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Olga Ravn and the workers of the 22nd Century

In a sterilized environment, aseptic and with a futuristic aura, sculptures are positioned according to their different forms. Some imbued with voluptuous malleable character, others, with rustic matter as fossils and rocks. Leather, marble, skin and aromas are explored in Consumed Future Spewed Up as Present (2018), an installation of Danish visual artist Lea Gulditte Hestelund inspired by new possibilities of science fiction, divided in three parts (The Arrival Room; The Corridor; The Inner Space) and located in the Contemporary Art Institute of Copenhagen.

The Arrival Room, from Consumed Future Spewed Up as Present. (Credits: Anders Sune Berg and Lea Guldditte Hestelund)

The Inner Space, from Consumed Future Spewed Up as Present. (Credits: Anders Sune Berg and Lea Guldditte Hestelund)

During the preparations for her installation, Hestelund contacted Olga Ravn, a Danish novelist and poet who made her literary debut in 2012 with a poetry collection. The intent was for Ravn to write briefly about the expositions material in a booklet, but soon the interaction between the two artists was established, and the writing flowed with the resulting text being published as a novel under the title Das Ansatte (2018), launched in Brazil by Editota Todavia as Os Funcionários on July 2023, translated by Leonardo Pinto Silva. The English translation, by Martin Aitken, was a finalist of the Booker Prize in 2021, which made Ravn’s novel receive translations around the world, including in Portuguese.

The story is set in the 22nd Century, and is narrated by a series of reports of the crew in The Six Thousand Ship, an experiment that harbours humans and humanoids through the exploration of a new planet. On her, the employees — who must maximize productivity of their attributed tasks, are interviewed by members of an internal committee after a series of significant behavioural changes of the crew’s humanoids, who refuse to speak with humans or to continue their relations with them.

In this work environment neither gender, nor sexuality, nor colour, or even humanity matters. Every trace of individuality is obliterated. The sentiments are oppressed, being considered an update error. It’s important to keep neutral, for it boosts the conditions for productivity, and productivity is profit. A humanoid is more valuable than a body made up in entrails and of biomolecules, they’re produced through 18 months and with little training are ready for labour; it isn’t need child birthing, breastfeeding and nurturing, those are human issues.

“ … Everytime I look at the object, I can feel my sex between my legs and between my lips. I become moist, regardless of whether I’ve got anything there or not. The hunters on my team have a name for this object, we call it the Reverse Strap-On.” (Excerpt of Statement 014 in The Employees, by Olga Ravn)

Otherwise, an interpretative array blossoms by reading about such uncharacterizable objects, just as blossoms every sense of those whose touch or caress meets them. In the ship, the artefacts are found in rooms, emitting sounds, noises and smells which overflow nostrils. The employees can feel sexually stimulated by recognizing their gender on one of the suspended objects, or could be taken to an emotional breaking-point by facing their child’s hologram. The soil, the sunset, breastfeeding and the most banal acts realized on Earth also can arise from such connection.

Ravn builds her story with neutrality and without the purpose of great plot-twists. Frequently descriptive and embarking in poetic lyricism when poised to talk about mundane activities, unnoticed, but that carry with them the meaning of some social integration. Her writing works as a tele(micro)scope: in a moment the reader ventures through the gelid ambiance of the ship her characters find themselves in; on others, a spiral of scenes, a microcosm of common emotions to every human is found, establishing an intersection of dystopia and contemporaneity.

Tacitly, the author is constantly playing with different structures of literary fiction by shaking-up the aesthetic expected by a novel. The Statements flirt with sci-fi and experimentalism, their scribbling (by the Woolfian term) permits the reshaping of lexicon and its defilement without losses of neither purpose nor effects.

The Employees does not provide answers, but questions. That impacts not on its merit; on the other hand, its construction engulfs a variety of topics inherent to the future of Earth, as: work conditions, artificial intelligence, connections to art, and even planet colonization. Such an intrinsic web of subjects is established only by the means of absence: it is the reader’s part to fill the gaps and to find the conduit in the middle of the narrative that scrapes the oneiric.

As Hestelund sculptures, the fragments which compose the novel intrigue, provoke, shed light on, obfuscate, and offer new means to think about (paraphrasing British journalist James Briddle) an ecology of technology. Both artists, with their respective oeuvres, make possible the reflection about “being” that goes beyond our definition of life, the palpable biological matter credible before our eyes.

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