If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
On writing about cancer and healing under the looming specter of Berlin’s history.
In the opening pages of Mycelium (Semiotext(e)), the first book by the German artist Annette Weisser, Noora and her friends are on their way back from a music festival debating the genre limitations of Krautrock when their car runs into a sheep. The presence of the nearly-dead animal serves as a moral and practical quandary for her group: Can they save it? If they can’t, do they kill it? Should they tell someone about the accident? Is there any value in staying to witness the animal’s suffering? This anecdote, told unsentimentally by Weisser, challenges both Noora and the book’s readers: it asks whether the sheep’s pain serves a symbolic purpose—if its death conveys meaning—and if so, whether that actually changes anything.
Weisser, who, like Noora, is an artist and received a breast cancer diagnosis in the mid-2000s, is keenly aware of the seductive power of moral calculation. As Noora confronts the physical realities of cancer and its treatment, she moves through a rapidly gentrifying Berlin, the artistic communities that formed there, and the pulsating, ever-present wounds of German history. Like mycelium, the network of subterranean mushroom roots that, as Weisser writes, can hold onto radiation for generations, trauma undergirds physical and social structures and colors our moral framework. “But,” as Weisser warns, “people are forgetful and radioactivity is invisible.” For Weisser, who just moved back to Berlin after more than a decade in California, the same might be said about the workings of history.
Julia Bosson You wrote this book in English. How was it writing outside your mother tongue?
Annette Weisser I was going through the notes that I took in 2005, the year I had breast cancer, and started to write a short essayistic piece in German. Chris Kraus, with whom I was teaching a writing class at ArtCenter College of Design, asked what I was working on. So, I translated a few pages for her. And the funniest thing happened. I just kept writing and writing.
I think it had to do with two things: first of all, the material is so personal, so to introduce this level of distance via a foreign language helped me tell this as a story with its own logic, its own drive. And then, for me, the English language is very physical. It’s as though I have the words in my mouth. I feel them, I taste them, I move my tongue around them. And the book deals with physical processes and this constant shifting between mind and body, body and mind. The sense of chewing on the English language gave me a very basic pleasure. It helped me form sentences in a simpler and more direct way than I would have been able to do in German. In German, I always stay in my head.
JB What was your process of writing the book?
AW The first part was expanding upon the notes, finding a form, and finding Noora. Because even the most personal things always take place under specific historical, geographical, and social conditions, the personal story extended to a portrait of Berlin at this time. Then it extended further into German history. With fifteen years hindsight, I wanted to explore the interaction between Noora having cancer and the place where her personal drama takes place: this wounded, barely healed Berlin.
After the first shock of being diagnosed, I found myself in web of preexisting narratives about breast cancer. All of them had to do with being fierce and courageous in facing the enemy, with female solidarity, and with bravely enduring pain and anxiety. The expected storyline seems to be that first there are millions of individual women, and then they are transformed into this army of pink heroines. I thought: No way! I wanted to write a book about cancer that is as cliché-free and as specific as possible to counter these broad narratives.
JB It’s interesting because from a contemporary perspective, the ’90s and the early aughts were a specific historical period in German history. It was a time of reunification and Berlin was realigning itself. Noora is living through it.
AW Yes, but she is totally self-absorbed the entire time. For most people of my generation who experienced reunification from West Germany, it was a very strange experience. That was the only time I ever saw my father cry, when on television, thousands of people climbed the Berlin Wall. To see my father cry at this was completely strange to me. I didn’t comprehend the scope of the event. There was an immediate sense that these people were not like us. We were lefties, Antifa, we were fighting for good, we were engaged with minorities. But there was no consciousness of how we related to people from East Germany. Speaking for myself, I had little contact with people my age who grew up in East Germany, and only met them many years later.
Writing the book outside of Germany helped me see these things more clearly. Thirty years after reunification, there’s a lot of talk now about how we—the West Germans—should have listened. When Noora is at the rehab clinic, she is completely alienated from other patients who grew up in East Germany. She can’t find a way to start a conversation. They all have cancer: there would be a million ways to talk to each other.
JB Sometimes those divides can feel insurmountable.
AW It’s generational, but it’s a class thing, too. It’s just the way people talk, what they talk about, the way they dress, the way they look, what they eat, down to the brand of the cigarettes they smoke out in the parking lot.
JB Even though Noora is living through her own historical moment, she is obsessed with the pain and the psychic wounds of World War II. She is always hunting for a different history.
AW In Berlin, there are sediments of historical events many meters into the ground. Most older buildings have at least two radically different histories, from before WWI and then during the Third Reich, and then even after the war, depending on whether they were in the East or the West. You touch the buildings and you just feel it. I think it’s the place itself that has this capacity to drown you in history. But you also have to be porous enough to let it go through you. I think having cancer made me very porous, physically, because there were so many needles that had been stuck into my body. Because of my porousness, I responded to this wounded city in a particular way that year.
JB Another focus of the book is on becoming motherless.
AW Chemotherapy felt like a fundamental reorganization of my whole body. I lost almost ten kilos. In a weird way, I experienced chemotherapy as a rejuvenating process during which everything old and useless was washed out of my body. It felt like being reborn as my own person without family ties, which was super weird, but also very freeing.
JB I was taken by how the story trusts in coincidences, which crop up everywhere. What was the function of these coincidences for you?
AW That’s how people live, right? I’m always looking out for signs. Especially when you’re confronted with the possibility of dying, you start talking to buildings and trees.
JB In some ways, Noora is searching for consolation from these coincidences, whether from internet search algorithms, or the Volksbühne, the theater in Mitte whose banners she treats like an oracle, which at one point take on its own voice and actually talks to her.
AW The Volksbühne is a very important place for Noora and her Bohemian friends. Throughout my time in Berlin, it was under the direction of Frank Castorf from East Germany. He installed a purple neon sign that spelled OST (East) on the roof. There were five- to eight-hour-long Castorf plays based on Chekhov or Dostoevsky, and there was René Pollesch with his very own brand of theoretical theater. There were also political events and dance parties on the stage. It’s not a coincidence that Noora talks to the Volksbühne. It’s where for the last twenty years we went to check in on the present moment: what the important issues were, how we should feel, how we should think, how we should talk to each other, and what about.
JB And there it is, literally telegraphing messages. The big moment of growth at the end comes when she chooses not to listen to it anymore. That was interesting, because Noora distrusts that cancer will be a transformative experience.
AW Everyone promises you that.
JB That she’s finally going to change …
AW …and become a better person.
JB Which is presented with some sort of ironic detachment.
AW But the desire is real.
JB Yet she does change, at the end. It’s just not necessarily in the way she thinks it would be.
AW As a representative of her generation, Noora constantly struggles for individuality. Her epiphany is that she finds community in the body. In the scene where the Volksbühne talks to her, the building says, “Look around, Noora. It’s the bodies, the bodies…” For me, that’s the bottom line. That’s all we are in the end—it’s “bare life,” as Agamben has put it. There’s comfort in acknowledging that bareness. That’s the arc of Noora’s development. Instead of becoming a better person, which still involves the idea of moral superiority and specialness, she becomes less of a person. There’s equality and freedom and community in this acknowledgement.
JB The idea that moral value is ascribed to suffering, which is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, becomes, in the context of Noora’s family, a way to cope with the legacy of Nazism. Noora struggles with this. On the one hand, she rejects it, but then there’s the scene where she looks at herself in the mirror and sees a concentration camp inmate.
AW Yeah, “becoming Jewish” is a powerful drive in German postwar consciousness.
JB But even as Noora objectively experiences hardship, whenever she tries to identify with other people who are suffering, she can only do it remotely, like when she is speaking to the wooden miner figurines.
AW I don’t know if this is even possible, but her empathy is self-absorbed. She feels sorry for herself in feeling sorry for these wooden miners. Real empathy would ask much more of her. It would mean abandoning her self-involvement for just a moment and recognize the sameness between herself and the other people at the clinic, which she cannot do. She holds onto her individuality like a lifesaver and only very late in the book does she let go of it.
JB She attempts to express moral superiority partly through historical awareness. When she is in Belize and has an ice cream cone smacked out of her hand, she wonders whether it was because she was white, because she was a woman, because she was a tourist, or if, for just a moment, she had forgotten the history of the place she was in. She has faith in the idea that being aware of something has the power to change it.
AW (laughter) It’s a very German kind of guilt, to feel horrible because you don’t know the specific historical constellations of every place you visit. I notice that my American friends don’t usually worry so much.
JB That’s totally un-American. I think that disregard for history is actually a core part of the American mythology. We have to pretend like we are the first people ever to be anywhere, because if you actually look at the history, it all falls apart. This idea of awareness might explain something about Noora’s art project, the Geschwister-Scholl-Schulkomplex, which in some ways is about her search for connection with a previous era of German history.
AW There are thousands of school and university buildings that are named after Hans and Sophie Scholl all over Germany. Noora intends to visit all of them, to be physically present and collect stuff from each and every site and to make this gigantic sculpture. This is a wordplay in German because Schulkomplex (school complex) sounds like Schuldkomplex (guilt complex).
JB And that’s such a perfect way to complicate the issue of what it means to have an authentic relationship with a place and to a history. Noora ultimately realizes that being named for something doesn’t inherently put it in conversation with the past.
AW Writing that chapter made me very happy because I realized I could make art without physically making it. I don’t have to rent a studio, I don’t have to buy materials for thousands of euros or hire people to help me make it. You just write about it and it’s there, and it’s there in people’s minds when they read it. I just love that. It’s more ecological.
JB That’s funny, because in many ways, Noora and her family’s obsession with trying to understand what it means to be good leads them to take up as little space as possible. In ecological terms, this relates to having a “zero carbon footprint.” Germany is lightyears ahead of America in that regard.
AW There’s this idea that to be good means to almost not be there at all, to not use any resources. That’s how I was raised, and that’s what I rebelled against as a teenager. Being an artist is completely at odds with that.
JB How does your writing practice connect to your art practice?
AW Writing the book became a way to think through political issues without separating them from personal experience. In the ’90s, in my part of the art world—the politicized, anti-commercial art scene of the 1990s that was inspired by artists like Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke or Alan Sekula to name a few and focused on collaborative work rather than producing an individual “oeuvre”—working from the personal was discredited because it was seen as related to the bourgeois individual. Living through cancer made me aware of the limitations of this critical model because it couldn’t contain my messy, disturbing experiences. I realized that up to that point, most of my thinking came from a negative impulse. I was against something: against fascism, against neoliberalism, against a certain kind of male-dominated, “genius” art. When I had cancer, I felt the urge to rid myself of this negativity out of a sense of self-protection. There must be another way.
Julia Bosson is a writer currently based in Berlin. Read more of her work at www.juliabosson.com.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.