I Would Prefer Not To

That night she made the mistake of turning on the TV when she returned to her hotel room. The screen seemed to be as wide as the bed, and the bed was a wide bed. She would curl up at its very edge when it came time to close her eyes, as though it were a frightening territory she was unwilling to explore. But she turned on the TV when she should have gone to sleep and she tuned into a late night movie about a young black man in South America who was employed in a photocopy store to attend to one of the photocopy machines. She felt vaguely uncomfortable that she described the man to herself as a young black man, and wondered whether if he had been white she would have described him as a young white man. The young man would copy images and text onto reams upon reams of paper, and every now and again as he copied he would read sentences, or even paragraphs, though sometimes only single phrases or words. These stayed with him. He would glean knowledge through his copying and almost knew by heart a sonnet from Shakespeare, which later in the movie he would copy out by hand for his new girlfriend. Tired, she did not watch the end of the movie, but turned out the lights instead.

When she woke the next morning she noticed for the first time the three framed pictures that were hung from her hotel room walls. One above the bed, one above the couch that was adjacent to the bed, and one beside the door of her room. She looked and what she saw was that all the pictures were repetitions, replicas, of the one identical print. The print depicted circles within circles rendered in dull water-colour. They were copies, and she had to look hard to be sure, as she could not at first believe it. The only thing to distinguish them – even the frames were the same – were their different locations in this one room. When she had first arrived she had asked to change rooms, as she could not bear being in a space where no window could be opened. A little air is all she needed, a simple request, not a white terry-towelling gown, nor a black labelled bottle of warm champagne. Besides which, the carpet smelt bad. Her first room had been furnished with an aluminium sliding door, and outside she could see that there was a narrow balcony, but in front of the sliding door there had been installed another layer of glass, framed in three segments, perfectly sealed, and now spider webs grew all over the handle of the old sliding door, which had not been opened since whenever. Fortunately the young hotel staff were obliging, and she was moved across the corridor where she could now open a similar sliding door just a few inches, as this second room had not been fully renovated. Outside the window was a busy road rushing toward her, and across the way a corrugated iron roof that redistributed the sunlight into the room as patches of glare.

Having slept at the very edge of the very wide bed of her new room she had not slept well. After breakfast she wandered to the workshop to meet the others. There she asked for directions to the nearest stationary supply store, and eventually, as verbal directions proved useless, she was given a scribbled mud map to follow. She read this map carefully, but first she went outside the makeshift gallery where the workshop participants had gathered for their instructions and turned in the wrong direction in order to see what was on the other side of the interior wall. She wanted to see what was on the outside. It was a banal, mostly empty carpark scene, and a surveillance camera. A boom gate, some white lines painted over the bitumen, and the external wall of the gallery coated in a nasty ochre and a dirty red. Through the mean clerestory windows, framed in lots of three, she could make out the suspended fluorescent lights of the interior.

Then she made her way across three city blocks, and it struck her again that this place felt like a quiet country town, no matter if it was a capital city. The streets were not yet busy, though cars were serenely circling like the fun-ride seats of a carousel around Light Park. At first she walked right by the supply store, as the map had located it on the incorrect corner, and she had been paying more attention to the map than to where she was actually walking. Back tracking she found the store and bought one piece of white chalk, and one piece of black charcoal, as well as other sundry items. The store attendant placed the writing styluses in a little white box so that they would not smudge the interior of her knapsack, and off she went again, taking a slightly different path back, winding through the almost treeless park. It was windy and a couple lay embracing on the grass by a monument to a surveyor and as she neared them a small branch fell from a tree and lightly grazed the man’s shoulder. He started up in surprise and stared at her. On her return she also saw the convener of the workshop deep in conversation in a café, her hair hanging on either side of her face like two screens as she bent over the table. And even though a window and a street separated them the sound of her three bangles knocking against each other could be dimly perceived.

It should also be noted that she had deliberately paused at several walls, choosing the quieter back streets for her ambiguous interventions, and she had inscribed on each of these walls the brief phrase: I would prefer not to. There was the residue of white chalk on her fingers, and she now kept the stick of it in her right pocket. When she arrived again in the workshop, which was to double as a makeshift gallery, she relocated one of the tables to the wall and arranged a white folding chair so that her back would be turned to the room and the others. This was part of a territorial gesture of excluding herself, of enacting the phrase she had inscribed, of placing her action to the side and in question. Still, she was cautious, and so as to create some life-line to the busy community that surrounded her she also arranged a black plastic chair, the kind that you would find in a school classroom, adjacent to the table, and with its back to the wall. This was offered as an invitation for the possibility of conversation. Above the desk, on the white wall, using her charcoal stylus, she wrote the phrase: I would prefer not to. She then ventured outside again, and on the exterior face of the same wall she wrote, yet again, this time in white chalk, the phrase: I would prefer not to. She made sure that the formulas inscribed on either side of the wall, inside and out, were placed in approximately the same location. Then she returned to her work seat at the writing table she had installed for herself.

Inside, on the table that had first collapsed when she had attempted to move it to the periphery of the room, and which had required three of them, all women in deep conversation, to put it back together again, she arranged two books, and one photocopied essay. That is to say she arranged three essays to which she would refer for her contribution to the workshop, each of which related to the phrase she had inscribed both on her return from the supply store, and on the interior and exterior of the wall against which she had pushed her appropriated desk. All she really needed was a small green screen to create her sanctuary, but the placement of what furniture was available would have to be enough given the time constraints and the circumstances. She also had her laptop open, a small, old case of watercolours (she had also purchased a water colour notebook just in case, but would not have time to use it); some fine, felt-tip black pens; a diary from her travels through the Czech Republic in the mid-1990’s, including the rest of the strange trajectory she had taken which had led her aimlessly back and forth from east to west to far east to west and back again; and finally a stack of catalogue cards that she had purchased years before at a flea market. They had come in a black box, and included catalogue card dividers with letters printed on the tabs to facilitate alphabetical ordering. She had decided that her intervention, or action, or performance, would be to sit here for the rest of the day and copy out quotes from the three essays she had gathered, upon which she would sometimes extrapolate.

What she will contribute is her performance as copyist, she decides, and she will copy out what appear to be significant portions of the three essays. This requires an act of selection, and she admits freely to herself that another copyist would be likely to make a slightly different selection. Although it would be helpful here to go into more detail about the three essays and what they had to say to her, as well as the details of her general thesis, I would not want to risk boring you with the particulars. Somehow such details seem inappropriate here. What can be said is that there is a key essay around which she claimed two other essays, written later, circled as though in deference. What each essay shares is the treatment of a phrase, or a formula, that is enunciated by a peculiar character who appears as though out of nowhere in a short story by Herman Melville. The phrase is: I would prefer not to, and the character’s name is Bartleby. As she explained to me, she has travelled to this workshop, as requested, with a ready-made item that she is prepared to work upon. This phrase then constitutes her material, or that is what she told me when I found her at my office door.

The convener of the workshop enters and begins to make her rounds of the participants, many of whom are back in the workshop and clearly busy with their contributions. When earlier in the day she had briefly explained to the convener that the one important thing she had brought with her was the phrase: I would prefer not to, the convener of the workshop had started in recognition and surprise and described a movie she had watched as an eleven year old. Her parents, as it turned out, had sent her off to bed before the movie ended, so she did not know what had become of the curious character, Bartleby, but she vividly remembered his refrain. The convener also vaguely recalls some moment of indiscretion wherein it appeared that Bartleby had been discovered by the attorney in flagrante delicto. He is wearing an under shirt and is present in the office on a Sunday, and scuttles behind his green screen when the attorney surprises him. This is the moment at which the hapless employer realises that Bartleby has moved into his chambers, and soon after Bartleby will also refuse to undertake his key chore of copying documents. Perhaps he has given up already. Certainly he no longer, if ever he did, agrees to run errands for ink and paper, or to the post office, or around the corner for lunch orders. He has also declined to check the copy of the other clerks by reading aloud, and so the phrase, his formula, his curious tick is enunciated in at least ten different occasions in Melville’s story. What’s more, the phrase, well, the word ‘prefer’, becomes infectious, and the other employees begin to enunciate it one after the other. As has been pointed out in the three essays that she reads, Bartleby neither refuses nor accepts, it is neither negation nor affirmation, but a vertiginous oscillation between positions. I would prefer not to. It is also as though there comes a moment when Bartleby and his formula become interchangeable, one cannot exist without the other, and the positions they each take up seem to cross-over into each other. It is a curious situation, she agrees, his reality appears to be defined now only in his capacity to politely decline, to simply suggest, to almost apologise: I would prefer not to.

When she too performs this refrain, without actually announcing it, but instead by copying it out onto a surface so that it risks becoming something like graffiti, a mark made where it does not belong, she somehow suspects that the voice she enunciates will not be heard in the same way. And as dutiful copyist she has repeatedly inscribed the phrase at moments along the trajectory of her walk through just a small section of the city, so bringing this city into some relation of ambivalence with the inside she now occupies with the others involved in the workshop.

Much like the attorney’s office on Wall Street, New York, the workshop has little by way of a view. Not even a white wall on one side and a blackened brick wall on the other upon which to dumbly gaze. It is as sparse as the so-called Tombs of Melville’s tale, though not at all reminiscent of a heavy Egyptian architecture. Here a leap of imagination would be required, or else, if you squinted your eyes just so you might get the feeling for the transposition that I’m trying to create here. Like the grassed courtyard of the Tombs, the prison house to which Bartleby is finally relocated as his phrase has perplexed one and all, effectively rendering him homeless, even stateless, so the workshop lends those gathered only small indications of the sky, and that is all. Bartleby no longer has any possessions, or else, all he has is his formula. Perhaps it is rather that his formula now possesses him.

When she first arrived at my office door in the department of B., she arrived unannounced, and without any references, but demanded my advice and wished to secure our relationship as some sort of pact. If I were to try and describe her, well, there are few distinguishing details that come to mind, she was little of anything, neither tall nor short, neither dark nor light, and her gaze always seemed to look across me, as though I were not quite there. I made enquiries, and requested further administrative assistance, which can be quite challenging in my place of work, but I told her she should lodge a formal application. As I already had quite a number of researchers with me I doubted that my quota would allow for another candidate. Later in the week I was told that she had left her application in triplicate, as required, with the front office. When I went to collect it I was sent first to one room then another, and finally hunted her application down on the floor below, where it had been misplaced and nearly lost beneath a pile of complaints. It was to be expected I suppose, what else did I think I would find, but that uncanny, unnerving phrase saying nothing much, neither accepting nor declining. Then just yesterday a small package was delivered with all the notes from the workshop she had attended. On account of its delicacy I removed my bangles before opening the final envelope, which included polaroid photographs, some further sundry photocopies, some notes from the three essays. I could see beneath the slightly out of focus images she had taken of each of the pictures that hung in her hotel room the smudged places where she had removed the phrase before her departure, and I whispered something to myself that I dare not repeat here for fear of a similar erasure.