PRINT May/June 2020


Announcement poster for Heike Geißler and Anna Lena von Helldorff’s Museum Villa Stuck exhibition “Die demokratische Schnecke: Ein großes Märchen” (The Democratic Snail: A Great Fairy Tale), Munich, 2020.

MY NERVES ARE SHOT, though it hasn’t actually gotten bad for me at all yet. It’s seven in the morning. The kids are still sleeping, stayed up late yesterday, spent forever playing Fortnite, even taught me the basics—how to construct fences or walls, and how to destroy them with a pickax. But the destruction gave me no satisfaction. I handed the controller back, unable to get what I needed from the game.

While the kids were playing, I got a letter from the headmistress of my younger son’s school about plans for the following week. On its second page was a bad translation of a quote attributed to the French education minister saying, more or less: Calm down; don’t frighten your children; don’t force your children to learn; play with them instead. The letter is not in touch with the reality of two parents working from home. Where are we? What is this? What does it all mean? I don’t want to be sent chain letters or fake news from my son’s primary school. I think about writing the headmistress a fake letter from another fake minister: “Dear headmasters/-mistresses: In times of crisis, of huge pressure, of anxiety and loss, in times of the greatest restrictions, people need clear words and trustworthy sources. Do not share made-up nonsense in the name of governments that have run out of good ideas. Think of new ways to govern. Since you’re still getting paid, fight for unconditional basic income to support those who now have less time than ever for political battles because they need to put all their effort into earning money while keeping their children happy and motivated enough to accomplish even part of their schoolwork. Don’t burden people who already have too much on their plate with well-intentioned advice. Show solidarity.” Etc.

That’s right, my nerves are shot—and what can I do with these shot nerves? I am about to go jogging, as I do almost every morning these days. I go jogging with my friend Miriam, by which I mean that I jog and she rides her bike alongside me. We chat, more than a mattress length between us. Sometimes I get too close to her and she tells me off. I call Miriam my trainer. Her conversation distracts me so I don’t notice how far I’ve run, so I forget I’m jogging. Every morning, arms outstretched, I say, Hello, world! Hello, wonderful world, hello, smelly ramps, hello, sun, hello, unknown birds. Hello, friend. When we see the police, we increase the distance between us and pretend we don’t know each other. I think it is such an obvious move that it can leave no doubt we’re out together. A kind of defiance creeps in here, a growing resistance to being controlled. None of us is good at dealing with the restrictions. I follow the rules as best I can. But not the one that says that I shouldn’t meet someone who doesn’t belong to my household, that I shouldn’t be out and about with them.

I continue to meet Miriam. My body gets fitter but my mood stays the same. I’m under pressure and want to pick a fight with the police, and even more so with the people who still refuse to see how the elderly are being asphyxiated by governments that have broken the health-care system, cut by cut, and who still say we should just isolate at-risk groups. I want to scream at the woman in the house opposite mine who opens a window every day at noon and hits a pot for two minutes and waves in various directions. This is obviously not happening in solidarity with health-care or other frontline workers. How could it be, as she is ignoring the possibility that someone might still be sleeping at noon after having worked a night shift? She hits the pot to entertain herself and the neighborhood. And clearly, I’ve become allergic to all entertainment, to all the distractions that came in handy during the first few days of the lockdown, which at the time seemed just a chance to take a deeper inventory of how we live.

In times of crisis, of huge pressure, of anxiety and loss, in times of the greatest restrictions, people need clear words and trustworthy sources. Do not share made-up nonsense in the name of governments that have run out of good ideas. Think of new ways to govern.

On March 26, at the online opening of my joint exhibition with Anna Lena von Helldorff “The Democratic Snail: A Great Fairy Tale” at Munich’s Museum Villa Stuck—or rather, at the online opening of what was no longer an exhibition—my cohort and I all looked at one another on Zoom, the green frame wandering among us. The museum’s diligent social-media manager wanted to use the occasion, he said, to talk with the institution’s director about upcoming shows. His backdrop kept changing, and at one point, when he was sitting in front of an image of the Brooklyn Bridge at night, I said, or maybe shouted, “This is our opening! We’re not going to talk about the next exhibition already!” The green frame around my head did not tremble in the slightest.

In the last week of March, we were still witnessing a lot of this kind of thing—people trying to be productive, to plan ahead, determined to hit the ground running when this is all over. Gradually, it became clearer that there was no guarantee there’d be any ground left to hit. Economists started to say that the United States would be lucky to come out of this with a 30 percent unemployment rate. Meanwhile, “essential” workers are being used like cannon fodder, hurled into the maw of the service economy. At Amazon, where I used to work in the fulfillment center, Jeff Bezos and former Obama press secretary Jay Carney have plotted how to keep employees from unionizing and demanding masks, sanitized work spaces, and other protections.

During the online art opening, we raised our glasses and raised them again. We got up and stood as if we were in the museum, but we were only in our living rooms, kitchens, studios. I privately chatted with other participants about how weird it was, and how depressing. We got drunk. Later, I went into the kitchen and carried on drinking. I drink too much. There will be more of these kinds of days in the time to come. I’m still in a comfortable situation. I have two weeks of lockdown behind me. I miss the entire world. When you read this it’ll be May, and I really hope you’re doing really well. 

Heike Geißler is a writer based in Leipzig, Germany. Seasonal Associate (Semiotext[e], 2018) is her first publication in English. 

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.