Leaky Boundaries

Dodie Bellamy on her European travels

Kathy Acker's toy tarantula atop manuscript pages of her 1973 novel The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula in “GET RID OF MEANING,” an exhibition at the Badischer Kunstverein. All photos unless otherwise noted: Dodie Bellamy.

NOVEMBER 13–25, 2018—I give three readings/talks in London, one in Oxford, one in Berlin; and I deliver a paper at a Kathy Acker symposium in Karlsruhe. Throughout the trip devastating fires rage in Northern California, the Bay Area air quality going from unhealthy—red on the AirNow infographic—to very unhealthy: purple, and then brown, like a blood clot. I call my husband, and urge him to use the air filter; I log onto Amazon and order him an air mask for there are no air masks to be found in San Francisco. As in all disasters, you either prepare ahead of time or you are fucked.

No matter where we live, at home most of us feel underappreciated, maybe even lonely. In San Francisco I step out of a room where people shun me, avoiding eye contact. I fly ten hours on a plane and enter another room where people hang on my every word, as if I had something important to say. Neither room feels right. Of course I prefer acceptance over disdain, but I’m leery of the performative public sphere. I’ve seen people addicted to it who become parodies of themselves, branded talking heads. There are so many rooms. My social worth goes up and down like a seismograph, and nothing seems real but blunt materiality. This chair. This podium. This smile thrust in my face. This quaking earth.

Paul Clinton, Tariq Alvi, and Simon Bedwell at pub after my reading at Goldsmiths.

I’m spending my first night in London at the home of Paul Clinton, an editor I worked with at Frieze, whom I’ve never met in person, but who lives in Lewisham, close to Goldsmiths where, on two hours of sleep, I’ll be speaking that afternoon. Paul meets me at my train station, and instantly I adore him. He has a vivid conversational style in which it feels like he’s leaping directly into your mind. He buys me a flat white, a coffee drink no one can explain to me, but which seems to be a non-foamy cappuccino. My memory of the Goldsmiths reading is hallucinatory. There is an auditorium and students, and my host Simon Bedwell is taking my down coat and draping it over the front of the podium in order to block the giant Goldsmiths logo. Students ask probing questions I am incapable of answering.

It can be disconcerting reading for students, the way they stare at you passively, as if you were a TV. I’m used to reading to an audience of peers, where there is more of a feedback loop between you and them. I have mixed feelings about success. I want it, the recognition and any money that might come along with that, but marginality’s cozy. There’s little explaining—people either get you or ignore you. It always sounds exciting to be invited to the dinner after an opening, to be one of the in-crowd, to get free fancy food and unlimited booze until you find yourself in a room full of Botoxed donors. Sometimes it’s okay, sometimes you’re seated next to a venture capitalist who might be venal but is lots of fun—or the husband of a curator who turns out to be an adventurer and who entertains you with a story of slaughtering a pig with a machete.


Corin Sworn and Samson Kambalu at Modern Art Oxford.

The next day I take the train to Oxford, a place that sucks, but I love the Ruskin School of Art, its students, the department’s practice as research approach, and brilliant no-bullshit artist Corin Sworn, who brought me here. One student I meet is working with embroidery—she attaches fluffy substances onto stiff cloth with erratic red stitches; the result is disturbing and a bit revolting, as if Joseph Beuys had taken up the needle. Last year she had a breakdown/illness and this is how she passed her time, doing fucked up, irrational embroidery. For her it was a point of focus, both a test of endurance and a physical manifestation of destabilization. Turning a process so tight, so controlled, with its history of female compliance/usefulness—“busy hands are happy hands”—into an agent of chaos excites me.

Back in London, I stay with an old friend, artist Tariq Alvi, in his house in East Ham, a neighborhood teeming with Indian, Pakistani, and Eastern European immigrants—a respite from the mostly white entitlement of the rest of the trip. In London, person after person takes me aside and tells me they are working class. They say it privately, as if it were a sort of coming out, as if we were in a secret society. We share battle stories around fitting in, and bitch about the horrible elitism of the art world. Isabel Waidner, an organizer of the This Reads Queer event I take part in at the ICA, says her German accent helps her pass, but barely. We roll our eyes at Marxists who scoff at the working class, but what we hate most are those phony monsters who pretend to be working class, people whose parents are secretly attorneys or professors, and thus they have the social skills to spin some mileage out of the very thing that oppresses us.

Gallerist and gourmet chef Juerg Judin in his kitchen.

In Berlin I stay in a condo with another old friend, Scott Watson, a Vancouver-based curator and art writer. My first night there he takes me to a birthday dinner for Krist Gruijthuijsen, director of the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, aka KW, where I’ll be reading in a couple days. The dinner is at dealer Juerg Judin’s home, an “urban oasis” that’s received media attention due to its origins as a mid-twentieth-century gas station that Juerg spent three years renovating. The second floor is a private gallery featuring his collection of George Grosz drawings—biting satires of political and moral corruption. The Nazis hated Grosz. Over thick veal chops, guests share stories of visits to a concentration camp where homosexuals were sent, and an East Berlin bunker where prisoners were psychologically tortured and then sold to West Berlin, so broken they could never assimilate back into society. Between courses I get up to use the toilet. Juerg is in the kitchen performing his magic. He says the toilet is by the front door. I don’t notice that there is four-inch step up to the foyer, and I trip and fall on my face. Splat. He helps me up, asks if I’m okay—I’m fine, I say—my arm hurts like hell—I’m fine, I whimper.

I return to the table, suppress my tears, and drink Juerg’s “Pulp Fiction wine.” He consulted on the movie, and when Harvey Weinstein paid him, he spent the entire wad on an especially excellent vintage of Bordeaux. We’re drinking the final few bottles. The Pulp Fiction wine is dry and austere, the opposite of the big jammy reds we brag about in California, the opposite of Pulp Fiction itself. Juerg tells of a production meeting in which Weinstein threw an ashtray across the conference table. I find this comforting. Compared to Weinstein, my hurling into abjection across Juerg’s gleaming white floor is small potatoes.

Audience at KW’s Pogo Bar in Berlin.  Photp: Krist Gruijthuijsen.

Berlin doesn’t let up, its history of trauma ever present. I feel like I’m walking through a gauntlet of spirits and I’m terrified what they have to tell me. In the culture of object sex—people who have sexual relationships with objects—the Berlin Wall is very popular. Women fall in love with the Wall because it’s so hated, misunderstood. They know the Wall was just trying to do a good job. It stood firm for 10,316 days, the scapegoat of a divided land. Women buy pieces of the Wall, make replicas of sections of it, which they masturbate with, in order to bond with and soothe the Wall. At the KW I read in the Pogo Bar, a creepy rough-hewn cavern I’m told used to be a famous all night dance club. It’s airless and there are stone arches and I imagine sacrifices, blood splashed across corroded walls. I sit behind the mic and face the crowded, shadowy audience. I have a cold, my arm aches, my claustrophobia is buckling, and I give one of the best readings of my career.

I take the train to Karlsruhe, where I share a three-bedroom penthouse apartment above the Badischer Kunstverein with Matias Viegener and Leslie Dick. Though built in 1900, the arched metal front door looks ancient, and, of course, ominous. My first night there I dream of ghosts. In bed with me I feel a sort of rodent, plus an infant and a man and woman. When I manage to get up I see a guinea pig ghost scurrying down the hall. I see a woman with a baby and a youngish guy with dark hair. They are malevolent. I try to use my energy field to block the man’s intimidating energy, but he is too powerful for me. So, later I’m awake and in the kitchen making coffee and reporting all this to Matias and Leslie. When the guinea pig ghost comes up, Leslie says in amazement that a favorite student at CalArts makes paintings of the ghost of his guinea pig! So now I don’t know if I really met some ghosts or if I hooked into Leslie’s leaky subconscious.

The front door leading to my apartment atop the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe.

Taking no chances, I buy white sage at the health food store, and in the evening I smudge my room, clearing it of unwelcome forces. And then I go hang out in the kitchen to deconstruct the first day of the Kathy Acker Symposium with Matias. When I return to my room the door’s slammed shut, and I’m unable to open it. “Matias,” I’m yelling, “help me with this!” We get the door open, and Matias says it was just a breeze. I say that I haven’t closed the door at all because it’s so difficult—you have to push your whole weight against it. Matias: “It’s an old building, it was a breeze.” Me: “I sage it and then it slams shut—come on!” Matias: “Honey if you get scared in the night, you can crawl in bed with me.” The sage must have worked—for the next three nights I see no ghosts and only have pleasant dreams.

The Kathy Acker Symposium, like all conferences, is a mélange of narcissism, rigor, and tenderness. I learn more about Kathy Acker than I ever dreamed of knowing. When I tell artist Kaucyila Brooke that I feel guilty for eating veal in Berlin, she says that the veal in Germany tends not to be milk fed, so you’re not eating tortured baby cow—just dead baby cow. And this gives me comfort.

Dodie Bellamy’s latest collection is When the Sick Rule the World (Semiotext(e), 2015). She is the 2018-19 subject of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art’s On Our Mind program, a year-long series of public events, commissioned essays, and reading group meetings inspired by an artist’s writing and lifework.