Secretaries and Vampires

Restless Un-dead Thoughts for the Bureau d’Esprit

Tom McCarthy, 9th February 2021

This is an attempt — for myself, but I thought I’d share it — to order some of the many ideas and histories shuttling around our group into some kind of tentative conceptual schema. I’d invite you to see it as a kind of mini bureau d’esprit, an imaginary/fictional filing cabinet that you can work with or remodel or just dematerialise at will.

Last week, with Luke and Krista Belle’s presentations, we had earth and gravestones being lugged and shipped around the world, and transformatively repurposed. The questions of land and Tikanga, or law and jurisdiction, came up; and of ownership, ‘authorship’ and audience. In the previous session, with Tarek’s visit, questions of proprietorship (of traditional music, for example) also arose, as did ones of immateriality (the supposed ephemerality of sound) vs too-materiality (physical instruments so delicate they can’t be played). The preceding session, with Matthias and Augustin, touched on music too: rhythm, arrythmia and stumbling/falling — syncope and syncopation. And before that, Henrike’s model/doll collection, ‘houses’ whose dark histories call for some kind of decision (both curatorial and political) on presentation/sequestering.

The combination of Krista Belle’s travelling earth (and unearthed wax cylinders with band-histories on them) and Luke’s talk of un-deadness (bodies and spirits incompletely laid to rest or ‘filed away’), immediately made me think of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. In that book, written by an Irish colonial subject living in England (many of the ‘Transylvanian’ place names are transpositions of Irish ones), a British real estate agent takes instructions from the ancient Eastern European Count about purchasing property in London. The Count then crate-ships himself to Britain, along with scores of boxes of his native earth (being un-dead, he needs the earth to sleep in). On his arrival in the imperial capital, as strange things start happening, the novel’s group of heroes have to work out what is going on. They form a kind of active secretariat, transcribing one another’s diaries and duplicating shipping manifests and medical records and all manner of archival material (these duplicates and transcripts form the novel’s content) — including, crucially, spoken doctor’s notes stored on wax cylinders (the novel’s ultimate black box or crypt is mediatic: the Dictaphone). The main transcriber is Mina Harker, who is trained as a stenographer. The Count, having bitten and infected Mina, starts to exercise more and more power over her, causing her to fall repeatedly off into swoons and faints; her colleagues counteract this by giving her repeated blood transfusions: a kind of corporeal ‘file-sharing’ to complement the informational one.

The parallels with our project here are many. We may not be blood-transfusing yet, but we’re certainly forming a collective research group, trying to extract, un-box, make legible, audible or just somehow ‘nameable’ a set of archives and the histories these encrypt. Questions of ownership and audience (i.e. the need to balance access and restriction, to ‘quarantine’ a portion of our deliberations from the public, even as we plan to eventually enact them in some kind of public arena) have loomed large in our discussions, as have those of how to manage or accommodate the often unsettling back-stories housed and stored up by containers of the sort we’re dealing with.

I think a vital axis for us here is Tikanga. For us, this would translate into the question: On whose authority are we operating? Under whose jurisdiction? Just as Count Dracula’s boxed earth passes through many legal territories en route to London (we get detailed records of the fees, taxes, bribes etc. paid to each regional authority), so the artefacts in Berlin’s many collections have seen their location, ownership or status morphing with the various shifts in geography or geo-politics or simply time that they have undergone. Then there’s us: whether or not we might consider ourselves ‘non-native’ to Berlin, we are from an institutional view foreign bodies, guests of KW, not to mention interlopers in the various collections that, masked and hand-sanitised, we visit.

To whom, then, are we answerable (verantwortlich, ‘responsible’)? KW? The Berlin ‘public’? Or, in contrast, to the boxes, or the un-dead spirits hovering about them?

I’d suggest that we model ourselves on Mina, who — serving now the vampire-hunting secretariat, now the Count, or rather simultaneously both — navigates an intermediary space between these two responsibilities. As political allegory, Dracula is nicely slippery; it doesn’t translate into any obvious or unambiguous schema. The vampire-hunters may represent the democratic victory of modernity’s now readily-accessible media technologies and civic knowledge networks in overthrowing a retrograde despotic order (the Count is, after all, an old and feared aristocrat); but at the same time the Count, as the perpetual temporal, geographical and ontological migrant (as he puts it in Coppola’s version, ‘I have waded through oceans of time’), subverts the rationalist-Christian order, elevated to evangelical levels (as Clémentine pointed out, they wave crucifixes at him), of the Western Europeans, their whole techno-capitalist-protestant belief in progress and enlightenment. In modelling ourselves on Mina-the-vampire-vanquisher, we’d be allying ourselves with principles of collaborative exegesis, demystification and democratisation; in also doing ditto with Mina-who’s-becoming-vampire we’d be showing a fidelity to the crates’ contents, transient earth and rites not yet accorded. Not, in an essentialist way, to some alternative totality lying, rooted and sovereign, behind these; but rather to their very character of transience and unfinishedness. In this respect, I’d argue that we should go further even than Mina, and serve not the Count, but what’s vampiric even in the vampire, irredeemably de-territorialised in every territory and provenance, un-boxed in all the boxes, — that is, serve not them but the core restlessness they fuel.

This is where syncopation — glitch, irregularity, serendipity — comes back into play. Mina’s bi-directional pulls also travel along the vector of (in one direction) heightened attentiveness and (in the exact counter one) swooning, fading out. Taken together, the two opposing tendencies make for a kind of trance research methodology. I’d propose this for us too. Our various fade-outs, cross-cuts, goings off-topic, connection-drops, interruptions etc. make for a nicely syncopated set of jams. Our strains or strainings, to quote Orsino’s great line in Twelfth Night, have ‘a dying fall’; and this is as it should be.

Beside a bad boxing-related joke that these deliberations prompt (‘We’re down for the Count!’), that’s all I’ve got for now: a secretarial gesture, an attempt to transcribe, summarise and sort what’s already been said. Since, by KW, via Clémentine, we’ve been co-opted or deputed as bureaucrats of spirit, we presume the office (bureau) of staging and managing, stage-managing, a critical, collective mind (esprit); and are tasked with designing and operating a mechanism, springs and folding flaps and drawers and secret drawers — a bureau or ‘secretary’ in the word’s first, pre-human sense — to host the restless un-dead spirits; a bureau that’s not their final resting place but rather an intermediary sorting post, transformer-box, sub-station, through which they can be processed, pumped up and released, contagiously, into the Berlin atmosphere.

I guess this leads us back to where Clémentine started last week, that is, to the need to somehow draw a blueprint for the ‘bureau’ that’s not abstract. Can a room, a chamber, a parliament, work like a bureau? A ‘cabinet’ can be a secretarial object and a political committee that is both deliberative and executive, edict- and law- (Tikanga) issuing. Maybe, as suggested at this project’s outset, we need to look again at the literal architecture of these types of space. I love that Bless frame themselves as ‘situation’ rather than ‘fashion’ designers: what we perhaps need at this point is set-design, dramaturgy, the drawing up of procedural protocols, a set of ‘rules’. What actually happens during cabinet/debating chamber sessions? Are resolutions, edicts passed at the conclusion of each one? Etc.

Those are my thoughts. Much love to all. Long live the restless spirits.

Tom, MM-U, 9th February 2021