“The hardest thing to do is something that is close to nothing.” – Marina Abramovic
It’s a Tuesday morning. The Emerging Artist wakes to the sound of the London Borough of Waltham Forest recycling lorry. She ponders the futility of existence as she stretches her legs into the cold part of the bed. Eventually she rises, taking a moment to look over her shoulder at the rumpled bedclothes, marvelling how much it looks like the famous Tracy Emin (whom she secretly idolises, but would never confess it) piece. Will anyone ever put her unmade bed in the middle of a gallery?
The Emerging Artist meditates using the app on her phone. She spends ten minutes choosing the ambient sound and the ending bell, then checking if anyone she knows is meditating right now, finally meditating for four minutes. Technically it was three because she heard the post come and couldn’t concentrate after that.
The Emerging Artist ripped off the ‘no junk mail’ sign when she moved into the squat because she collects junk mail for a project that will take place at some point in the future, when she has enough catalogues and propaganda to build a fortress and secrete herself inside. Once inside, she will not come out for a minimum of forty days. With any luck, the fortress will collapse in on itself, trapping her. She’s trying to symbolise that, thanks to advertising and capitalism, our modern world is a prison in many respects. To say nothing of the toll on the environment. Perhaps she’ll die in there. Or perhaps she won’t. The piece will be whatever it wants to be, with the outcome, and hence the meaning, entirely in the hands of fate. She thinks the Guggenheim will probably go for it.
The Emerging Artist dresses herself. Everything she owns is black. Apart from a pair of red socks. She tries to keep the public guessing as to when she’ll wear them. The Emerging Artist decides to walk to the studio to begin the day’s work. She locks the door, which goes against squat rules, then places the key in her dreadlocks. She does this to symbolise the precariousness of possessions and to subvert the modern obsession with security, to prove it is all an illusion. The key may drop out of her dreads, it may not. It gives her days a certain electricity. She is living the message.
The Emerging Artist stops for coffee – black, always black – on the way, favouring an establishment with sea grey walls, cold brew in bottles on the counter even though it’s November, recycled wooden floors, and a barista with multiple facial piercings. There is an old bicycle mounted on to the wall. The Emerging Artist ponders the significance of this as she waits for her order. She turns around to the other people in line, removes her jacket and moth-eaten sweater and, brandishing a black Sharpie which she carries on her at all times, invites them to write their coffee orders on her bare arms, symbolising the politics of both the servitude of the female body and modern coffee production. The barista looks like he sees this kind of thing all the time, the other hipsters do nothing and barely glance out of their owl-like bare frames, wrapped in their 1980s-style sweatshirts. Clearly she must think even more outside the box.
So she stands by the table that holds packets of sugar, napkins made of recycled newspaper, stirrers made of twigs found in Sherwood Forest. She says nothing as she watches people come over, rip open a packet of sugar and dump and stir it into their coffee. For every packet of sugar that someone takes, she also takes one, rips it open and consumes it – at first by pouring the contents into a tiny mountain on her tongue and swallowing, the gritty granules caking the back of her throat; then by pouring it on to the table next to their coffee and snorting it up her nose like cocaine. She is trying to make a point about the social acceptance of sugar as a hard drug. Again, the hipsters are indifferent. They’ve seen it all before.
Finally, her order is ready. She takes her coffee which, even though it has just been made, is lukewarm.
The Emerging Artist keeps walking to her studio, and decides to take off one shoe to walk the rest of the way. She thinks this will symbolise the imbalance and discomfort of being an artist in this city. She’ll come back this way to return home to the squat later, and maybe the shoe will still be there. It’s all part of the message. She removes one of her old Doc Martens and places it on the roof of a bus shelter. Once satisfied with its position, she admires it briefly, takes a picture for social media, then limps along down the road, showing her red sock to the passing traffic.
The Emerging Artist’s studio is not really a studio, just an open space she shares with four other creatives. All of them are writers so there is very little interaction. She thought all kinds of art could co-exist in the one space but every day she comes to the studio it is clear she was mistaken. She once placed a sound recorder in the centre of the room and recorded the tap, tap, clickety clack of four Macbook keyboards, and the occasional fart, for six hours straight. She’s noticed they all spend a lot of time on Twitter. But none of them are following her, even though she’s following all of them. The writers don’t really appreciate her work, that she can gather. Her attempt to recreate Marina Abramovic’s “AAA AAA” piece did not go down well. She tried to get one of the writers to stand in for Ulay. He refused.
The Emerging Artist limps into the studio, her red sock already filthy from the walk. She sits at her open space, desk free, in the corner, watching the writers work. Occasionally she emits a scream, which makes them all jump. Mostly she tries to make eye contact with them all, but this is not successful. Most of them have noise-cancelling headphones on.
The Emerging Artist pops out briefly to the Tesco Express on the corner to get her lunch – today it is a whole raw onion, with skin. It costs her 8p which, after her £4 coffee, is all the money she has on her. When she returns, she sets up the video on her phone – remembering to put it landscape, as a filmmaker once lamented at a drinks party she found herself at, all these fucking iPhone users taking videos in fucking portrait mode! – and then films herself, eating the whole onion. She manages four bites before she has to stop. Her mouth is burning and she can’t see. She puts the video up on Vimeo and YouTube.
The Emerging Artist decides to take the afternoon off and walks to the Tate Modern, still with only one shoe. She walks around the Tate taking pictures of all the visitors taking pictures despite the ‘no cameras’ sign. She has started a blog where she uploads all of these images. She believes it is deeply ironic in many ways. The Emerging Artist actually has several blogs. The first is the people taking pictures of pictures (and flaunting the rules, though she respects them for breaking them of course) which is mostly for shaming narrative value. The second is for her film and performance work, so is purely visual. The third is her own personal branding site, though she is still trying to figure out what her personal brand is (she is going to a talk about that tonight). The fourth is for her jewellery line, where she subverts traditional religious icons into statement necklaces so heavy the wearer cannot move, which is meant to symbolise the weight of organised religion on society, mostly in the historical sense. She has not yet sold a single piece, though she has sent one to Meghan Markle and another to Lady Gaga.
The Emerging Artist tries not to keep time, for it is a man-made construct after all. She tries to guess what time it is by the darkening clouds, the way the shadows fall. But eventually she looks at her phone and realises she had to be getting on.
The Emerging Artist’s sock is so filthy – late autumn blurring into winter isn’t the most sensible time to go without shoes in a big city – that she sneaks on to a bus and manages to shuffle off at the same stop where she left her Doc Marten earlier. The shoe is, miraculously, still on top of the shelter. A rush of adrenalin fills her veins, and the Emerging Artist, thrilled with the outcome of her experiment, reaches up to pull the shoe down. As she does, she feels the inside of the shoe ripple, as if a detached foot were inside it, shifting,
wriggling its toes.
The Emerging Artist takes a peek and finds inside a small, worse-for-wear pigeon. It makes no attempt to extricate itself from the shoe. The Emerging Artist and the pigeon regard each other. She doesn’t shoo the pigeon out.
The Emerging Artist films a live Instagram story on the walk home – still with only one shoe on – showing her followers the pigeon in the shoe, explaining how her living art project has just been taken to another level. Suddenly she is alive with the possibilities of symbolism and is quite beside herself with her brilliance. One person watches the live video, she suspects it is a pornbot. “Take your top off” he writes. Block. But not before she’s taken a screenshot of the message for another project about the sexual marketplace that is social media.
The Emerging Artist considers her options once she returns to the squat. She has a talk about personal branding to attend, and she was also planning to go dumpster diving with her fellow squatters at Asda afterwards. What will she do now that the pigeon has entered her life? The creature continues to stare at her from its snug shoe-bed, emitting a soft coo every now and then. She puts her phone next to the pigeon to record the sounds – for another project – while she decides what to do.
The Emerging Artist leaves the pigeon in her room, placing the shoe in the well-lit corner and fencing it off with the belt of a dressing gown. She wears another pair of shoes as she heads out.
The Emerging Artist swans in to the building in Aldgate and imagines that she makes a colourful entrance, like a splash of paprika added to a pure white celeriac soup. But no one looks up, so she suspects not. At least there is wine, and cubes of what looks like cheese. The walls of her mouth are still tender with the memory of her raw onion lunch. She wishes she had brushed her teeth before she left.
The Emerging Artist takes enthusiastic, dutiful notes at this talk, which is personal branding for twenty-somethings. The speaker has just come back from a digital nomad commune in a South American rainforest, and spouts wisdom from other people – Rilke, Alan Watts, Joni Mitchell.
“How do you become you, in a world where you could be anyone?” she asks the audience, whose faces are all aglow from their iDevices.
The Emerging Artist puts her hand up to ask a question at the end of the talk.
“Hello, I’m an Emerging Artist,” she introduces herself, her voice distorting through the microphone into a noise she doesn’t recognise and which thrills her slightly, wishing she could get out her phone and record the sound. “I was just wondering…. how do we keep making art and giving so much of ourselves, when art can be everything and nothing? The world seems to have never valued art more and yet.. it has also never valued it less. I have been Emerging for a long time. I want to Emerge. I want to Be. But I’m worried I will never Be. There are too many of us who want to Emerge. There isn’t enough room for all of us. I worry about that. I worry I’m always going to be the pigeon in the shoe.”
The Emerging Artist sees empathy, as well as confusion and amusement, in the faces around her.
“No one will give you permission to emerge,” says the speaker kindly. “You emerge when you decide to.”
The Emerging Artist is moved. She reaches into her pocket for her nail clippers, cuts off her thumb nail, and walks to the front, depositing the sharp nail shard in the hand of the bewildered speaker. “I leave a part of me here with you,” she says, and sweeps out of the room. She thinks she hears one or two people quietly applauding. At least, she chooses to believe that.
The Emerging Artist walks home on a cloud. She will Emerge. She has Emerged! She is Being!
The Emerging Artist opens the front door to the squat – it is unlocked, still, of course, but miraculously her house key is still in her dreads – and goes into her room. The wall above her bed is covered in pigeon shit. The bird sits on the bed, the discarded Doc Marten on the floor, looking quite pleased with itself.
The Emerging Artist immediately documents the discovery for social media and then reaches for her tin of shellac and brush to preserve what the pigeon has done on the wall for all time.
Her phone pings. There are several responses.
“Check out my art!”
And finally “It looks like shit to me.”
The Emerging Artist looks up from her phone and at the wall. She’ll definitely have to do something about the smell.
Philippa Moore is the author of the 2016 memoir The Latte Years (Nero Books) and the award-winning blog Skinny Latte Strikes Back. Her journalism credits include Cosmopolitan UK, Elle Australia and Sunday Life and her poetry and creative work has been published in Smoke: A London Peculiar, Trespass and other journals. Philippa lived in London for 11 years but has now returned to her hometown in Tasmania, Australia where she is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her adventures on philippamoore.net Image: Sitting Woman, Egon Schiele, 1918