Quite how far inward do residencies let an artist go? This query led me to experiment with a schedule since described by some friends as part monklike, part military. It involved sleeping at 7 pm to wake up at 1 am. Day after day – with no clear-your-head breaks and no space for socializing – right through to the last page.
Sounds harsher than exile, but whether shaped as an artist residency or political asylum, an exile is better understood against the context of the home that is left behind. For me, »home« translated as a Himalayan village that retreats into natural isolation for half the year. We experience a brief influx of tourists for two of those months, but the remaining four are still timeless enough that the days of the week lose significance. It’s a soothing pace manifest in shapeshifting clouds, swaying cedars on mountaintops and whistling birds, but also one where the strength of infrastructure is determined by the rough topography. Not that the villagers would care what hour I chose to start my day, but equally, nor could anyone help if at that precise hour a snowstorm chose to visit us – the kind of a temperamental guest that disrupts our connectivity with the world while it stays. The most well-intentioned schedules fall apart when faced with the mountains’ rhythms.
Far from that scenario, in a plush Germany, the nonchalance with which the castle’s residents responded to my general absence – and the occasional nod of encouragement from the admin staff – made me feel an overwhelming gratefulness for being left alone. An obligation, as it is, to make the most of this generosity. How productive could each castled day be? Each day with cozy heating, uninterrupted water in the taps, lights that never short-circuited, a printer that never ran out of paper and walls that wouldn’t let a soundwave in for distraction? A day whose monotony could be broken by late-night walks without having to watch over the shoulder for springy attackers? When seen against the backdrop of a village, how could each such logistically perfect day be accounted for?
The rigidity of a schedule seems inherently at loggerheads with artistic rebellion. It enjoys a mixed reputation among artists – at times applauded as a deadline’s best friend, other times accused to be the enemy of spontaneity and inspiration. But an unspoken, discomforting question lurks behind this dilemma – what exempts an artist from quantifying productivity? Or, to put it another way – in a world of limited financial resources, why should artistic labor be spared an accountability to the clock?
I moved into a clocked universe where the story expanded while space dissolved. Like the real thing, this universe too began with an early, booming start and went farthest in the first moments of its newfangled existence. Has its rewards, you know. No waiting in queue for laundry, for instance. At 3 am, I’d be spoilt for choice between eight washing machines. It also meant that I knew nothing of the passage of time beyond the light and temperature conditions within the five-walled studio. I planned my weekly menu down to meticulous, meal-by-meal detail to minimize grocery trips to town. I took great precautions to stay invisible, avoiding the cafeteria, the elevator, and the library, and took to slinking through the quiet hours. During the official monthly dinners, I focused entirely on the cutlery, which is, needless to say, an absurd thing to do, but which did well to simplify life; no conversation meant no friends, which meant no one to stop for, to pause the story for or acknowledge a time zone for. Within the circle of light cast by the desk lamp was one stubborn wish – to »earn« this privileged time by completing the first draft of the book I was there to write.
Outside, as the Akademie emails informed me, life moved at a different pace. There were invites to letterpress workshops and museum nights in town. Internal presentations by fellow artists I didn’t know until they were halfway out the door waving goodbyes. Symposiums and festivals and performances and impromptu concerts. German language classes. Birthday aperitifs. Film screenings. There was a digital artist who’d built an installation to conduct »boredom tests« by analyzing one’s brain waves; intrigued, I caved into volunteering for this last one and hid in the studio through all others.
Seasons, months, painfully long summer days and the ever-shrinking night passed over the skylights like the beams and shadows of a lighthouse. I was better connected with a word file on screen than with my immediate environment. At some point, when I was more or less halfway through the story, a crowd gathered on the hill where the castle stood overlooking the town. It was the night of a blood moon – the longest total lunar eclipse of the century. The next one isn’t due until the May of 2264, but I remained hunched by the desk in what looked like a paper valley with sheets strewn all around. I suspect even the moon was offended at such blatant disregard of life, because its entry into the Earth’s shadow coincided to the second with the coffee I spilt on the desk that evening, soaking plans through to the concluding chapters.
From the castle to the cosmos, everything was on hold until the book was done; life blocked out by a 12-month-long self-imposed studio eclipse.
Really, how far inward would this residency let me go?
Back home, to leave someone alone, even to create art, is equated with abandonment. In the castle, I realized, it was an act of care.
One day there was a knock on the studio door. I panicked out of habit, but it was only the Fairy Godmother coming to check if I’m alive and well. Two decades of hosting artists; she’s seen all kinds get selected. She’s familiar with those who forget that the studio is in a castle, that the castle is inhabited by people, and that this whole package is in Germany, which is a real country, on a real planet, moving to calendric time.
It had been weeks since I spoke to a non-imaginary being, but she was unperturbed. She knows the kind who carry out mock battles within these walls. »Just to see that you are okay, yes? Good luck, please write.«