While on book tour for my memoir Vanishing Twins, I had dinner with my editor and asked her what Soft Skull was publishing next. She told me I’d love Oval, a novel set in a near-future Berlin where artists are employed by corporations and a young couple living in a zero-waste eco-settlement on an artificial mountain is dealing with the breakdown of this utopian experiment, and also their relationship. You can read an excerpt from Oval here. Elvia Wilk is a brilliant mind and a writer who tackles the weighty stuff, but with enough humor and absurdity to prevent it from veering off into a nihilistic ditch. – Leah Dieterich 

 

Leah Dieterich:

Your book deals with so many things: the death of a parent, the corporatization of art-making, climate change, this idea of social capital, the dark side of philanthropy. Where did you start? What was the initial spark of the novel?

 

Elvia Wilk:

The initial spark was the relationship between the two main characters, Anja and Louis, which was informed by my experience being a woman dating men. I was struggling with feelings I wasn’t sure how to handle, and working through them by fictionalizing them. But then it spiraled and became about much more, about the whole world in which that kind of relationship is constructed.

 

Dieterich:

Most of the relationships Anja has in the book are with men. In fact, there is really only one female relationship, her friendship with Laura. What do you think about that?

 

Wilk:

I think a lot about that! It may be because each of those male characters embodies a different set of gender politics, and I wanted to pit their different perspectives against each other. They are also sort of foils for the main character to define her own politics in relation to. Maybe in order to make her deal with her womanhood I had to surround her with men.

 

Dieterich:

You’ve written extensively as an essayist and a critic. Why did you choose a novel as the form to explore the ideas in this book?

 

Wilk:

I wanted to try writing something in a long form I had no experience with, and kind of throw myself over a wall I didn’t know if I could actually get over. But there were also a lot of ideas that didn’t seem to fit in any other form. For me, the novel was about world-building, and then seeing what unpredictable things could happen in that world. I got pretty fascinated by the extreme, intense relationship you develop with a book you’re making. I’m sure you went through this too –

 

Dieterich:

Absolutely.

 

Wilk:

– when so many other things are happening so quickly. Like my day-job writing shorter pieces, emailing, Instagramming. Most things happen at a much quicker pace than the pace of writing a book.

 

Dieterich:

I agree. I didn’t think I’d able to devote enough focused attention to a book to bring it to fruition. For me at least, the reason it worked was because I was exploring my own relationships. Maybe it’s self-involved, but I don’t know how else I could have stuck with it for that many years, if I didn’t feel like it was teaching me something about myself and the world. It has to be personal.

 

Wilk:

It has to entertain you. Sometimes I thought about the book as a series of inside jokes with myself. When I was writing the first draft, I was reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. His book Slapstick has a prologue in which he compares the novel to a joke that he wrote as a gift to himself, to help him cope with the death of his sister. That’s not to say that he didn’t take the writing seriously, because to write several hundred pages you have to take yourself pretty seriously. But to take anything seriously, especially if it involves bearing something painful, you have to also find the absurdity and the humor in it.

 

Dieterich:

Did you start the novel while you were living in Berlin?

 

Wilk:

Yes. The book was very much about trying to parse my relationship with the city. There’s just so much paradox and contradiction wrapped up in my relationship with the place, which of course has to do with my personal experiences, but also the city’s current status as culture capital and its weird political history. The book became, I suppose, a way to talk about what’s happening in cities in general through this specific case study.

 

Dieterich:

What did you like most about Berlin? What did you dislike?

 

Wilk:

When I moved to Berlin in 2010 it was a pretty accessible place to live, and so much fun. I felt a lot of freedom. But I struggled with my role there as yet another member of the English-speaking culture sphere. I felt a lot of political estrangement and inability to participate in the issues the city was facing. I spent a good deal of my life living as an expat, so that condition is familiar to me.

 

Dieterich:

Did writing this dystopian novel feel like a way to participate politically?

 

Wilk:

That’s a good question. Writing was a way for me to articulate those dilemmas, if not actually solve any of them. The book actually ended up being about the impossibility of solutionism, about the lie of the idea of a quick fix. But I hope it offers something besides dire projections, and even some ways out of the trap. Especially after finishing the book, I’ve thought a lot about whether writers have a responsibility to do something besides indulge in dystopia, because indulging in dystopia is what mass media does anyway.

 

Dieterich:

For sure.

 

Wilk:

Hollywood gives us every kind of dystopia. Every target demographic has their favorite. Do you prefer climate dystopia? Atom bomb? The singularity? I tried to get to a more ambivalent place in the story, beyond the positive/negative affect experience of optimism and pessimism that supposedly correlate to utopia and dystopia. That’s kind of beside the point. Dystopia is always already here, and so is utopia. What does it mean to accept that we’re already living in both?

 

Dieterich:

Yes! Are there other works of speculative fiction that have been meaningful to you along these lines?

 

Wilk:

Definitely. I didn’t read it until I had written most of the book, but Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation has really helped me think about this middle ground between utopia and dystopia, where a kind of alien transformation of the world is not construed as negative. It’s the loss of what we have now, a loss of a certain idea of the human as the center of the universe, but it’s not an end, it’s a becoming something else. Vonnegut is again a good touchstone for me because the absurdist humor negates any easy labeling of dystopia. Jonathan Lethem wrote this book called Chronic City I always come back to. It’s like sneaky speculative. You don’t realize until partway through that it’s not realism.

 

Dieterich:

Your Berlin works that way too.

 

Wilk:

Chronic City is a great example of a way to write a city as a speculative place, like treating the city map as a stage for unreal encounter. China Miéville also does this really well in his book The City and the City. I’m interested in the urban novel as a speculative space for manifesting collective delusions.

 

Dieterich:

Speaking of making the city a stage, in the novel the main characters live on an artificial mountain in the middle of Berlin called the Berg. Can you tell me more about the Berg and where that idea came from?

 

Wilk:

The Berg is an idea I stole! It was the invention of a young architecture firm called MILA Architects several years ago. Over the past several decades, the city of Berlin has regularly held open call to architects to propose a way to develop the Tempelhof Airfield, which closed in 2008. But every time, the residents vote to not build anything there. It’s still one of the largest undeveloped public spaces in Europe, a gigantic nothing-space with community gardens and barbecue areas scattered around the runway.

 

Dieterich:

Ahh, I didn’t realize it was a real proposal.

 

Wilk:

MILA jokingly proposed that we should just build a mountain on the airfield and double the city’s green space. They distributed a lot of false literature about it as if it already existed and did this silly ad campaign. I loved the provocation to reconsider development as a kind of un-development. All natural space in cities is artificially circumscribed anyway. So instead of condominiums or museums, why not a mound of dirt people can hike up in summer and ski down in winter?

 

Dieterich:

Oh, that’s fun.

 

Wilk:

It’s this constant fake/real oscillation that’s built into the city. What’s real, and what exists only in the urban imaginary but has real effects? The story of Tempelhof has always been a speculative fiction, because every proposal has remained imaginary. In the book I borrowed the idea of the Berg and put an eco-settlement on it. I asked MILA for permission, and they were like, ‘Of course! Perpetuate the fiction.’

 

Dieterich:

I loved the problematic eco-settlement. The dark side of the utopian ideal. Do you have any personal experience of living in a place that was like that?

 

Wilk:

Not really. But the first residency I went on when I started writing the book was called Rabbit Island, which is a beautiful island in the middle of Lake Michigan where I had proposed to live alone for two weeks. There was no electricity or running water. There’s phone service, but I had pledged not to use my phone. It’s very isolated. At the time there was a very nice, pretty basic structure to live in. At one point, they had put in a water pump in on the island, and at another point, taken it out because it seemed too artificial. I got really fascinated with the question of how much comfort is ‘unnatural’. And also, how invented the experience of going to an island alone was. It was so contrived. I had to fly there from Germany and buy all these expensive sleeping bags. The whole thing was bad for the environment.

 

Dieterich:

The concept in the book of the artist-as-brand-consultant and art collectors and corporations as investors particularly struck a chord with me. My husband is an artist, so I’ve already had the curtain pulled back on my fantasy of what it’s like to make your living as an artist, and I’ve made my living writing advertising for big corporations, so I know that trade-off too. Tell me about your decision to take this concept to its logical extreme of corporations owning artists.

 

Wilk:

I’m interested in the historical relationship between art and industry. On the West Coast, there were the experiments in Art and Technology, various collaborations between artists and tech, in the ’60s and ’70s, which provided a lot of material for the situation I imagine in the book. In the UK in the ‘60s, there was the Artist Placement Group, which placed artists in corporate and industrial contexts to produce . . . question mark. To produce what?

 

Dieterich:

They’re just there to be disrupters, I suppose.

 

Wilk:

The Artist Placement Group was always explicitly like, ‘We’re not here to produce value. We’re not here to produce a product.’ It was in that very nothing-space that their artists were supposed to exist, this space of art not serving a purpose and not having a client, and that’s exactly why they are politically important. But art’s relationship to its context has always been much more complicated in practice, because of course as soon as you put an artist in a for-profit field or a for-knowledge-production field or whatever, they immediately become complicit even if they’re critical, and critical even if they’re complicit, and those categories just totally start to break down.

 

Dieterich:

Who were some of the artists working in this capacity?

 

Wilk:

In 1969 John Chamberlain was embedded at the RAND Corporation as part of LACMA’s Art & Technology program. One thing he did was put out a memo to everyone who worked there saying only ‘I’m searching for ANSWERS. Not questions!’ People were enraged, they wrote all sorts of angry things in response. One person wrote: ‘An artist in residence soothes the conscience of the management.’ The whole time he was there he was kind of trolling everybody, and they were trolling him back. As an homage, I named the corporate research department where my main character works RANDI.

 

Dieterich:

How have relationships between artists and corporations shifted over time?

 

Wilk:

Today, many artists do work as brand consultants. I have a friend who makes digital art and consults at Nike, a friend who is an architect and runs a brand consulting agency. The crossover is increasing. There was a minute when the art world was uncomfortable with those overt crossovers, but that’s probably changing, because it’s so clear that the art infrastructure and economy can’t support artists through object trading, so there has to be another way of supporting oneself. More to the point, we’re all complicit. In one sense, embedding fully in a corporate context might be the most fertile ground for critique.

 

Dieterich:

I love the scene where Louis and Anja meet at the party of the investor’s house who has on display the shrunken heads of three of ‘her’ artists who died before their terms were up. It’s such a grotesque meet-cute for them.

 

Wilk:

That scene may or may not be based on a real scene at a collector’s house. Of course, the shrunken heads are fictional. On the other hand, it’s not that wild. Adrian Piper has bequeathed all her fingernails and hair clippings and ultimately her remains to MoMA.

 

Dieterich:

I love her.

 

Wilk:

She’s amazing. There are lots of comparable examples. The artist Jill Magid made a diamond out of the remains of the body of an architect and offered it in a ring to the person who controls his archives. Suzanne Lacey prepared a legal contract offering her body parts as organ donations to whatever art collector paid for them before she died. The shrunken head thing is obviously a bit of a joke because it’s so on-the-nose, but it definitely speaks to the way a whole body and life can become property, whether or not the artist is willing.

 

Dieterich:

We have to talk about Oval, the drug that Louis invents, which induces empathy or generosity – the name-sake of the book. What’s your general relationship to drugs or mind-altering substances, your thoughts about their benefits and drawbacks?

 

Wilk:

I don’t do too many drugs, or at least not anymore. I think I’ve landed on a pretty expansive idea of what constitutes a mind-altering substance. I have a friend who’s going to give birth in a few weeks, and we were just talking about how the hormones in her system have given her experiences she’s never had. She said she feels like she could write a trip report about it. And then there are the endorphins and oxytocin that will be released when she’s in labor, which will be a wild chemical experience.

 

Dieterich:

It definitely is. I don’t do any drugs and I wanted to have a natural birth for precisely this reason. The oxytocin!

 

Wilk:

I’ve spent a lot of time researching oxytocin. The hormone is available as a nasal spray now, although I think you have to get it on the dark web. If you spray extra oxytocin up your nose, should we call that artificial enhancement? At least in that case it’s probably a choice you’re making. But then you think about the toxicity of the environment. We’re consuming all sorts of chemicals and hormones against our wills. We’re just so permeable, and in some ways the idea that there’s ‘artificial’ vs ‘naturally occurring’ mind-altering substances is maybe an historically recent idea.

 

Dieterich:

I suppose that’s true.

 

Wilk:

A scientist named Anne Pollock points out that in some past civilizations water wasn’t safe to drink, so they had to drink fermented beverages, and were probably slightly drunk all the time. That was their ‘natural’ state. And so, if it there was like, a drunk civilization, what is a civilization where everyone’s on an empathy pill and that’s just the baseline? That’s Louis’s proposal.

 

Dieterich:

The idea of a drug that can produce generosity is fascinating. Such a thing doesn’t really exist, right? Has anyone ever tried to make such a thing?

 

Wilk:

Sort of. There are lots of experiments into what triggers empathy and generosity. Some of the more fascinating and scary ones are with virtual reality, because people have the idea that because VR scenarios can feel so real that they’ll provoke you to feel more empathy and impulsively want to donate more to a cause, for instance. I find this model really depressing, the idea that empathy is functional, that it is connected to money, and that it can be forced on people without them realizing.

 

Dieterich:

What happens when the characters take Oval is really dark, but it’s also really funny. Anja talks about how people only give what they want to give rather than what people may actually want to receive. I love this inquiry into what it is to be generous, and what it isn’t. Under what conditions do you feel most generous?

 

Wilk:

My friendships are based on incredible generosity. I’m constantly mind-blown by how generous my friends are, with their brains, with their feelings, with their time. In my day-to-day life I usually think about generosity in terms of emotional labor, and wonder how to keep a balance, because we all know who ends up doing most of the emotional labor in the world, and it’s women and non-white people. David Graeber writes about how minorities typically wind up doing more empathic work because they’re constantly in the position of having to imagine themselves into the position of the structurally more powerful in order to anticipate what that person will do.

 

Dieterich:

That feels true.

 

Wilk:

This incredible imbalance of the intellectual and emotional labor that goes into relationships is something I constantly come back to as a foundational issue when thinking about generosity in society. The times that I’ve felt most generous have definitely been the times when I’ve been in love with somebody, a friend or otherwise, where I’m willing to do a huge amount of communicative work and self-reflective work. Emotional labor disparity is a theme in the book. In this case the guy is incapable of doing the emotional work, and instead imagines this quick chemical fix. Rather than looking to his own relationship, he looks outward to the world and the grand scheme of things.

 

Dieterich:

Louis works for an NGO named Basquiatt and Anja works for a corporation called Finster. How did you choose those names?

 

Wilk:

Finster means sinister or dark in German. I thought if I was going to have a classic sinister corporation, I might as well just call it what it is. And Basquiatt – it’s funny, while we were working on book edits, my editor sent me a picture she had taken on the street of some old white dude in a shirt that said ‘Basquiat’. For me, this naming just reflects how artists became brands a long time ago. By signaling Basquiat, I wanted to signal some historical precursors, to say ‘Look, this isn’t science fictional!’ Basquiat became a brand while he was still alive, and that brand has only morphed and mutated and become more ubiquitous as time has gone on. His name just stands for, like, potential counterculture. As a person, he was so much more interesting and so much more resistant, but so heavily co-opted so early on. There’s just so much structural racism and classism evident in what happened to his art and his legacy.

 

Dieterich:

That’s a good point.

 

Wilk:

All these structures of oppression are kind of epitomized in the idea of the brand consultant. Have we all become brand consultants against our consent, and if so, what would it mean to fully claim that role? Is that better or worse? I don’t know.

 

 

Photographs © Nina Subin and John Huock 

The Wind That Lays Waste
Night on Fire