Since moving here in March of last year, I am constantly alerted to the fact that Berlin’s best days are in the past, vorbei, and that I have arrived too late. Between 2009 and 2014 rents rose by fifty-six percent, and now everyone is getting out, though it’s hard to say exactly where. And if my optimistic side accepts this only by clutching fast to the caveat that it was probably always too late to move to Berlin (while pointing to its continued liveability in comparison to Dublin, for example), the other side assures me this sense of belatedness, the one I have the misfortune of living through, is different: that this time, oh that this time it truly is much too late. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes that the contemporary is ‘like being on time for an appointment that one cannot but miss’. Indeed a lot of other people have remarked that this era is defined by increasing evidence that everything good, including the planet, is just about wrapping up. That this feeling of late-coming is our natural state.
Lateness is a foregone conclusion in the Berlin of Elvia Wilk’s pitch-black debut novel Oval. Described as a dystopia, but more of a cautionary tale, the book tells the story of Anja, who lives with her boyfriend Louis in the city, sometime in the not-distant-enough future; minimal differences distinguish it from the Berlin we have now. Along with others committed (or, being human, sporadically-committed, or committed-in-theory) to a zero-waste lifestyle, they live in a sustainable housing project called The Berg, designed by the corporation Finster (translated as ‘dark’ or ‘grim,’ in German), and eventual winner of a competition to develop Templehofer Feld; at this time of writing, the only approved development on the the decommissioned airfield is the introduction of trees, drinking fountains, and sheep. Anja, a German, comes from money and is by turns embarrassed by and anxious about her wealth, while Louis is an American of humble beginnings whose mother, Pat, lost her legs during active service in Iraq. The trouble starts when Pat dies suddenly and Louis returns from the US, in Anja’s opinion, insufficiently changed. This introduces friction into their previously idyllic relationship. ‘She had become aware of the norm because she was on the lookout for any minor deviation. So concerned was she with the After resembling the Before, she was seeking a barometer for measurement’. People, houses, and the weather, described as ‘wholly untrustworthy and untethered from reality’: in Oval, everything seems to be malfunctioning, if not falling apart. Again, not so unlike what we have now: just last month, Germany recorded a temperature of 42.6 degrees celcius — its hottest since records began.
It seems to me that Wilk chooses to place Oval in Berlin for at least two reasons. For a pragmatic reason, firstly: she spends some of her time here, living in Berlin and New York (describing the artist known as Snow White, Anja observes, with excruciating precision, ‘To be successfully based in Berlin you had to famous elsewhere’). This means Wilk both knows the city well, and has witnessed the drastic changes of recent years as they unfolded in real-time; living in New York, by contrast, gives her the chance to see where Berlin is headed, unless something truly radical is done to counter its privatisation. The other reason for staying put in Berlin is precisely because of the city’s central place in the contemporary artistic imaginary, portrayed as a hallowed place of cheap rents, lower pressure and more reasonable expectations, along with a slower pace. Like New York in the seventies and eighties, here artists could live cheaply and work for cash, schwarz, as a way of getting on with their real work. In Berlin, we were once told, the compromises did not need to be so great.
This is no longer the case. Increasing rents mean artists are hanging on in the city by a thread. With this increase in living costs, the side-job needs to become the day-job, and soon enough they wonder what is keeping them there at all. But as these changes take place, they feel a nagging sense of culpability. Their mere existence, they intuit, has been destructive. So, despite being set there, Oval is not just about Berlin. It is a story about art and capitalism, about compromise and responsibility, the creeping terror of calculation, and the absolute redundancy of the new. In it, the city has become the kind of place all places, under capitalism, hasten to become. But what makes it all the more tragic is precisely that it is Berlin – as a stand-in for creativity-in-general, the city’s demise becomes particularly grim. While alternatives are still thrown out now, in the world of Oval, every option has been tried and used up: ‘the end of the line,’ Louis says to Anja, ‘Nowhere to go from here.’
Anja works as a scientist for a company called RANDI — described, in a hybrid of artspeak and Valley-infused corporate blather, as ‘nothing more and nothing less than a place to tackle our world’s greatest challenges by resolutely not tackling them’ — while Louis is the key player at the boutique NGO Basquiatt. In this imminent Berlin, creativity has calcified and become dogma. Artists are employed as consultants in corporations; the best ones, like Louis, come on-board straight from art school and are mined for their creativity in-house. There, his purpose is abstract and mostly reputational: ‘not to make this place or that place a better place, but to make Basquiatt a better place and therefore to help Basquiatt make The World a better place’. The inclusion of an artist makes the corporation look better, paying lip service to the criticality of artistic practice while all but flattening it. This is not too much of a stretch from the contemporary climate, where all labour takes on the language of an artistic vocation, and hard-up artists do in-house residencies at Google and Facebook. In Oval’s Berlin, an unchecked metastasis of creativity means art is reduced to meaningless window-dressing, and all critique is imminent and weak. There is no viable exterior position: succeeding, instead, means working within the corporate status quo. Working outside this framework is not an option any more; probably, it never was.
With a background writing for some of the most well-known, ostensibly critical art journals (frieze, e-flux, etc.) the notion of artistic autonomy is probably something Wilk thinks about from time to time. Because working within the field of contemporary art means acting, speculatively, on the condition of its political or “critical” heft, even as it is promoted, bought, sold and stored, almost exactly like every other luxury good. It means clinging to an ill-defined idea of criticality, despite all indications to the contrary. What keeps us there is the utopian idea of community; namely, the notion of an artworld that is somehow better or different from the other one, despite it being mostly run by the same kind of people responsible for the “rest” of the world. In Oval, however, any semblance of separation is nullified. In this artworld, every social action is calculated and transactional, exchangeable, carried out not for its own sake, but for what it can harry into being down the line (describing an investor at a party, for example, Wilk writes, ‘Each sentence he dropped was a smooth pellet of social capital’). Still, it strikes me that Oval also represents a kind of perverse wish fulfilment, in which the artworld’s contorted trifecta of community/criticality/radicality is simply cast aside.
In the wake of his mother’s death, and tired of being treated like a malfunctioning entity, Louis decamps to his studio and throws himself into his work. Anja monitors him through the traces he leaves online. Only towards the end of the book do we glimpse the fruit of his labour: Oval, a drug that produces an addictive euphoria in users when they engage in acts of generosity. This, Louis believes, has the possibility to solve rampant inequality in the city (which does not seem that far removed from the inequality of the present time). The fact of why these acts of generosity are undertaken, Louis maintains, is secondary to the act itself. The ends — a feeling of self-satisfaction in the giver, along with real gains for the beneficiary — always justify the means. Who cares how something is done, as long as it gets done? Does it matter that generosity is simulated? Yes, is the short answer. Soon enough: ‘What should have felt like liberating social disintegration instead felt like another kind of regime. Nothing was solved, only accelerated. Like beating an intricate knot with a hammer instead of untangling it’.
Though Oval is a fiction set in a dystopian future Berlin, there is something horribly congruous about the world it describes, including its hypothetical drug. Even now, I can imagine it making perfect sense, if only to persons fully insulated from the problems it sets out to solve. As the public sphere languishes, dismantled and siphoned off to the highest bidder, increasingly it is philanthropy that is expected to step into the fold, and to cough up for services — including, of course, the production and exhibition of art — previously seen as the job of the welfare state. Philanthropy, more than anything, involves a canonisation of the rich. Individual agency being all that remains, we live or we die by the whims of the one-percent. On the opposite end of the scale, there remains only individual agency too, where solutions to the problems from the widening inequality actually embodied by this one-percent — depression, anxiety, and addiction, just to start — are likewise spoken in terms of individual, rather than structural, cures. Everything is privatised, and the buck stops with ‘I’. In many ways, a drug like Oval looks like the natural conclusion of this tendency: a way of injecting collectivity into something undertaken purely for personal gain. Through it, even the pretense of thinking primarily about others is rendered superfluous. The only route there, Anja realises, is through an appeal to individual gain, individual choice: ‘They’d given what they wanted to give, not what anybody had asked for. They’d forced their charity, for the sake of their pleasure, on people they’d assumed wanted it.’
Throughout the book, the calculated, egocentric generosity of Oval, and the faux-intimacy of the art-world, is contrasted by Anja’s love for her friends, Dam and Laura. These are the family she has chosen; only useful to her only insomuch as they love her, they do not appear to be able to do anything for her. They do not move in the art scene; and in their distance and probably-healthy ambivalence towards creativity, appear as aspirational figures for Anja; this might also be the case of her former colleague Michel, who, in response to a curator’s interpretation of Snow White’s performance, asks, in what looks like another instance of wish fulfilment, ‘“Who has done this terrible thing to your speech?”’ Problem is, Dam and Laura are being priced out of the city and forced back to their native Spain. Tripping on Oval, Anja looks into using what Louis jokingly refers to as her ‘trust fun’ to take a modest, if meaningful act: to buy their apartment building as a way of allowing them to stay with (or for) her in Berlin. But once sober, she fails to follow though. Over the course of the novel, Michel’s criticality also reveals itself to be illusory. The problem lies with critique, full-stop.
A constant sense in Oval is that all its characters are fulfilling a part in a system, or working from a script, that they cannot ever fully understand or control. Through this ill-defined but potent intermediary, human relationships are always mediated, or inhibited, while a side-effect means its non-presence is unimaginable too. An omnipresent, gauzy barrier that separates and dulls, while at the same time measuring these relationships’ performance against an obscure code.
It occurred to Anja that her relationship might also look unhealthy to people on the outside who didn’t understand it. No, she thought, nobody should judge a relationship except for the people in it. Only the participants could understand what existed between them. And after it was formed, the relationship became a fully autonomous, uncontrollable being. People liked to think they were having a relationship with each other, but really they were having a relationship with the relationship.
Having a relationship with a relationship: isn’t this the heart of the matter? In Oval, relationships, and even those within the hallowed terrain of art, are ceded fully to capital. There is constantly something in the way. Thinking outside of this model has already been tried, and it hasn’t worked; critique is instead being built to fail, with its failure only serving to consolidate the status quo. In this, Oval is a dystopia that reveals the fractures of the present. Doubtless these will luxuriate into broader cracks, fault-lines, but only if nothing is done. Still, things continue to be done in Berlin. Just this June, for example, the city government voted to introduce a rent freeze that will stand for the next five years. As they work out the details, one suggestion is to apply the freeze retroactively, pushing rents back to their 2011-levels, and making the city basically anathema to speculation and investment, in so doing. Another suggestion in tackling the housing crisis is to simply take back into public ownership the hundreds of thousands of apartments sold to private groups in the years since the city’s costly reunification. Regardless of whether they happen or not, these are ideas that would struggle to gain visibility, let alone legitimacy, almost anywhere else. But while things like this give me hope, Oval shows how the exception, all too easily, becomes the rule.