.
I love the minute after an airplane lands, when everybody turns their phone back on and there’s one or two minutes of Phillip Glass like

ping ping
ping ping ping
ping ping
ping ping
ping

These days I probably wouldn’t confess my love via email.
But this has more to do with the fact, that I think love is a weird and somewhat… tacky word.
Romantic love a rather confusing concept.
Not because I started mistrusting the medium.

In a way I still do confess my love to people on a semi-regular basis. Via email. Except that it’s not one person, but a group of friends. And I guess it’s not exactly clear what type of love we are talking about. If I could just freely decide how to love my friends, it would totally go for the Jack Smith ›Normal Love‹ type. But well… let’s not kid ourselves.


Fußnoten

  1. some would argue that it’s the perfect tool, since there’s nothing personal about saying: I love you…

  2. respectively their German equivalents

  3. I found out the hard way

  4. just in case you’re wondering: Of course it didn’t work out. I received a devastatingly short reply weeks later.

  5. my friend S. recently kept looking at his phone, deep thought wrinkles on his forehead, murmuring: »Huuumm. Which app do I use with him?«

  6. phew. Sorry. That seems like a cynical definition of ›art work‹

  7. Because who cares any longer, about the stupid opaque ways boring hipness is governed.

  8. I’m not really sure what all this naming is about. It felt almost like a dare to myself to actually type some of the names. As if the whole thing becomes more real this way. Strange…

  9. It’s not just cute cute. It’s the countryside. Things get real. I had to call a hornet motherfucker

  10. which I was never able to speak

  11. I wondered if he read Negri/Hardt

  12. as opposed to business or organizational emailing

  13. the friendship emails vary in length but mostly they contain +/- 30.000 characters

Normal Love (1963) A film by JACK SMITH. Color, Sound, 16mm, 103 mins

Almost a year ago I started – out of what in retrospect seems like a semi-serious artistic- / personal-crisis – writing a newsletter column, that not just tries to talk about friendship but also gets send out to my actual friends. While other people can sign up for it, in the beginning I didn’t really care if anybody else would read it. It doesn’t exactly follow the logic of an art-work, produced to circulate in whatever symbolical-surplus generating context/institution/etc 6. Yet somehow I still decided to publish it via my website, thereby framing it as part of my practice. I guess I’m worried about the total retreat into privateness. The full-on hobby-fication of what I do. If I was gonna spend a lot of time on it, use my weirdly fractured art-school education to make sense of things, why not just claim it to be a ›project‹? Also, wouldn’t it be nice, if I would get away with it? If I wouldn’t have to separate writing to my friends form my ›serious‹ art practice? Not that I would have anything more serious going on at the moment. In a way it doesn’t get more serious than this. Since it has actual consequences for my life. It sounds a little cheesy – but I decided to force myself to say more cheesy things 7 – but I did get into art mostly because to become an artist held to me the (probably slightly dated) promise of leading a life that wasn’t gonna be boring or as depressing, as alienated and just… exciting. Um yeah… but that’s a different issue. I have to think about this more. But I do find myself at openings, terribly depressed, wondering: when has fancy dressing become so conformably boring.

So…

The newsletter thing:

There are specific people I think about while writing. And specific things that I want them to know about me, which sometimes seem hard to communicate in immediate conversation. I thought a lot about committing to friendship by saying certain things you can’t take back. I naturally gravitate towards a type of loner-ism. Of hiding or withdrawing, when not feeling well. Which happens a lot. Being scared by certain forms of intimacy. Letting people in. Accepting that everybody’s weird and messed up and won’t necessarily leave you, once they realize that you sometimes think about… I don’t know… doing Heroin? Because sometimes you’re really tired of thinking and caring?
Or maybe less dramatic: Having weird greasy food delivered via Foodora just because you don’t wan’t to leave the house, while you watch episode after episode of the Simpsons. Although Foodora’s employment politics scare the living hell out of you. But sometimes You. Really. Don’t. Want to leave the house.

Of course these aren’t the scary parts.

The scary parts are: I really need my friends. Without them I would be lost. Without them, living in Berlin would be intolerable. Without them writing would be pointless. Without them, every night would be shit. Without them I wouldn’t have had a single interesting thought. Without them, I would probably be a terrible person.
What’s even scarier, is that those are not abstract ›people‹. Those are very concrete persons in my life. And none of those relationships is static but in permanent flux. Some of them I see regularly, others I’ve only met once or twice but felt deeply connected to. I’m thinking about Adam, Ahmed, Anette, Bruce, Caitlin, Charlie, Coni, Nina, Julian, Mikki, Jan, Jonas, Lennart, Sarah, Hasso, Ulf, Mirjam, Miriam, Shama, Martina, Natalie, Paulette, Tom, Annekke, Nucker, Mona, Hannah, Sterling – and I’m sure I’m missing a ton. Then there are all these friends I’ve never met. There’s Andy, Joan, Gary, Chris, Chris, Chris, Mike, Jack, Harun, Dave, Nina, Kurt, Thomas, Sigmar, Fred, Simone, Mark, René, Roland, JG, GG, Mark.8

When I recently spent some time at my mother’s house – feeding the cats while she was on vacation, trying to work on various texts/ideas but mostly sitting in the garden, staring at nothing in particular, talking to animals 9 something strange occurred. One of the things I like to do when I visit the middle of nowhere, is go running. The village literally ends behind my mother’s backyard. From there on it’s endless fields, a small forrest (of which I’m sorta scared) and almost invisible remnants of a former concentration camp (which has no real role in this story. But atmospherically, it’s very present. Whenever I pass it, I turn off the music and start walking. To do otherwise just seems… wrong.)
In the fields I sometimes scream while running. And do weird things with my arms. Raising them to the sky (think: Rocky), which looks ridiculous but in terms of how it rearranges your body – it feels incredibly. Like a weight being lifted from your chest. Like MDMA hitting you the exact right moment. Like trying to sleep in an airplane and finally finding that one position that works. I guess it’s no coincidence that raising your arms to the sky became a pose of victory and/or euphoria. Since I seemed to have arrived with a considerable amount of tension I mostly listened to the first Bad Brains record, sometimes breaking into weird slam dance moves while running.
I guess I’m just in my head a lot. So even out there, in the middle of nowhere – totally stoned on endorphins or whatever is going on when you run past your body’s resources – there’s still some focus reserved to scan the environment for other people. And should there be any: tone down the weirdness a little.

So I was very aware of the women I kept seeing in the distance. Almost every time I went for a run she was there, leaning against her parked car, smoking. She was always out there in the same spot on a little dirt road. Far enough for us to stay in anonymous distance, but close enough to recognize her, noticing that she was wearing the same clothes every day. Black zipper hoodie. Blue Jeans. Couldn’t see the shoes. Not bringing a jacket seemed weird for the time of the year. Sometimes I saw her finishing up the cigarette and immediately getting in the car driving away.

I really wondered what’s going on. Since it’s a very small town I expected nothing but the worst. Her husband is a terrible person who gets aggressive and touchy when drunk, she plans to leave him. Every day she drives out there, smoking a cigarette for courage, planning – and then finally: one day while she is out there smoking, he takes the other car over to the bar and then baam… she’s gone. New life. Cue: Golden Earing – Radar Love. Or she has cancer and secretly smokes weed. Because she read about it on the internet but her family is too narrowly minded to see that this actually works. Or she’s pregnant and nobody knows yet and she hasn’t decided to keep it and with every cigarette the idea of an abortion becomes slightly more bearable because surely the fetus already has some sort of damage. That’s what it says on package now.

I’ve started to re-watch old episodes of Twin Peaks. Maybe that has been on my mind a little too much lately. But I guess it’s safe to say that driving out in the fields to smoke a cigarette is not exactly a hobby or something you do for pleasure.

Hmm.

I kept thinking about that woman and the places my mind went with her.
Growing up in that shitty small town, I felt nothing but spite for people comfortably living there. Which seems like a total adequate and necessary teenage response to small town-ness.
These days however, when I come to visit, something strange happens. Taking the bus, I find myself imitating the local dialect 10, I feel a tiny bit ridiculous for reading fancy books. I worry about being the pretentious guy who moved to the big city. To be clear, this is really a neurotic reaction. Except my mother and my step-dad and one old friend I don’t really know anybody in this town. And furthermore nobody knows me. I’m well aware that not a single person on that bus gives a flying fuck how I talk or what kind of books I read. While as a teenager I deeply desired not to belong there and – since it wasn’t clear yet if I’d ever make it out of there – technically did, as a grown up I clearly don’t belong there anymore. Yet it is all very familiar. Whenever I read about those type of election results, where big-city and rural-ness are schismatically unreconciled, I think of the small town that I used to hate and now feel presumptuous for hating.

Yesterday, after having spend hours at the occupied Volksbühne, after listening to the discussions, the ideas, the disputes, after trying to find out who the squatters are, what they want, if they want something, after listening to proposals how to talk as a group, how to organize, after becoming more and more amazed by the image of the occupied Volksbühne, by the aimlessness with which we wandered around, after not caring anymore that the squatters probably have a naive vision of theater, after all our smartphones had shown the results of the election, I went to this demonstration in front of the hotel were the AfD members celebrated that they will be part of the German parliament for the next four years.
Sometimes I choke up at demonstrations.
In the past I found myself saying things like: Yeah but that’s not gonna change anything, is it? Shouldn’t we think of new forms of protest? And of course it’s hard to argue with that. I do remember watching the images of the London protests against the Iraq war in 2003 on TV and how fucked up it felt – even as a teenager with short attention span in a different country – when three million people taking it to the streets didn’t do shit to change their government’s decisions. I didn’t bother much with demonstrations for the most part of my twenties, feeling cynical and slightly jaded and only started going again more frequently in the last two years. These days I tend to look at it as an act of self care. Which might be detached and cynical in its own way. But I feel: at least that’s something nobody can take away from you. When shit goes down you don’t want to be alone. It’s hard for me to figure out wether that’s actually hopelessness, to think: yeah of course, shouting reductionist slogans doesn’t do much, but at least we have each other for a couple of hours.
Or if that’s power?
Exit the busy neo-liberal impact loop were every fucking thing you do has to serve a purpose in whatever linear understanding of money/power/glory you chose? Maybe it’s actual power to know that this ›isn’t gonna change anything‹ and still come?
I really don’t know.
Until somebody has a better idea, I’ll keep going.
Can’t hurt, can it?

I’ve been telling a lot of people about this anecdote I read in Claire Bishop’s ›Artificial Hells‹. I don’t really remember how this ended up on my mind. It’s been a few years since I read the book. I remembered how there’s this chapter that swerves away from the main topic of the book – participatory art – in an interesting way. Trying to write the ›history‹ of participatory art, Bishop dedicates a whole chapter to approaches in different countries of the Soviet Union during Socialism. Whereas from today’s POV the participation/inclusion of spectators/amateurs/non-artists is often interpreted as a leftist gesture of democratization, de-hierarchization, authentication etc. – the approach in the Soviet context was somewhat different. While I remember reading about a wide range of approaches and attitudes – always in relation towards the particular circumstances in the artist’s own specific country, the level of repression and so on – what runs through Bishop’s rendition of this period is a complex relation between social and private. How to make participatory art if participation is imposed by the state in every aspect of day to day life? How to make political art if society is permeated by political ideology? How to make public art if censorship and surveillance install a climate were even your most private moments feel public?

I vividly remember Bishop’s account of performance art in Romania during the Ceaușescu regime. Often you would only show your work to intimate friends, a secretive group of co-conspirators against state-sanctioned Soviet Realism. To people you could trust not to rat on you. In my recollection, this group of artists is driving to the countryside – it’s winter, there’s one or two bleak b/w photos of people standing in the snow, watching a man doing obscure things. I remember that they would perform one after each other, the non-performing persons taking photos. I remember pretty hardcore body art. Burying yourself. Cutting. Bloodshed in empty snow-white landscapes at the end of the world. I think I first read ›Artificial Hells‹ during my second year of art school. At this school, body art had a bit of a tradition. Also there were a lot of people that I considered naive. Pathos was the (well… my) enemy. I remember sneering at this type of heroic dedication. While technically aware that circumstances in late 70’s Romania don’t really translate to 2010 small town Germany, I was somehow of annoyed by this. It’s a little bit like this thing I still find myself doing when reading complicated books. When I’m not really concentrated enough or maybe the text is just way over my head, I find myself picking imaginary fights with the content, trying to find flaws or debunk it, basically shutting myself down, finding reasons to not engage, not do the hard work of understanding what’s going on.
So yeah, I guess there was something threateningly complicated about a group of people in the late 70’s Romanian woods trying to set themselves on fire.
Like…
Why on earth would you do that?

When the anecdote entered my mind again a few weeks ago (and somehow never left since then…) it was almost the opposite. I found myself glorifying this mythical dedication. When I told the story, I left out the part that there are photographs. In my mind – and in my re-telling of the story – this group of artists found it so necessary to do these things, that they risked their health, maybe their life, not just due to the intensity of the performance but because if they’d been discovered, repercussions could have been severe. So to project yourself into the head of one of those artists would mean, that one day you have an idea, you keep working on that idea, maybe talk to your two most trusted friends about it and then – at some point – decide that this idea is worthy of driving out to the woods. Far away from everybody. To show four people how you try to dig your own grave and lie in the freezing cold ground for 24 hours. Without any chance of ever making money from that. Of being written about. No perspective of this leading to a job at a university. Of being admired by anybody else than the three people who are out there with you, who are already your closest friends. This performance will not lead to a career. It will not at some point make everything okay.
Except maybe it’s the only way to make things okay.
Because nothing is and probably never will be.
And you had an idea that you believed so strongly in that… Well you catch my drift.

Turns out it is more complicated than that. While I’m sometimes sloppy with sources and not always the most attentive reader, I do research. When I re-read the chapter this morning, I realized that my mind went rogue with this anecdote. No such thing seemed to have happened. Parts of it did. Acted out by a wildly diverse group of artists, in very different countries over a time span of roughly 30 years. My memory condensed all these bits and pieces to an almost ridiculous heroic amalgamation of artistic intensity and solipsism.

I guess it’s fairly obvious why this episode got a little out of hand in my imagination. Once this text is done, if I manage to somehow pull this off, make into at least a semi-coherent thing, I’ll share it on Facebook, maybe slap it together with the invitation to an exhibition in November, hope that many people read it, hope that people like it, hope that at some point I can collect all these dispersed things I wrote over the last two or three years and maybe make a proper book out of them, hope to get invited to things, hope to maybe meet people who share the sensibilities, you know… It’s not that I think that these things are particularly wrong or evil. It’s just so nice to imagine for a second it could be different. That in the end, art making is really about none of the above.

Quite different than what I fantasized about, but beautiful nevertheless: Jiří Kovanda – I Arranged to Meet a Few Friend…We Were Standing in a Small Group on the Square, Talking…Suddenly, I Started Running; I Raced Across the Square and Disappeared into Melantrich Street...January 23, 1978

So yesterday at the demonstration I met this man. When he first approached us, I was a bit worried. He seemed super agitated. And not in the fun Antifa way. But sorta seriously in trouble. For some reason he decided that we were the right people to talk to and started a big hyper-speed ramble about how fucked up everything is and how all the parties are the same and how… I don’t even remember the beginning, because I was tensely trying to find out if he’s one of the chemtrails whackjobs, or the antisemite global conspiracy type or a AfD protest-vote those-up-there guy who had a rough life. But it turned out that I wildly misjudged him. His rambling became more complex. He pointed out how the leftist party made strategic mistakes by trying to get voters back by joining into refugee bashing, how in a way it’s ridiculous to shed a tear about this election when global enterprises out-smarted and out-powered the nation-state many years ago 11. He talked about how democracy seems to be deeply in trouble since we’re now basically at the point were there’s always a 50/50 type of situation. A type of stalemate. A dissent that can’t be voted away. He gained momentum when he watched somebody looking at their phone. »Try to be offline for 10 minutes and don’t answer emails for a day, that would be more radical than any so called political party or gesture.« He talked about traveling, about being to places in Jordan were people left their well paying jobs and families to join ISIS, how we can’t always pretend that it’s only poor and uneducated losers who cause trouble, wether it’s Trump supporters, AfD or global terrorism. Meeting him was like getting lost on Wikipedia. Spending dark nights, clicking link after link after link. Eyes wide open. Nerves all raw and stimulated. He talked about how we have to come up with a whole new thing. Because all this – wild gesturing at the crowd – isn’t working anymore. This probably doesn’t sound too mind blowing, but imagine the person taking his first breath after having said all those things, almost screaming in a weirdly unmodulated voice (I wondered if he was on some medication. And if he was: it clearly wasn’t working so well that evening), varying amounts of spit flying all over the place. Whenever somebody tried to reply, add or ask something, he paused only for a second, getting more tense, clenching his fists, eyes shifting wildly until he couldn’t hold it much longer, cutting you off wherever and just continued – now at 1,5x speed – where he had just left off, sometimes continuing mid-sentence. This was not a conversation but an outburst. I don’t know if he was schizophrenic or in a state of mania and if it’s shitty to pathologize him like that, but I wanna give you an idea about the intensity he was radiating. My friend got a little angry with him. There is after all something vaguely violent about a stranger just locking in at you like that. J. tried to calm him down and said that nobody will talk or listen to him if he keeps interrupting people. I found myself muttering: »Yeah it’s a lot. It’s really a lot. It’s a big mess.« After J. kept interrupting him for long enough the guy got frustrated and furiously walked off. Now I found myself defending him. Nothing really bad ever happened to me. I can’t disagree with a single thing he said. Yet it doesn’t make me scream. Although – realistically – it maybe should do so.

Emails are weird. I feel they’ve become pretty prosaic. The way letters on paper have become this mundane thing, mostly used for bills, advertisement and boring stuff. Nobody seems to do invites via email anymore. People use Facebook and Insta for shows. Not really sure if Snapchat is a thing for that. Email seems anachronistically non-interfacial: Handpicking recipients, choosing a font, a headline, attachments. Sometimes when emailing back and forth, I used to change the re: line with every iteration. Somebody whom I’ve written a ton of emails to, introduced me to this game. Often the headlines would refer to each other [mike kelley ufo txt scan would be re:’d with destroy all back views because the follow up email contains photos of a show with lots images of people’s backs]. There’s something weirdly intimate about this. Because you’d only notice if you spend a little more time with the email than you usually would. Small secret messages, hidden in plain sight. That’s the other interesting thing about intimate emailing 12 – they travel the same channels as our everyday overkill. The emails that make us nervous and stressed out. The emails that are hard to answer. The ones that need to be replied to immediately. The ones that make you angry. Because somebody didn’t read what you wrote. Or they chose to ignore. Or they seem stupid. Or they seem like an asshole. Or they took an insane amount of time to write tons of text about how somebody in the group conversation or in real life fucked up and you really wonder how they find the time to go on such a rant. Or the emails that are bad news (…as many applications as never before… will keep your portfolio on file… please apply next year… I know you are very busy at the moment so I didn’t want to call you. Your grandmother is at the hospital because…).

I would probably feel pompous to send these friendship texts to people via actually mail. Printed on paper. Or worse: typewritten. I’ve thought about sending individual people special editions as a gift. But somehow… Maybe that’s the thing I like about writing emails that are so obsessively long 13: I sorta assume that people probably won’t read them. Because: Who has the time? That relaxes me. And allows for a little more candidness. When people do read the texts and answer me, I’m really touched. Sometimes I hope that a specific person will answer. And when s/he does…
Giving something you don’t have to somebody who doesn’t want it. Isn’t this the Lacan thing on love?

When people ask me what I’m working on these days, I stutter. Often I go very vague and tell them about this ›newsletter thing about friendship‹. I find myself making it more coherent than it actually is. Sometimes people ask if it actually ›does something‹.
If I have more friends now?
If it’s like a collective?
Or if it’s just talk?
Theory?
If it’s all about me?
Will it be a book?
A performance?
I really don’t know.
And maybe I don’t care.
And maybe that’s the reason I keep doing it.

It’s easy to criticize or mock the neo-liberal impact demands. The thinking-about-how-this-will-look-on-contemporary-art-daily. The competitiveness. The emptiness. The careerism. The commercialism. The buzz-word-ism. The hype-ism. Whatever. Yet to do differently… at the risk of stating the obvious: Not that easy. When every other aspect of every day life is subjugated to the logic of valorization. To come back to my Claire Bishop phantasma: To bury yourself in the woods in front of three or four of your closest friends would really mean to invent a different way of living. Without actually intending to do so.

Hannah Arendt once wrote to Mary McCarthy: »My dearest Mary – I am writing not to write a letter but to do everything required to receive one«.

Max Grau (*1988) is a visual artist and writer based in Berlin. His work uses a variety of media such as video, text, email, performance, photography, sound and printed matter. Besides doing things individually, he’s interested in friendship based models of collaboration and forms a part-time duo with Jan Erbelding. He studied Fine Arts in Saarbrücken, Berlin and Los Angeles. Since 2016 he teaches Performance at *foundationClass, an educational project located at Kunsthochschule Weißensee in Berlin, that tries to support refugee artists and art students to gain access to the German art school system. His work has been shown internationally, for example at Galerie La Croix Los Angeles, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Galerie Lily Robert Paris, Pet Projects Perth and Digital Art Centre Taipei.

He is a big fan of Dusty Springfield and cried hot tears while reading her authorized biography Dancing with Demons [Valentine/Wickham; London, 2001].