no. 4

Waste Work
By Uma Breakdown

There is something disturbing the musty silence, a slowly increasing volume of synth pop music that fills the room and wakes me up. I yell at the alarm clock built into the wall and the little speakers built into the ceiling fade down far enough that I can think.

Out of my rotten bed and waddling on sore ankles, I make it to the sink quickly in case I vomit, but it’s a false alarm. In the mirror my face, my wrong wrong face, looks back at me goofily. Big eyes made bigger with smeared eye-shadow like black mold, hair lifeless as a plastic wig (but it’s mine!), flat little nose and that ‘v’ shaped beaky mouth, tiny teeth hidden no matter how much I practice smiling. I turn on the automatic taps with a swipe and try and wash my face. The water is warm and the familiar actions are comforting and I feel my mood getting more manageable. Less out of my control. My skin soon feels nice and new and clean, so I open the soft-close drawers set into the wall in an arc around the mirror, selecting little pots and steel tubes and paper bags and two plastic devices with trailing curly power cords already plugged in at the rear of the drawer they are found in.

I try smiling in the mirror again. Nope, still a big fleshy beak. Ugh. I guess this is why I have all this, and why I’m so good at using it, I tell myself. I pull out the little tables on their little arms from around the mirror and start opening containers and quickly applying the contents in careful amounts, orders, and combinations. 

A couple of times I break off to start up another electronic device with built-in timers and carefully irradiate bits of material I sculpt with single-use wands and spatulas. I draw lines on my face with a pencil and then use these lines as markers to apply other material. A firm foundation takes planning. I feel very calm while doing this. Each application brings with it a feeling of safety and comfort as I become me, building upon an inappropriate structure but one I am skilled enough to work into something near-enough perfect.

Gluing the last, freshly cast piece of myself into place I press the button on the mirror, which directs it to unfreeze the camera position, and I swipe the screen to check from all angles. Good, I barely need the mirror anymore. The firm but fleshy antlers look energetic whichever way you look at them. My eyes have been made soft but still fierce, and my newly structured face is now more canine than avian. Perfect. I always feel good at this point, but I feel very good today. Tempting fate I return all the materials and platforms to their storage with a flourish and walk across the room with only mild discomfort, choosing and putting on clothing from the limited range that today’s rituals allow.

A short time later I am dressed. The soft white fabric of the robes is such that the shadows in its folds are almost unperceivable; it just changes shape uncannily, the shape of my body inside a forgettable memory.

My senses are still present, however, and I feel the x-ray clunk in my wrist that notifies me of the arrival of a message. I’m on time, so this is good. Some mornings I’ve still been getting dressed, or worse, still building my face, or EVEN WORSE, still black-out drunk, hanging off my dish-shaped bed, when the clunk of the day’s itinerary has come through my extended nervous system.

Placing my hand on a nearby contact point, the information held in my buffer is downloaded to the console and displayed on the screen. It’s mostly what I would expect for today. No more than I can handle. Strapping the high-braced boots onto my legs and feeling the pain and then relief in my joints, I open the door and walk down the servants’ dormitory corridor out into the access network of the mansion. A note about the layout of the Alucard mansion: there are many ways to get between almost any point of departure and arrival, but they are not all the same. There are different costs and benefits for pathways and these are interconnected with, and this seems almost a cliché to say, the pathways within my own body. How much of this is intentional planning, I’m not certain; I have wireless integration with the rhythm of the building, that’s for sure. Something bangs on a door and I feel sick and vomit a little and get a flash of light across my eyes in the form of a headache.

The door from my chambers is pink and green and covered in round grooves like bubbles. It shuts behind me with the sound of an expensive car.

The corridor is hung with so many velvet curtains across and between walls, ceiling, and floor that it’s hard to make out what the shape of the structure underneath is. Someone bangs on a door somewhere. I can’t hear it, but I feel sick and distracted like I’m stuck in a beam of light through a school bus window and the journey is never going to end, and then it does and I pay attention again to what’s around me.

I wrap a stretchy, sticky, pink rubber bandage around my head and all I can hear is music. This is a design flaw, the music is not music, just feedback from other systems, but it helps me a lot to shut out stimuli. I vomit on myself slightly less when wearing it, which is a tangible benefit to the mansion, as well, and why I have not received a memo about protocol, I guess. Either that or no one cares. As sharp as I’m ever likely to be, I get to the end of the thickly hung corridor by pushing through fabrics printed with images of animals smiling from on top of mountains. There are two doors, one round with a rotating system of bars like a vault or a bulkhead, the other is blue and wooden and I go through that one because I’m hungry and it is the kitchen.

Some others are just leaving as I enter. This always seems to be the case and I’m always happy about it, because I don’t want to talk to anyone. It’s a risk I’ve taken before, but not one that’s ever really worth the trouble of other people’s mess sliding down inside your skull. I only really pay attention to people when I want to be sure they are leaving. I feel sick enough already. But they are gone. I eat something and I pull myself together and everything changes gear.

I have started work, and this transition has just happened without me realising until after the fact. Eating has shifted the building and also the time within it. Things happen in flashes now. I perform the work I was woken up to perform. The mansion is a space in which everything can be contained. A mansion can grow rooms in real time to perform functions or house experiences which did not exist outside of a fraction of a second. The basement might have a bowling alley, a tentacle lives in the attic, dogs burst through windows in corridors designed primarily to allow the window bursting of said dogs. The mansion is procedurally developed in response to desire. There was a time when mansions responded only to the whims of their patriarch, developing porn seminar theatres and bear pits in response to the needs of one singular mind. And while that mind would degrade like any, and its desires might lose coherence or fidelity, it would be singular at least, a single-strand narrative. Now, in this mansion, I’m not so sure that is the case. I don’t feel like only one story (lol) of desire is at play here. No, I wouldn’t say that at all.

I’m sorry, I’m getting sidetracked, I cannot hold onto where I am in terms of tense. I’m telling you this as it happens, but it is also after the fact, and as unreliable as if it hasn’t happened yet. Work has this effect anyway, I think. Repetition pulls you both into and out of the present at the same time. It stretches you in both directions in the same manner that to be truly embedded in the moment while performing an act is to lose all context that would place that moment anywhere. Unanchored and unreferenced. XYZ coordinates in utter gibberish.

After eating, layers of interconnected systems inside of me alter time and space and everything comes in flashes. I write this now during a late edit, years after the first words were put down. The mansion folds around me as I perform my ritual duties which extend in all directions. What follows is the best I could represent them at the time. “Work is the benchmarking of the soul”, Rosa Luxemburg.

I am in an empty lot in Berlin-Mitte, I have opened a camping gas canister and it is venting into the air. The person next to me grins manically and fumbles with a zippo. They are a dog, some kind of racing hound with a long nose and huge limb distances between joints, which in part explains the fumbling, but even with thumbs, I think they would struggle with the task as they are clearly very excited.

They tell me the story of Kamo and the Tiflis bank robbery. My friend tells me how the Bolsheviks carried out a series of “expropriations” to fund the revolution, and that Stalin chose Kamo to lead these. My friend giggles as they describe in detail how a horse-drawn stagecoach carrying funds was liberated by Kamo’s team with hand grenades. Their excitement reaches a crescendo as they jump up in order to better gesture the trajectories of various bloody parts of horse exploding across Yerevan Square, and through my nausea at the inhaled gas, I catch sight of myself reflected in a puddle of waste engine oil and see my own soft nostrils and long nose and soft ears and dappled coat and soft white mane, and then my friend has dropped the zippo and as it hits a cinder block it inexplicably sparks a flame. The first part of my work now finished, I move to another area of the mansion, still imagining I smell burnt hair. It is a cloudy night and I am walking along the grass- and litter-covered verge of a country road. On my left is the tarmac, and to the right a high hedge. I have not seen any traffic, but I know not to step down onto the road.

There is enough light to see shape, but not colour. It is slow-walking, uneven dirt and lumpy grass. Everything is grey. I can smell bacteria and then it starts to rain. I keep walking. I cannot feel temperature, but I can feel the wetness. My clothes are inappropriate and are soon soaked; my long hair sticks to my forehead and cheeks and rivulets of water create partings in my scalp through which to pour down the nape of my neck. The feeling of wetness triggers another sensation inside of me. I feel ravenously hungry and then soon the swish swish fatigue of low blood sugar. I feel dizzy and stumble more often. I feel like I am bleeding out and want both everything to stop and to never stop moving. I stumble on as the road makes endless turns to the left and to the right and I can never see more than a few dozen metres ahead. Even breathing feels chaotic at this point, like neither inhaling nor exhaling are correct for the moment.

Mercifully, my shift must have ended, because I make one more turn and I am back in the corridor of hanging fabrics. I open my chamber door deliriously, throwing off one boot then the other and in the process pulling part of the long ears from my head, and I collapse face first into my beautiful, round, rotten bed. “Ok, Google, play bedtime playlist”, I mutter into my Miffy pillow and the room fills with Walter Becker’s “11 Tracks  of Whack” and unconvincing stories of drug deals and movie deals and university life as I lose consciousness completely. 

Uma is an artist/writer/researcher interested in horror films, queer feminist literature, and games design.

In 2020 they finished a PhD about The Evil Dead, care, trans* écriture feminine, and disaster. They have recently created a plant horror RPG at Kim? in Riga; a video game about sleeping on the ground next to animals for FACT, Liverpool; and a short story about SSRIs and Artaud for Ma Bibliothéque. In 2021 they produced web-based artworks for Akademie Schloss Solitude and Wysing Arts Centre as part of the Digital Solitude and British Council NET//WORK residencies, respectively, and an Augmented Reality sci-fi story about living on an oil rig, as part of Shape Arts’ “Unfolding Shrines” project.

Currently live is “Take The Moonlight By The Tail”, an interactive skaz space opera about losing your mind while looking after the ones you love the most, commissioned by Arebyte Gallery.