A Five-Walled Time Experiment

Writer Simar Preet Kaur tells a tale about living in a universe in which story expands while space dissolves. Her only wish to a fairy godmother is to be an artist in isolation. Free from obligations to society, from survival instincts, from the pressure to »earn« privileged time. This text is part of the publication On Care. A Journey into the Relational Nature of Artists‘ Residencies.

by Simar Preet Kaur — Mrz 24, 2023

What if Cinderella were an artist? What if, the poor thing, she needed a magical nudge in the twenty-first century? Say, what if magic did not end but began at midnight?

I see the folktale all twisted up like this:

She’d be called Hinderella. Where Cinderella earned her moniker from cinders,« the ash that covered her after nights huddled exhausted by the fireplace, Hinderella would be named so for the hindrances that make up her artistic career. A protagonist distressed by typically Third-World hiccups – power outages, water shortage, loud neighbors, a stout pile of demotivating freelance gigs – who must rely on online applications to conjure supernatural assistance.

The Fairy Godmother would then of course be a Fellowship Coordinator. She’d be ace at administration. Her spells would turn a pumpkin into a seven-foot-wide desk. She’d invite Hinderella to a castle where not a royal ball, but the Ball of Creativity, is in full swing. Knowing how accommodating artist residencies can be, our protagonist would be allowed to dress in rags and walk barefoot if she pleases, instead of fussing over glass slippers. And instead of the terror of a clock striking twelve, she’d be granted twevle months to go on working. Her fictional counterpart would have been appalled, but Hinderella would be excited, impatient to get back to the desk every evening. She might even take the Fairy Godmother thing more seriously than the ball itself. Weighed down by gratitude towards her benefactors, she’d double her cigarette intake and risk four smoke alarms’ wrath. Let’s just say she’d go a little cuckoo under imagined pressure.

The most un-Cinderellaesque turn of events would be the resulting transformation – not overnight, but definitely lifelong – a reversal of the gift of Time.

Hinderella would discover the freedom that comes with waking up an hour after midnight. It’s when the world goes to sleep, clearing space for thoughts to topple, spill and hurl downward with the force of springtime meltwater – the force of a story that has waited too long for the right conditions to thaw and flow – down, onto the page.



Akademie Schloss Solitude - A Five-Walled Time Experiment

Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The elevator sank down the three floors that separated my studio from the garbage disposal room in the basement. I held the brown paper bag at an arm’s distance – an olfactory nightmare of onion peels, red chilis, turmeric, and an expired loaf of pumpernickel bread – dressed in pyjamas and flipflops, contemplating the beginning, the very beginning of the story, that first time he’s driving down the gorge, whether the reader should see anything more of him than a headlamp-lit silhouette, if he should be alone in the vehicle on the moonless night, when the elevator doors opened.

To be honest, I’d have preferred a technical failure – the elevator should have descended past the basement and hit the foundations that supported the castle – because people were wearing ties and drinking champagne when the stink of stagnant onions announced my entry into the brightly lit cafeteria. The Director stood nearest, and since he was now smiling and greeting me – me, as in »the Indian writer here at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart on a year-long Literature Fellowship« – I feigned what I hoped would pass as the eccentric-artist smile and wove my way past more directors, curators, state officials, and the who’s who of what could only be an exhibition opening, whose announcement I obviously missed because I kept the internet turned off. I made it to the garbage disposal room with a couple of discreet hellos, and then I flip-flopped the whole way back – slow and steady, past historians and architects and poets and hackers – oh that terribly slow elevator, finally ascending up the three floors and across the long corridor to the safety of the studio.

The studio doors were 15 feet high in thick, solid wood that I was confident even an elephant couldn’t knock down. It’s where the rest-of-the-world ended and my story’s universe began. One that allowed no time to process the asocial basement incident; the castle’s evenings coincided with my deep-sleep time. There was that perfect desk introduced by the Fairy Godmother, and next to it, laid out on the floor, a yoga mat that served as my bed. I mean, that wasn’t it, of course; there was also the rest of the duplex studio, with a double bed upstairs, a lounge chair to sink into, three windows – all curtained – and twelve skylights, also darkened, but that circle of light cast by the desk lamp was where I lived.

It’s where I conducted a little time experiment – where I cheated the body clock and dialed off the 24 known time zones of the world. A good two years ahead of the world in making a habit of self-isolation; »quarantine« is common currency since the pandemic, but I was already far gone inward by then.



Akademie Schloss Solitude - A Five-Walled Time Experiment

Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

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.«



Akademie Schloss Solitude - A Five-Walled Time Experiment

Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Building a literary universe requires that one turn inward. Building it to clockwork precision requires something a tad kookier – write like your life depends on it. It’s what kept my schedule running. Simply put, I was convinced that I’d die if I didn’t walk out of that castle with a manuscript in hand.

As it turns out – and against all predictions otherwise – it’s a healthy kind of pressure that pays off. Although used to the isolation of mountains, it was at Solitude that I learnt the true magnitude of pursuits as solitary as books. Chasing a nocturnal schedule leads to unexpected side-effects – photosensitivity; nine days without fresh vegetables; three weeks without human interaction; a sense of alarm at the echo of distant footsteps; genuine shock at the daily return of the sun; hallucinations where the studio transforms into the shrine of a story – but in the end it resulted in a priceless skill called Discipline. Come to think of it, Germany might well have been the most apt place to make a habit of it.

The day I typed out the last words of the first draft, I climbed up the stairs and collapsed on the bed – that incredibly soft, untouched double bed – for the first time during the residency. Over eight months had disappeared at the merciless desk, but I was finally experiencing what writers over generations have described in dramatic terms – an epiphany, an explosion, a bit of knocking-on-heaven’s-door – the moment of completion, in my case weighing more than 150,000 words on paper. An impractical mission that would have taken thrice as much time in the comfort of my usual home; it not only surprised me with the speeds achieved in the isolated environment, but also shaped what I now understand to be a lifelong work ethic. And, I daresay, walking out with the completed first draft of a book is more of a thrill than trying on slippers held out by a random price charming; it’s the peak of the trip that a schedule becomes when chased long enough.

How far inward did the residency let me go? I had some answers.

Further than the mountains. Much further than a lockdown ever could. Far enough to realize that the most peculiar freedom an artist residency provides is this – the freedom to forget that you are at a residency.



Akademie Schloss Solitude - A Five-Walled Time Experiment

Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

I came out at the other end and, unexpectedly, found friends: the admin staff who’d resolved my many trivial hinderances on the way to literature. Having worked in an office for a decade – in India, where there is no art without survival, no independent projects without a hustle for odd jobs and one literary residency of note in a country of 1.35 billion – I could perhaps comprehend their logistical responsibilities better than the dialectics of art. A schedule was something they too understood well; we spoke the same language.

After a year in their care, the hosts’ role in the artists’ lives revealed itself to be a more engaged one than a fairy godmother’s. And if Cinderella was indeed an artist – though this seems unlikely since she comes across as a bit of an unambitious whine in the current context – given her familiarity with hard work, her understanding of the value of each meal through a series of repetitive actions, I’d imagine she’d call upon resourceful godparents more sparingly and take them less for granted.

The German Fairy Godmother and I spoke of this at length one Sunday afternoon towards the end of my residency. I met her at a café in the world outside the castle, to share the news of the manuscript’s completion and to express my gratitude too. She waved it off, of course; it’s just what they do.

Still, did she agree with the pedestal we elevate art to? What about the lack of support for the thousands of other, equally deserving, more stressful occupations out there?

»But isn’t an artist also more intellectually engaged with her job than the average person on the street?«

She had a point. It almost convinced me. That day, surrounded by quaint European aesthetics, it felt good to indulge in the belief that artists deserve ›better‹, that such temporal luxuries are integral to our projects.

Looking back, I see two ways to interpret artist residencies. The first, an obvious one, is as postcards of parallel utopias – outside the frames of which exists the chase of ›real life‹. A more interesting image though, a more rewarding one, is that of an edgeless utopia – one where the practices and ethos of the artistic and the supposedly ‘non-artistic’ worlds interchange and merge. A space with potential for discipline and accountability to form the foundations of artistic productivity, and for art to become that much humbler and more accessible to the non-residency world.

Simar Preet Kaur is a writer based in the Indian Himalayas. Her features and narrative essays have appeared in a range of publications including Commonwealth Writers, National Geographic Traveler, Stand Magazine, and Papercuts. Simar received a Sangam House Fellowship in 2015 and the Charles Wallace Fellowship in Creative Writing at University of Stirling, Scotland, in 2016. She spent 2018 at Akademie Schloss Solitude on a yearlong literature fellowship, working on her first book set on a high mountain road.