Malcolm Sutton


The last time she was with F in person was at a big fundraising gala, where a selection of artists were invited to come for free, as attractions of the night – and in one sense they were the whole pretext for the event as the makers of art work that fed the gallery – while the rest paid at a fundraiser rate: philanthropists or people who identified themselves with an idea of art viewership and who were desirous to be part of it all. Etti was surprised she’d been invited, and perhaps only when an occasion like this gala came up did she consider what her ranking was among other artists of the city. The pedagogy of her work required time to explain, and its eventness, that it happened in time and space collaboratively, making it an effort to explain what it looked like, which was at the heart of what people almost always wanted to know. She had been at it for long enough that it was just what she did, it was an extension of her, and others who had followed her work over the years saw a new project just as the next iteration of a series of similar works, one more of her experiments with adolescents doing group work in strange places, or so she likely thought as she glanced around at the big players in the art world who were being celebrated. Her dear friend standing right beside her had recently entered the art-world limelight, her name ballooning from the excavations she made of her ever-more-public sex-life, presenting her findings in a collision of mediums, often everyday objects from her life treated with a jarring arrangement, smart work propelled to the foreground because sex is always foreground, but also because her variety of honest excavation slipped in amid a present Zeitgeist. The work was unadorned and unsentimental except where sentimentality enabled a sense of vulnerability to come through. People were taking it seriously, people were taking F very seriously, and among those doing the vulnerable open sex thing F had risen into visibility while some had remained obscure. Even Etti was likely taking it more seriously now that the timing was right, now that it had become part of what really felt like a historical moment. Somehow its coincidence with the energy of the moment overshadowed all the flaws of the work that might still have remained there. All this to the degree that Etti was starting to think that maybe she needed to do more to embrace the current Zeitgeist in her own work.

Now they were drinking shoulder to shoulder, tall, thin, attractive in the eyes of benefactors, taking in the people whom they’d never seen before. They talked about feeling like curiosities on display but also enjoyed the low-level stardom occasions of real money and art conferred to those typically not looking for it. How fucked up it all was but how that was part of it, and how delving into its fucked-upness gave them a little charge. A photographer came around and told them to stand close to each other, and they already were, their shoulders touching, and he wanted them even closer. He squatted and then got up and firmly pressed them together with his hands before returning to his photographer’s stance. Etti stared at the camera and F continued talking while his flash went off in a few rapid white bursts, and he moved on to another cluster of people. Perhaps because it was integral to her work, and perhaps because she enjoyed dressing up and going out, F attended more parties than Etti. Perhaps because she had had a succession of short-term relationships, and in that sense had few commitments, and so was always thinking of the next one, the next art party, whereas Etti had been with Gil for quite some time. And it was from this party experience, Etti supposes, thinking about it on the breezy deck of the superyacht Nancy, that F determined she needed to set a goal for every night she went out to one. It took me so long to figure this out, F had said to Etti that night at the contemporary art fundraising ball. I must have been to hundreds of parties. Starting in art school, one after the next. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays. Some were super fun. We go to parties because we want to be among certain people, after all, so it’s natural to be part of that. But then I aged and got tired of them. At some point I looked back at myself at these parties and felt my heart drop. All the parties all the way back to art school. The accumulated effect on me was that parties started having this bad relationship to time. I felt I was wasting time. I can’t believe how long it took me to realize this. I mean, it’s not that I never felt that I was wasting time before, F had said, it’s just that I had been able to blindly disregard it because I was so caught up in the present. I had ignored the boredom of parties, which surely was one of their main qualities. I had said to myself there is no such thing as wasting time because that’s what I’d learned in art school. Wasting time is a truism born from capitalism – that was an idea that art school taught us, and the right response was to resist it by not believing it. But then I realized there was such a thing as wasting time. Since we are stuck in capitalism there is such a thing as wasting time. That is what I realized. So I finally decided, you know, Etti – and Etti had thought no, I don’t know, what is it that you’re about to say? – I finally decided I needed a goal. Being at parties, merely being present, though essential to my work as an artist, was not enough. I needed a clear focal point that I could aim for over the course of the evening. Even if the evening meant going from one place to another, one opening to another, I needed that visible point. In a sense I needed to imagine a possibility in the party that wasn’t otherwise obvious. I needed to speculate on a golden potential that was hidden in the near future of the party. And in that way I got much deeper into parties.

They gazed at a small group of art-world benefactors, trim suits and trim dresses, chatting in a closed circle. A giant disco ball hurled pink and white points of light across the room, across their faces, the gallery transformed so easily into a dance club. Look at this party, F said. If it’s supposed to benefit artists, surely I should have a goal. I should have ten goals, but ones totally unrelated to drinking and dancing.

I don’t know, Etti said, and at that moment the volume of the party music seemed to double.

Etti didn’t ask what the goal for this particular party was, but F did say, shouting in her ear, The goals shouldn’t become part of the known, because that adds an extra kind of pressure. It might even work against the goal coming to fruition. I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned it to you, the existence of it, but of course I know you won’t mention it to anyone. Still, it’s out there now – it’s beyond my brain and I know it is. You have heard it. It’s crossed that crazy distance.

Etti thought about herself at the gallery-benefit party that she didn’t really want to be at, though happy to be with F. It’s hard to come up with one, she said.

It takes practice, like everything, F said.

It’s easier not to have one, or at least not to think about them as deliberately as that. I mean, it’s funny to think that going deeper into a party means having a non-party goal in it.

And then they drifted around the room and saw some other friends, and Etti wondered what the goal was, whether F intended to infiltrate the mind of someone who had a lot of money – though that somehow seemed too obvious, and as she started into a conversation with someone else she forgot entirely about F’s goal. And if she had been trying to think of one for herself, she dropped that as well, and let the random string of conversations take over. But once an idea entered Etti’s head it remained there, became part of the way she thought about the world, and would surface again. What stuck with her in the moment was the fact that F had been living with these goals for so long without telling her about them, when Etti thought she knew her so well. This goal thing was entirely out of the blue. She was not hurt so much as in wonder at the recognition, and with it she altered her mental image of what her friend was, because, after all, she carried a mental version of F around in her mind, one that she dialogued with, bounced ideas off of, made decisions with that affected the course of her life.

She had been swept up in the party now for hours and hours, beginning on deck where she had met some of Caslon’s guests, talking with them, beginning in the afternoon among small groups seated at portable aluminum tables, food coming around. An alien energy had infiltrated her. From the White Nights, she likely imagined, having heard of them but never before experiencing them. The barely dimming sky, a constant twilight, the ceaselessness of day giving her an almost fake kind of energy. She believed it to be real, though, and went with it. Etti was the only one in costume at the beginning of the afternoon, tattered and re-stitched distress-patterned fabrics wrapped around her forearms and torso, an urchin or hobo costume, a vagrant or travelling performer or something, she never did figure out what it was, though she grew to like it. Nevertheless she was somewhat self-conscious because she occasionally caught a whiff of a sour odour. Like excretions from a street person, someone untethered, urine and sweat and age. She sniffed the air, believing the salt water and the ocean life that surrounded her to be the source, but it clung closer to her, and the ocean water was way down below. Drawing her wrist to her nose she confirmed that it’s on her, impregnated in her costume. Still she wore it, thinking that it was absolutely essential now, that it would be added alongside the blindfold as documentation of her project. At intervals she got up and introduced herself to another group of people who don’t seem affected by the scent. Food and drinks came by constantly. And hours passed when suddenly so many people had emerged from out of the woodwork, wearing a mix of costumes and high-end dress clothes. There was no sense of exclusivity even though they were way out in the water, gently bobbing in the Bay of Finland on a multimillion-dollar superyacht. People pulled up by motorboat and other people were dropped off by a helicopter. Everyone was in high spirits. There was a moment when the deck of the Nancy transformed into a street festival, the air charged by sweat and the desires of this small pocket of humanity.

There was conversation with an architect early in the evening. He calls himself an architect. He was putting his hand on her elbow and forearm and smiling a lot, saying that things she said were fascinating. His first name was the same as a famous architect and she had wondered whether that famous architect was in fact the very man she was talking to. Many people have the name ‘Igor’ she had thought at the time. If she’d had her phone she might have done an image-search for the architect just to confirm. That was the mood she was in, a mood that she usually tried to avoid, the mood that made her want to know a detail like that, one in which some satisfaction would be derived from knowing and from matching real-life man to screen image. But more than that: encountering a famous person often gave the feeling that a door might be opened, an opportunity might emerge from out of the wealth or power, and that such an opportunity could be capitalized on, or so she likely considered as she watched the light dim ever so subtly in the sky.

The architect was dressed as an alligator, a tight-fitting scaly costume that showed off a body that spent time in a gym. He had a mouth with a lot of teeth and perhaps this is why he went with this particular costume, consciously or unconsciously. He approached her in one of her moments of standing apart from the others. What are you doing on board? she kept meaning to ask, but instead carried on with their conversation about Finnish cinema (something she knew pretty much nothing about). As it turned out, the other night the architect had been to a Soviet-themed bar in Helsinki owned by their, the Finn’s, most famous director, Aki Kaurismaki. That was fun, he said. Next door is another bar owned by Kaurismaki. A pool bar. I went there after. It was there that I saw a picture that really hit me. It hit me with a great force, he said. In that second bar was a framed print of a man. He had this moustache, it was a leaden moustache, and greasy hair that was parted in the middle. A three-quarter turn to the camera – and here the architect shifted in relation to Etti as though to become the picture he was describing – a suit jacket over white T-shirt and kerchief tied around his neck, making him look sweet despite everything else. Despite being dishevelled, I mean, because he looked defeated by the world. His gaze emptied of personal interest, drained of ambition, looking away past the photographer, as if the room goes on and on and on into nothingness. I had to ask the bartender his name. That is Matti Pellonpää, he said. Matti Pellonpää. In the picture he looked like there is nothing left in him. And in fact there is nothing left of him, the architect said. He is dead. Several years dead now. The bartender told me that Pellonpää lived without an apartment and would borrow clothes from the people whose apartments he slept in. I guess he owned nothing. And in that way his life was almost indistinguishable from those slow, bleak films he appears in. When I got home to my hotel room that night I watched one of them on my laptop. I couldn’t sleep with the White Nights and the drinking and all the hours of talking at the bar. Have you seen La Vie de Bohème? It’s on Youtube.

No. I don’t know it. Etti was feeling indifferent about their conversation, half-listening to the architect, wondering about his fame, and letting go of that at moments in order to half-listen to herself, and especially to the idea that she had intended on carrying through with: to talk to people and to value their opinions above the version of F that she carried in her head, her thinking being that that version of F was just her head-version of F, one made up by herself. And one step beyond that, she also tried to value the opinion of the people she met above her own opinions. She was not sure about the latter, though she wondered if what she’d read about valuing other people’s opinions was the same as what she remembered reading, and wondered if the author was taking a radical position for the sake of it, or maybe theorizing a distant position without actually meaning that someone go about life that way, valuing others’ opinions above your own. It seemed crazy to her, right now, to value the architect’s opinion above her own, even though he had really offered very few opinions, so she likely thought.

Pellonpää plays Rodolfo, the architect continued, a painter from Albania struggling to make a living from his work. In his first scene he sits in an empty Parisian restaurant with a plate of trout. A playwright, who comes in after Rodolfo, seats himself and orders two half-trouts, but is informed by waiter that they’re out of trout. Rodolfo, it turns out, has the last one. Rather than keeping it to himself, though, Rodolfo offers to share his trout, which happens to be a two-headed trout, and they eat the trout together, becoming fast friends. Rodolfo is helplessly generous.

Though he went on without a break, the architect did maintain gentle eye contact with Etti as though he were interested in her response, as though he had some concern for the viability of their conversation. She in turn shared their contact, and saw his eyes under the awkward mask, and they seemed familiar to her. She considered asking him to see his face, but did not want to interrupt him. He finished describing the plot of La Vie de Bohème, ending with, That photograph, the defeated one in Kaurismaki’s pool bar, is from that movie. Of course, despite being like the characters he portrays, he is never them. I don’t believe in such transferability. Though he lived like a bohemian in a way that almost no one does, especially now, he was not the bohemian Rodolfo. Yet, despite my being fully behind the idea of non-transferability, I couldn’t help but agree with the bartender when he said that that picture was him, Pellonpää was Rodolfo. He said that Pellonpää would share a two-headed trout with a complete stranger. I find that to be fascinating though I know it’s just a fantasy.

The architect paused, allowing Etti to speak, but she remained silent.

I once played pool with Caslon in that bar, the architect said. That’s how I learned that he is a huge fan of that movie La Vie de Bohème. It’s one of his favourites. I think it’s one of his favourites because he somehow relates to Rodolfo. I mean at some level. Not the poverty (and strangely the architect did not laugh or point down at the super yacht that he and Etti stood on), but there is something so appealing to him in that life. You’ve met Caslon?

I think so, Etti said. I don’t know much about him though, I didn’t know he was into film. How did you meet him?

Oh. I suppose I’ve know him for not all that long. I can’t recall exactly where it was. I feel as though I’ve known him forever, though. We share so much in common.

And then the architect asked her about her art practice, and he began with his ‘fascinating,’ and each project that she described was fascinating, or ‘really fascinating’ and he laughed and touched her forearm when she joked about the lack of wisdom of teenagers – perceptive but completely unwise, she said – and again when she joked about living in unpleasant places, and again when she told him about the coffee that she was supposed to buy for the gas-station convenience store clerk – which seemed like weeks ago or part of some other dimension of time even though it was that very morning – and then, having felt his touch seek greater familiarity, said, Please excuse me, I need to find a washroom.

Of course, he said. I’ll look out for you later. I’d love to hear more about your work.

She took a different route from what she’d taken before, squeezing past partyers on the way. There was an empty hallway. Running the length of it was a massive aluminum plaque. From the fourteen or so hours on board, she already felt an absence of writing, and it was such a relief to see words though there were not many. Each line was readable only by walking back and forth along the hallway:


She stared at the metal letters for some time. The high from encountering the words soon dropped and she observed her own directionlessness that night. Unlike F she felt she had to resist the idea of wasting time. And yet she couldn’t help but feel she had wasted time. And until she met the hip hop couple who would so quickly abandon her, she thought about what a goal would be for this party, without ever finding one in that near future space that F described.

She followed a couple she’d just met down a wide staircase and into the games room. The woman of the couple had approached her, while she stood alone by the edge of the boat, saying she liked her costume. The guy of the couple came by and said hello and glances around at the rest of the people on deck, scanning the scene and resting on a few women, but never really resting his eyes on Etti. She recognized him from the hip-hop group that played earlier in the night, a sprawling group whose skin colours contrasted the mostly white partiers, and he had seemed an unessential member, at least Etti thought while watching them, not singing or playing any of the electronic instruments, but climbing and slithering around the stage with animal abandon. He had looked authentically confused. It was a very polished abandon, Etti had thought as she watched him. The woman asked her how she knows Caslon, and the man cut in before Etti could answer, saying he wanted to go down to the games room. We’ll come, too, said the woman. And Etti went alongside her, following behind the man down the wide staircase. The woman again asked about Caslon, and Etti said that she didn’t really know him, but that she’s on board to do some work for him, that she had contacted him about work. And she stopped there, feeling she had already said too much even in her vagueness, but on the other hand trusting this woman who was almost fully disguised in a spandex cat costume.

The couple stepped away as soon as they reached the games room, before the woman responded to Etti, and became part of the loud, intoxicated tableau that Etti took in at the door. She paused before squeezing her way through to the opposite side of the room. She found a spot on a couch beside a young woman. Though the woman was sitting alone, there was enough space between them that she felt no pressure to talk. On the adjoining couch facing perpendicular to theirs she saw Caslon.

Though she wasn’t looking for him she found him, Caslon, in the games room amid the music and shouting. Slumped back in the middle of a leather sofa, a controller in hand and his eyes reflecting bright light from a massive big-screen TV. It was a football match that he’s watching. He paused the game and used the controller to zoom in so that the screen was filled with the head and shoulders of two players. Then he let go of the pause and the image proceeded in super-slow motion. It was clear, fairly quickly, even before the collision, that it was one player headbutting another player, and Etti recognized the blow, even remembering the name of the one player, the headbutter, to be Zidane. She’d even seen art pieces made about the Algerian-French player.

She looked away from the screen to Caslon, and she couldn’t see the man’s face very well in what lighting was available.

Excerpted from Job Shadowing, forthcoming from BookThug Press in May, 2016.

Malcolm Sutton is a writer, editor, and book designer based in Toronto, Canada. He is Fiction Editor at BookThug Press, and his fiction and art writing have appeared in various places such as Joyland, Maisonneuve, Border Crossings, and C Magazine.

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