Though I may never be able to see everything that goes on behind the windows, walls, doors, gates, curtains or plants, behind the facades of houses or within the city’s buildings (and I probably couldn’t bear to witness all of it at once anyway), what I do know is that all things unseen are what make the city a city. Liveliness stems from the knowledge that something is constantly happening, a vague promise of the future, because no matter what happens today, it already shapes our tomorrow. I lay my shoes out in the evening for I will slip them back on in the morning; if I’m already wearing them, I can walk.
The pulse of permanent intuition, the joy and vexation over the lives of others, always too close, too distant, too there, too nice, too gloomy, too ugly, too lush, too obtrusive – they don’t suffer enough, they don’t suffer like I do, they suffer for the wrong reasons, they don’t suffer at all! –, this anticipation and its persistence always remind us in times of doubt that we are also just a part of it; a realisation that may at times be frustrating and at others liberating.
When I was a child, we had floppy discs (I will always miss you), mobile phones with retractable antennae and monochrome displays, and stationary shops selling Sailor Moon magazines and Diddl notepads – but there was also a fundamental truth that shaped our reality: we only saw a person when they were physically there. No stalking on social media, no stories or slides, no screenshots and photos. So when I fell in love on the train one day, I had to get on my bike and ride 12km to the next neighbourhood just so I could be in the same place as the momentarily most interesting person in the world. And that’s what I did: religiously, I visited this seemingly tedious, deceptively peaceful town just to traverse its streets – the most exciting streets of all –, wondering whether this person was doing the same thing, maybe just now, maybe right then, maybe on a daily basis or occasionally, whether they knew this ivy, liked this spot by the river, or also found this ice cream the best. Amongst all the eventualities happening in this town at the same time as me, increasing day by day (my will to escape reality knows no bounds), I slowly forgot the person and fell in love with the streets instead. Later on the train I realised that maybe it’s for the best, as the person turned out to be an overzealous punk with suspiciously clean shoes and hair shinier than mine.
Why do we visit the houses where people we admire once lived, ate, slept, fucked, shit and died, only to gawk at their knick-knacks and worn out beds 20, 50, 100 years later? What do we hope to find? Why are we so eager to know each other’s rituals, eating habits and bedtime routines, which always seem more intriguing than our own? Why do we travel to places that others have traversed decades or centuries ago, and described them as something that we can’t even find anymore? Why do we eat what the (not even real) protagonist of our favourite novel likes to eat? Why do product placements in TV series work so well? Why is the whole world listening to running up that hill again? The hunger-like yearning that most often gives us drive – for humans are lazy and move only when they get uncomfortable – can be enticed, fed and perhaps even briefly satisfied by concepts such as (good) storytelling or open worlds. We love stories and we love secrets, however small they may be. Maybe even: the smaller the better. Children learn mainly by copying and there is no reason to believe that this will change at some point in our lives. Why should it? After all, that’s how it works.
When I was reading Murakami, I always got a craving for miso soup and toast with a beer; I wanted it to be hot outside and for a cat to stroll by that I could observe from afar. When I read in Djuna Barnes’ book that Frances Steloff always ate sunflower seeds, I developed a real sunflower seed obsession (though I never learnt how to crack them in that effortless way – I quickly gave up on that). Sometimes, when I really can’t bring myself to go outside but realise I’ll have to sooner or later, I create an avatar with pink hair and wander through SimCity, preferably at dusk, past some fountains or along the seaside. I’d take one look at the pixelated birds against the garishly bright sky, at the clean yellow light of the street lamps reflecting on the ever smooth, ever safe blue-screen streets, and I’d be reminded of how the air smells in the real outside, of how much I love the blue hour and the houses on my favourite street (it has cobblestones and leads to a cul-de-sac, as well as a house that actually looks like it has been exported from SimCity, so we come full circle), and I finally know that I will leave my house again soon.
There is a certain promise surrounding unreal or unknown worlds: a promise that brings us back to the world we already know, for that is where we encounter it in the first place: the fascination, the intuition, the anticipation of change, suddenly flooding the streets of our everyday lives again, especially when seasons change, before storms and in times of transition. We find it confirmed in this one sentence in this book, this image, this moment, this scene, this film … we will always find a sign somewhere that tells us we were right in our vague expectation, that it was worth it, that somebody else had thought, hoped, wished or cursed something similar to us yesterday, five years ago, three decades ago – and articulated it. And off we go, gawping at dismantled beds and copying eccentric eating habits (at least I do). What’s your writing routine? What does your daily practice look like? Maybe these are good questions, I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that the in-between, the cracks within the paving stones and everything that happens there is most interesting: trivialities, reflexes, everyday eccentricities, what did you have for breakfast this morning and how was the weather, did something break and how did you fix it, what decisions did you make out of laziness, would you rather too much or too little? Of what doesn’t matter. Is there an uninteresting question? Or an uninteresting answer? If there is one, I’d like to know, but I don’t think there is. Every time I write, I have no idea how I did it in retrospect. And so the next time I go to write something, I panic because I realise that deep down I truly don’t know how it works. But I always know what I ate or drank on the side (New York chocolate cake with a molten centre – highly recommend). Anyway, I also know that when I am not writing I have nothing to say about all the interestingly uninteresting banalities around me and cannot go outside, but that I can rely on others to do so. I know that this city has houses with flats and flats with rooms, buildings with halls and halls with workspaces, offices with desks and studios in nooks, and that every day – I could look up a vaguely relevant statistic and insert it here, but I’m too lazy – in one of these spaces someone thinks, formulates or articulates something that potentially on another day, at another time, in another person, becomes that one sentence, that one image, that specific moment that rectifies something, that gives them the missing piece. The word sleeper holds several very nice meanings: threshold, couchette, spy, the one who sleeps, an insider tip, a bolster. In SimCity and all other cities, there are tiny (to me at least) red dots glowing in all the places where they are right now, asleep or at work, the sleepers, the nuclei, the hosts; the clueless freaks and the ones who got it, the ones we know and those we don’t. Perhaps someone walked down my street today who will one day write a sentence or make an exhibition that will change something for me, though I will never be able to know for sure (because people have done it in the past; I’ve come across such sentences and seen such exhibitions even if I don’t believe that they have ever been down my street, for my street is very short and doesn’t lead anywhere anyone would want to go). I am left in constant anticipation of these events because they have to happen at some point, that much I know. I suppose this is a highly romantic thought and perhaps it should make me reflect on the fact that I am still basically doing nothing but riding my bike to the town nearby to roam its streets as aimlessly as I am foolishly excited. But it reassures me to know that all these rooms, routines and rituals exist here, in a time I can and must call mine – even if that has its consequences – and that I won’t be arriving too late just to gaze at an empty bed.
The fascination of the new, the different, the unknown, the unexplored is often similar to the feeling of being in love: an excitement, a willingness to adapt, to copy, to pick up and let go again, a modification of possibilities for oneself and for the inner and outer spaces in which one can (finally) work. The floor has disappeared, as though it was never there in the first place. I smell the air that always smells good on days like these, and I exist in all places and thoughts at once, one as weightless as the other. I remember, and yet I have learnt nothing. Already my hands are grasping, searching for something, someone, whom I have not asked for permission. The word hunger conveys far too little greed and too much absence, for a body that has turned to air lacks nothing, at least not in that moment.
Here I ask for permission because I must, and I hope for a definite yes and for everyone to show something, their street, the view from their window, their breakfast tomatoes - we take all that we can get.
text by Thea Mantwill
translation into English by Rebecca Grundmann
intro video by Stella Jermann & Jan Hunkemöller, based on sleeper's idea