from Oval by Elvia Wilk

BOMB 146 Winter 2019
146 Cover Nobarcode

Anja skidded down the slope, which was becoming muddy from overuse by feet. It still hadn’t been paved or even scattered with gravel, since Finster didn’t want to admit that the state of the pathway could no longer reasonably be called temporary. Rather than upgrade the provisional solution to make it slightly more functional in the interminable interim, it was ignored, as a signal that something better, something great—the best possible path—was coming.

Louis likened this situation to a general societal problem. The refusal to improve a non-solution with a makeshift solution, he said, was the attitude that left most of the world a muddy slope in need of repair. Making exactly this argument had in fact consumed a lot of his time in his first year at Basquiatt, the NGO where he worked, which he believed was overrun by an ideological insistence on grand solutions that would be forever unattainable instead of small-scale, implementable compromises. “Let’s be realistic,” was his self-parody catchphrase. “What can we do right now to make things better?”

“Why do you think refugee camps are never outfitted with proper infrastructure?” he’d asked Anja just a few days before he’d been yanked back to the US. They were hiking up the mountainside in the rain toward their apartment, torsos harshly angled against the incline, sneakers slipping in the mud, dragging grocery bags; it was pathetic.

“Muddy scenes of neglect,” he shouted downhill at her, intent for some reason on having this discussion right at that moment. The worse things had gotten in their house, the more he’d taken to ranting. “The mud is meant as a message that the bad situation isn’t going to last forever, no matter how long it’s already lasted. They want you to think the camp is just temporary, so nobody actually has to take responsibility for it.” His voice rose as Anja lagged farther behind him. “The quality of the now,” he yelled over his shoulder, “is sacrificed for the ideal. Know what I’m saying?”

Of course she could see what he was saying. “But you realize you’re comparing the Berg to a refugee camp, right?” That had ended the discussion.

Today she was carrying only a few avocado peelings in the pockets of her vinyl windbreaker. The whole apartment was a hot, puffy bruise; she didn’t dare force anything down the drain today. She waved to a group of electricians in blue coveralls, who were standing, bored, around a post that was supposed to be supporting one of the vine-cables of the cable car. They had raised the car onto a stack of wooden pallets. One of the workers dropped a cigarette butt onto the exposed end of a vine-cable half-buried in mud, and it let off a sorry spark.

Unhitching her bike from a post at the bottom of the mountain, she saw that Louis’s racer was still locked to a tree. He must have taken the train. She plugged her phone into the charger between her handlebars, checking it for messages. Dam had already sent out his first weather blast of the day: dry 35 * / lavender / wet west gust.

She checked her phone’s weather app for comparison. High of 24 degrees, calm, clear. The gap between the official version and Dam’s version—the real version—shouldn’t have still bothered her, but it did. She slotted an earbud in each ear and began the long ride up to Prenzlauerberg, to Howard’s. It would normally take half an hour, the length of one podcast, but she was lumbering on the pedals today, swinging from side to side with each push. She was exhausted, and, true to Dam’s forecast, there was a hot wind coming from the west. The sky was purplish with stratified layers of clouds, each like identical, faded copies of one another. Add a layer. Add a layer. Duplicate this layer. Flatten visible.

She listened to the podcast with one part of her brain, thinking with another part about what must have been happening in the lab at that very moment. She was mildly anxious to be missing the morning there.

The week before, the simulation she and her co-worker Michel had been hard-coding for weeks had finally authorized cell culturing; today would be the first day in at least two months that they’d be liberated from their screens, finally doing tiny things with their actual hands in an actual polystyrene dish. It was strange to look forward to an action while knowing already, without a doubt, how it would unfold. They had seen the routine perform itself again and again in high-definition render; the airtight predictability of the chain of events was the only reason they were allowed to make it happen in a dish at all.

She saw the animation in her mind. One cell membrane swelling to accommodate a new blot on its periphery—for one freak moment an egg with two yolks—then, the new blot forcing itself outwards to the splitting point, when the edge of the cell would erupt from its boundary to become a whole new edge, scooping remarkably away and burping into its own self-contained shape—from impossible to possible. “Plop,” said Michel each time they watched the duplication unfold on-screen. “Plop-plop-plop.”

She consoled herself with the fact that today wouldn’t really be the most important day. It would be tomorrow, when a surface visible to the naked eye would begin to form from all those slow plops. The plops were designed to perform very slowly—growing into a skein of tangible matter. The surface would be translucent at first, shaping itself over the hours into a perfectly symmetrical double-wave, like the contour of the roof of a mouth, but impossibly smooth. And so small, conformed perfectly to its given constraints, the shallow dish only eighty-eight millimeters in diameter, the simulated site map of the simulated shelter, the architecture’s designated terrain. By the end of the second day the duplicating cells would have built a delicate little home, rising layer upon parametric layer until it was exactly right, a perfectly circular double-arched roof. Then it would stop. Cartilage in its first official architectural application. A perfect, growable, reproducible, durable roof, which Finster could send anywhere in the world as a tiny bundle of cells that would sprout on demand. Cells that would be first grown in their lab at randi.

She could already see Michel struggling to repress his excitement. She’d mock him, call him Dr. Evil, but they’d both give into self-congratulation for a few minutes when the thing was finished growing. This week would offer a release valve from the tedious months plugging variables into a giant data sheet and pretending not to give any fucks about their jobs. (On the other hand, they would have to admit to each other with a few uncomfortable glances, the success was a turning point, it made them responsible for what they were doing at randi. Until now, the eye rolling and sarcasm had masked the unease, but soon they’d have to pretend even harder not to care, work even harder not to know where this was all headed. She’d think about that next week, once they had accomplished this small exercise in form, a proof of concept that was surely just a small step in a process that would take years before implementation.)

The stoplight at Jannowitzbrücke gave pause to the pedaling and the imaginary cell growth. A swarm of teenagers in red caps crossed the street, briefly enveloping her. A trio of girls wearing their caps backward—oh, pitiful resistance!—followed closely behind one another. It was easy to spot the popular girl at the front of the pack right away, simply from the geometry of the flock in motion. What was it about the girl, Anja wondered, the homely girl preoccupied with her phone, that made her the focal point, the yolk at the center of attention? What was the factor upon which the self-replicating algorithm turned, that remarkably consistent geometry of popularity? How had Anja still not figured out the answer, the hidden parametric logic to social arrangements, even after all these years, even as an adult scientist?

The light turned yellow, and the group hurried by, ushered forth by a red-shirted chaperone. At the same time, according to the podcast she now zoned back into, jellyfish were taking over the oceans as other species died out in the too-warm water and made way for them to proliferate, spreading across the water in a thick quilt, clogging the gears of power plants and blocking the flow of oxygen to the depths of the sea.

Elvia Wilk is a contributing editor at e-flux journal and Rhizome. Her debut novel, Oval, will be published by Soft Skull in 2019.

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Originally published in

BOMB 146, Winter 2019

Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.

Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.

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