Future calls

I was sitting on the international train to Germany. Every month I travel to Bonn, as part of an art project about the former West German capital during the final years of the Cold War. Guided by a series of Soviet Russian maps from 1987, on which 275 edifices are marked by numbers and designated with colour codes. These building were apparently of importance to the Russians: government buildings, embassies, post offices, industrial facilities. I’m roaming all across Bonn, taking photographs of these 275 buildings. In a way, I’m traveling into an era that ended 30 years ago. Going back in time, making images of the past, trying to capture the future of this past. I’m using an old analogue camera, in which I load expired slide films. Films that were produced in the same period that these Russian-language maps were printed. The light meter on my camera is broken. Normally I check the lighting conditions with an app on my smartphone.

This time however, I had left my smartphone at home. Instead I had a little brown mobile phone at my disposal, called MP 01. It had no camera, no internet, no maps, no apps (and thus no light meter). Just a bare phone: calls and texts only. Traveling with this small phone meant that I would have to rely on my instincts as a photographer (not having a light meter). I would have to rely on my instincts as a wanderer (not having Google Maps). I was already looking forward to the unexpected moments that would occur because of the use of this phone.

The unexpected came sooner than expected. Die Fahrscheine bitte, tickets please. A train conductor entered the compartment. Scheiße, shit, the tickets! Normally I keep my train tickets on my smartphone. I had completely forgotten to print them out this time. A fellow passenger was kind enough to let me use her phone. I could access my email account and show the ticket to the conductor who looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and compassion.

Arriving in Bonn late morning, it was too early to check into the hotel. The weather was good, so I started finding my way about in the city, following the Soviet maps. At one point I lost my way. I got disoriented because the building I was looking for seemed to have disappeared. (Had it been demolished?) The roads ran differently to how they were indicated on the map. I couldn’t check Google Maps. I would look it up on my laptop, later in the hotel. I looked on the map again to see how to continue on my way. Can I help you? An old man came towards me and glanced at my map. He could see that it was a Russian map. Uh, no. Thank you. I quickly refolded the map. I’ve found it already. The man looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.

That evening it turned out that the internet at the hotel was useless. A very weak Wi-Fi signal made it impossible to check my mail or to look up things on the web. Normally I would use my smartphone as a hotspot in these cases, but that was not an option this time. Luckily I had brought a book with me, Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900. I got into bed and started reading. Not to find one’s way about in a city is of little interest. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires practice. For this the street names must speak to one like the snapping of dry twigs, and the narrow streets of the city centre must reflect the time of day as clearly as a mountain valley. I learned this art late in life: it fulfilled the dreams whose first traces were the labyrinths on the blotters on my exercise-books... After a while I fell asleep. I was holding the brown mobile phone in my hand. I wanted to call the past. I put the phone to my ear. There was a kind of humming. I had totally forgotten this dialling tone one would hear when making a call from a landline phone. When I was a child I used to pick up the phone’s handset several times a day, just to make sure the tone was still there. Then the tone started to change. The humming turned into singing. All of a sudden I knew that I was listening to what the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s novel Das Schloss heard. It was as though the humming of countless childlike voices — but it wasn't humming either, it was singing, the singing of the most distant, of the most utterly distant, voices — as though a single, high-pitched yet strong voice had emerged out of this humming in some quite impossible way and now drummed against one's ears as if demanding to penetrate more deeply into something other than one's wretched hearing. I was woken up by this high, penetrating sound. I turned off the alarm on the brown mobile phone. I held it to my ear. Regrettably there was no dialling tone.

I wanted to take a photograph of the brown cell phone, but how to do that? There was no camera on it. Otherwise I could have taken a photo of it in front of a mirror. The lens on my analogue camera was too wide to make a proper photograph of it. At that moment I walked past a copy shop. I went inside, put the phone on the plate of the copying machine, covered it with the Russian map and pressed the copy button.

Evening again. Back in the hotel, I turned on my laptop to listen to some music. It played a song by James Figurine, singing about his phone:

I have to type eleven numbers into my cell phone
Just to make it spell ‘love’
So I usually don’t
And it takes up fifteen digits to spell out ‘goodbye’
But if I leave out the ‘good’ I can save us some time
5 5 5 6 6 6 8 8 8 3 3
This song was released in 2006, just one year before the first iPhone came out. Figurine was looking back with a certain nostalgia on the time there were no mobile phones. I turned off my phone, you did the same. And we fought face-to-face like it was the nineties again. Now – after another decade – one can look back on the early mobile phones with the same wistful feelings.

I realised I hadn’t actually used the brown mobile phone those last few days. I hadn’t made any calls, no one had texted me, nor had I sent any message. The only way I had been using it, was as a clock. Nevertheless I was hooked. A phone that had made me dream of dialling tones and a novel by Franz Kafka! I picked up the brown Kafka phone and began to send a message to my sweetheart. I started typing. 5 5 5 6 6 6 8 8 8 3 3

Utrecht, The Netherlands

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