Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, David Berridge explores Copenhagen with The Fluxus President (Dark Windows Press).
I was in Copenhagen for the COP15 climate change talks in December 2009 when I began writing The Fluxus President. Although I had gone to conduct interviews as part of a public art project, I soon became unsure exactly what I was contributing to an event that was, as the banners around the city repeatedly told me, “the last chance to save planet Earth.”
As I drifted through Copenhagen, I became aware of the different groups that were doing the same, with varying mixtures of purpose and aimlessness. Despite many differences of geography and profession, this suggested the almost-character “they” which recurs throughout the novel, an impossible amalgam of diplomats, activists, itinerant poets and musicians, farmers, anarchists…
My initial idea was a kind of instant response fiction, and over the two weeks of COP15 I did write something that was equivalent in length to the finished book. Again, I think this picked up on the rhetoric of the event, although the idea was something that had long fascinated me: a fiction or poetry at the speed of journalism, but with its own imperatives of form and content.
If, however, I had been asked to list some of the historical models that came to mind when conceiving such a project, it would have included Kafka, Walser, Sarraute, Duras, Borges and Ionesco. This should have made me aware that things were likely to get somewhat more complicated than what I was calling “a book in two weeks and be done with it!”
So I decided one way to respond to COP15 was to ground myself in two of my own preoccupations: books and writing. From the internet, I noticed there seemed to be a lot of cafe bookstores in Copenhagen. I would visit them all, writing as I went, using it as a way to navigate the city beyond the COP15 enclaves.
Already, then, contradictions and the hunch that a certain kind of fiction writing could be a way of navigating them: the specific, scientific knowledge and research called for by environmental crisis, alongside this drifting social theatre of a city and moment; a sense of purpose turned irresolution and confusion that afflicted both COP15 and my imagined novella; that collision of scales, necessary but risking self-importance.
On one of my journeys I visited the Nikolaj church, now the Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, discovering its origins as a gallery run by Arthur Köpcke, an artist and curator who in the 1960s became involved with the Fluxus art movement, making his own works and organising exhibitions and events involving Diter Roth, Niki de Saint Phalle, Robert Filliou, Dick Higgins and others.
Köpcke had set up his gallery in 1958 to prove a profession and obtain citizenship (it relocated to the Nikolaj Church in 1962). In the bookshop I bought a catalogue that described Köpcke’s own practice — small written scores and instructions that he termed reading/work-pieces, such as no.10 which reads in its entirety “fill: with own imagination.”
I was interested how these formulations related to the need for resolutions at the COP15 conference, to the vast minutes that appeared daily on the UN website. When the president of the COP15 talks resigned, it seemed appropriate in my fictional universe that the character of The Fluxus President should take up the role.
After COP15 ended, I also left the book. It took three years to finish writing it. In the context of these Research Notes, I’ve been wondering how this more amorphous and indefinite period, when the file on my laptop was several times almost forgotten, contrasted to the time in Copenhagen, which was such a fixed period of field work and immersion in the project.
What remained throughout was a sense of diary and response. The landscape of East London where I was living, several work trips to West Bromwich in the Midlands, all these featured in the book, still concerned with those events in Copenhagen but trying, at this moment “after the end,” to figure out something of its meaning and persistence.
The figure of the writer that emerged still felt an amalgam of the purposeful journalist and his notebook (Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic), the melancholy pedestrian of Robert Walser’s The Walk, and the Old Man and Woman absurdly preparing in Ionesco’s The Chairs. Attentive to this space of writing, its own ethic and procedure, I was wary of absorbing myself in environmental or scientific literatures. The book seemed more to do with how events like environmental catastrophe accompany us when not the direct object of attention, thought, and care.
There were also, of course, books and authors which unfolded for me a sense of the novella: Nikolai Duffy, The Little Shed of Various Lamps (Red Ceilings Press), Christian Hawkey, Ventrakl and Jill Magi, Slot (both from Ugly Duckling Presse), Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene and Nathanael’s _We Press Ourselves Plainly _ (Nightboat books). Not that these various essay/ fiction/ poetry combinations would call themselves novellas, but the space of writing and engagement proposed in each of them was and is vital.
Then, too, there was the connection to Fluxus. After reading and thinking about Köpcke’s work, and those Fluxus artists that exhibited and performed in his gallery, its attitudes and forms feel very familiar, part of a vernacular I share. But, as the first review of The Fluxus President showed, Fluxus also remains little known, its mention in the book initially obfuscating. Both responses feel intrinsic both to Fluxus and what The Fluxus President is inviting and exploring.
What connected all this research, it seems now, was a search for a modulation, a concern for how the story finds its space and breathing, its rhythm on the page, the size of its paragraphs, text as mass and volume. The different research strategies were ways of getting to this, often by consciously thinking about something else altogether (after all this, I still love the idea of the instant, two week fictional response to public events!)
What also linked the whole book was the city of Copenhagen, to which I have not returned. Occasionally I checked a street name and spelling on Google Maps but I more broadly wove my fiction upon a mental city, composed of details noted and written down in those two weeks in 2009, that city of COP15 the only one I knew.
A lot of my research explored this imagined place, maybe through writing about another. Whilst writing I misremembered Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger as taking place in Copenhagen — indicative, perhaps, of how the city was distilling in my mind into its (for me) emotional necessities. For, as Paul Auster has summarized part of that novel, in his essay “The Art of Hunger”:
He writes. He does not write. He wanders through the streets of the city. He talks to himself in public. He frightens people away from him. When, by chance, he comes into some money, he gives it away. He is evicted from his room. He eats, and then throws everything up. At one point, he has a brief flirtation with a girl, but nothing comes of it except humiliation. He hungers. He curses the world. He does not die. In the end, for no apparent reason, he signs on board a ship and leaves the city.
When the book was finally finished, it was published three months later by Neil Coombs’ Dark Windows Press. The paperback seems to instigate further research, whose goals are made apparent through the discussions and connections a published book unfolds. I ask myself: is its absurdism a removal from environmental politics or a different kind of attention and activism? A friend who read the novel said it felt like being inside my digestive system.