Half-Finished Head Shape: Ben Pester On Jenna Sutela // Liverpool Biennial 2021


In a new short fiction commission written exclusively for The Double Negative, author Ben Pester takes inspiration from the work of Liverpool Biennial artist Jenna Sutela – and from imaginary organisms, symbiosis and gestation…

We are all inside this room, inside this new office building. It smells of glue and energy drinks – but nobody here drinks energy drinks. It’s sticky somehow, schoolish. There were pillars in the old building. There was a lovely echo, with calming voices, but we’re in this one now. We are busy in this building – too many bodies, all on top of each other.

I feel exhausted by this meeting though, already. The guy presenting, he was here when I joined, but we haven’t spoken much. He looks quite sketchy today. Celine says he’s ok, but you wouldn’t be the last one out with him after work. Not in a bad way, just… y’know.

He is speaking to us and it’s only the beginning of the presentation, but already the general feeling is a bit wow, I’d love to be outside in the fresh air. The slide still just says Hello on a blank screen.

It’s sad for me to realise this is probably just the default presentation screen in his slide deck. Has he even created any slides at all? This is a wreck of a meeting, is the unspoken sensation now. There are shapes in the background of the slide, faded, half-finished things. There is a sense that this could be this guy’s last ever meeting here. He is talking about – what is he talking about?

So, I will be honest, I missed some calls this morning. I missed some important meetings, and I’m struggling – I’m nervous. I went out on my own into town. I went into some places. Wherever I went, I heard this combination of voices, and I tried to make sense of it in terms of this meeting but I don’t know if I succeeded. I barely know you. I barely know any of you, but I found out something today – like something very significant.

“As he speaks, he is chastising himself for losing the thread of what he’s saying. He keeps rubbing his face in his hands”

It goes on like this – he speaks in this rolling rubbish, but I am realising somehow we are still transfixed. It’s like he is responding to something we can’t see. Several people are sitting up a bit – they might be about to witness a live breakdown. They might be able to get the rest of the day off if this goes really badly. As he speaks, he is chastising himself for losing the thread of what he’s saying. He keeps rubbing his face in his hands. More than once, it has looked like a senior colleague is going to step in, but this guy blurts some sudden new information – some new bright lump rises to the surface – and it’s interesting again.

I went to a building where something had oozed out of the wall. I tried to make sense of it. I felt more and more a sense that I was not alone…

I don’t know when we first became aware that his borders had faded. The visible borders had faded, I mean. It could have been when he spoke of his experience in the car park – he had been in a car park at some point. It’s hard to express it but zoning into this lump of meaning gave us the impression he had been speaking for some hours about a car park he had been to as a child. A car park and he was left in the car, something like that, but what really happened was we began to see beyond the borders of his skin and could see inside.

…just this tiny woman and she was coming towards me, my Mum, carrying the shopping and trying to gesture with her head for me to open the door, get out and help with the bags, the terrible strain on her neck, and I was unable to leave the car, I tried to say, ‘I am unable to leave the car because of the child lock’, and she gestured further, really in pain now and rushing and with the expression that we can in no way afford all those bags of food. It reminded me, in a way, of trying to develop a new product…

“Ben G Valance, who was meant to be leaving and had not even confirmed that he would attend the meeting, was a shimmering liquid curtain of reproducing bacteria and harmonious parasites”

At some point we must all have realised that nobody in the room, any longer, had what you would call an operational border between their singular self and their symbiotic collective. None of us were able to see the commercial value in what was being said. All of us were suddenly billions of interconnected Microsystems. He was still struggling on, and the light that had been emanating from him briefly ended and we had to return to the still transparency as he described how the product management processes of the company had fallen through the cracks caused by rapid growth.

All the while, I saw all these cells dying and living and dying and clustering and releasing, he became a river. We all became a river. Celeste from the project delivery squad became a cloud of organisms hovering above the river. Ben G Valance, who was meant to be leaving and had not even confirmed that he would attend the meeting, was a shimmering liquid curtain of reproducing bacteria and harmonious parasites. He said he felt good, although not he – they. The collective systems of Ben G Valance, the shimmering curtain, said they felt good. Sabrina was all over the walls. Sabrina was through the walls. Tim S was through the walls and back again – in and out of them in the mode of a borderless manatee in full grace.

At some point, we began thinking of all of this as the past. A total liquefaction had set in, and all that we once had been now ceased to exist. Product management is something you can exceed. You can go beyond design. If anyone comes into this room, they will not see us in the traditional way. They will detect perhaps a novel clarity in the light – as though it has recently been raining.

If anyone comes into this room and needs to be reminded that they are not, and never can be, alone, all they need do is look at the screen and the blank slide with the black word on a white background that says: Hello.

Ben Pester is a writer based in London. His new collection of short stories, Am I in the Right Place?, is available now from Boiler House Press.

Jenna Sutela (b. 1983, Finland) lives and works in Berlin, Germany. Sutela uses words, sounds, and other living media, such as bacteria and slime mold, to create experimental installations and performances that bring together biology, technology and cosmology.

This new text was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial and is part of a creative-critical series published exclusively by The Double Negative. Writers were given free rein and approximately 500 words to respond to any Biennial 2021 work in any style, tone or format that they wished. #LB2021

Visit Jenna’s Biennial work that inspired Ben’s story: the gestating sound piece titled nnother (2020) at the Lewis’s Building, and a new installation drawing on her I Magma (2019–ongoing) series of head-shaped lava lamp sculptures at the Lush cosmetics shop. All free to visit until Sunday 27 June 2021

Image Credits: Jenna Sutela, Magma, 2019. Photo: Moderna Museet

Posted on 22/06/2021 by thedoublenegative