“You get the idea,” said the queen. “Different demographics have different weaknesses and can be targeted in different ways. Fashion-conscious bourgeois are lured with health foods like quinoa, amaranth and boldo tea that promise to blood pressure and boost antioxidants, and the next week convinced to buy neon-colored gummy sweets imported from Japan. Middle-aged married people are reeled in with complex compound-interest contracts that will supposedly bankroll the house remodels they’ve always dreamed of. Twenty- and thirty- something working professionals are easily persuaded with anything promising to save time (caffeine pills, rigged-up alarm clocks, Ponzi-style schemes).”
“The only experiments that ever failed us were directed at no one in particular, like the vertical car. It looked a little like a moving tower, and had the form of a chess piece: motor, fuel filter, and exhaust system were located under the chassis. If everyone were to adopt it, there would be many fewer traffic jams; it takes up less space in the street than a normal vehicle. As efficient as it was, it didn’t catch on. No group in particular found it appealing, and so it was taken off the ideological production line.”
“Anyway, enough talk. It’s time to get your hands dirty.” She handed me a white satin card on which the following was written:
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Listen closely,” said the Queen. “Here’s your first activity as member of the team. You’ll distribute these with L in an art bar in the city. Ampoule is a good place to begin. En route you can write up the press info.” Before I knew what was happening, I was being ushered out by the minions into the same bus that had brought me, headed at breakneck speed for the city center.
L sat by my side with his usual amused smile, hair ruffled endearingly and somehow attractively by the wind, still smelling slightly of chlorine. We hadn’t really had a chance to talk since I’d arrived; I’d long forgotten the book I was supposed to be writing and was curious about him and his new life. Swept along so quickly, there were still a lot of informational gaps, lacunae in what I knew. A simple question seemed a good way to start talking again — what was the first crime that he had committed?
“Triumph of a whim,” he said slyly. “I convinced people to adopt an alternative international currency, not the US dollar or Chinese renminbi, more commonly referred to as the yuan, but rather one that I invented. I carefully designed the bills, masterpieces of artistry, with intricate designs and the face of a famous Argentine hero; convinced by my spiel, people snapped them up without questions, and I raked in a sizeable profit.”
Suddenly aware he was bragging, he blushed slightly. “Enough about me. Let’s redact this thing.” Like everyone else that I’d met at the complex he seemed to abominate any waste of time. I agreed, and two minutes later passed him this text:
For a special experience, one that will surprise you beyond your wildest dreams, contact the number on the card. You need not enter with any specific project in mind; everything will be taken care of for you. Waffles and Nespresso machines are included — please consult to learn prices.
L’s eyes gleamed with pride when he saw what I’d written. “That’s the way, my girl,” he said, and gave me a quick kiss on the forehead.
After a brisk trip to a stationery shop to type up text and print copies, we arrived at Ampoule and settled into two stools at the bar. The place was crammed; the few tables were packed with poets, visual artists, performers, actors, and directors, all more or less originally dressed, all more or less young.
I ordered my favorite drink, a gin and tonic, and arranged the flyers on the counter. The effect was immediate. With certain dissimulation, a pale girl with dark cropped hair and a Babasónicos T-shirt appeared by our side. “What’s all this then?,” she asked, squinting at the sheet. L smiled and handed the girl a card, then waited for me to speak. We’d pulled it off, the girl was hooked; at last things had gotten moving.
Arranging the residencies was a logical extension of previous activities. The perfect action had come full loop; ideas for crimes were paid for using funds raised by crime, ideas for art were paid for using funds raised by art. Was this ingenuity, infinite regression, industry necessity or scam? Whatever the case, the effect was impressive.
People arrived from all parts, gathered up from Ampoule and other bars (Dust, Lhooq, Anemia, //, cc) and directed to the complex, transformed into a giant hive. The garden at its center became the point of convergence where groups sat to discuss works; individuals and pairs roamed paths that wound through the premises. New artists sat in circles and introduced themselves and their projects, with L flitting from one to the next, dandy and director of operations. “The idea is…” began one artist, but L hushed her with a finger to his lips. “Relax, sweetheart. At this residency we’re not interested in ideas, just objects.”
Abundant vegetation like the ylang ylang, tuberose and striped wintergreen, exotic yet colored in subtle tones designed not to distract wanderers, emitted pleasant and slightly bitter aromas. At midday, open air tables of food were set up, and as artists in baseball caps piled their plates with salad and sandwiches, they discussed post-stencil wall drawings and the best way to artistically duplicate real-life accidents.
Those who had been brought to the complex for criminal purposes made occasional appearances. I recognized some faces, but the vast majority were unfamiliar. With a start I realized that the complex was much larger than I’d thought, with a seemingly endless number of rooms for short and long term guests.
Days went on passing; my hands were full with the work of writing texts, visiting bars, contributing to workshops. I spent a lot of time with L, who made me laugh with stories of other crimes he’d committed. It relieved me to learn that he hadn’t given up painting; the queen had asked him to make her a portrait and he’d already begun the preliminary sittings.
As for the queen, she awaited guests on a dais above proceedings, looking imposing, serene, almost cruel. Her gaze roamed constantly between sky and premises. The more I looked at her, the more curious I felt. One day she called me to meet her in a room I’d never visited, in the old squash courts. As usual she was wearing her mask, but now she removed it. I’d never seen her with it off, and it surprised me to find she was much younger than I’d imagined; she even looked a little uncertain. But when she spoke she did so with authority.
“The residencies have been a smashing success,” she said. “Now we nearly have enough funds. Once the artists go home, those of us here can finally take off.” “Take off?” I asked, bewildered. “Yes, that’s the phrase I used,” she said, arching a brow. “The roof of the complex will separate from the walls and fold into an aeronautical capsule. We will traverse the troposphere and the stratosphere, the mesosphere and the thermosphere, then at last crossing the exosphere we will escape the limits of this earth.”
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires.