Interview room 341 is very small and dark, like a segment cut from a corridor. Harry notices the odd ratio of wall to door to window as he automatically moves towards the one empty chair. An inspector sits opposite behind a small desk, staring down at a screen. He’s thin, suited, with short hair starting to grey, and legs crossed with the raised foot absently tapping air.
He doesn’t seem to notice Harry standing there awkwardly. Just swipes and stares. Harry sits. Now the inspector looks up.
“Ah, Mr Thomas?”
“Sorry to keep you waiting. It is nice to meet you.”
“Um, yes, it’s nice to meet you, too.”
The inspector smiles, showing his top teeth.
“I hope you got here without any trouble.”
“Yes, it was fine.”
“Well. I’m glad you could make the appointment. We’re very sorry about the delay. You know how things are right now.”
“Good, good. I’m sure you understand. It’s beyond our control. And of course doing things properly takes some time.”
He waits again. Smiles. Teeth.
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
“It won’t take long now though. Not long at all. We have gone through your work in detail. Everything in the feed, and everything in the archive. A considerable portfolio.”
He holds the screen up.
“This is your account, right?”
Harry looks at the old feed; its thumbnail images, shared edgy articles, and cringeworthy contributions from an old virtual self. It has been scrolled down to some point in the past, maybe five years ago, or more? There’s a photo of his brother with arms folded, standing outside under trees. Harry remembers it. 35mm Kodak film in a Canon FD camera, on a 50mm lens, just after the house was finished.
“Yes, that looks like my account.”
“Excellent. Yes. It is. We have gone through it in close detail. Thoroughly. Quite a body of work. Substantial.”
He waits. Smiles. Teeth.
The inspector turns the screen round. Tap, swipe, tap, tap. He holds it up again.
“And this, this is also yours? From the archive.”
Harry looks. A gallery of much older photos. A red van outside a bungalow on a drumlin hill. A long exposure of waves hitting a dark-rocked coast. A blurred horse running on an island. A boy in woods holding his hand in front of his face. A reflection of a row of white houses in a puddle.
“They are yours?”
“Yes, yes, they’re mine. from before. I haven’t seen them in…”
“Yes, well, here they are. Alive and kicking. Very consistent.”
He puts the screen down on the desk next to a sorry plastic plant.
“Well, we have gone through everything in detail, great detail, and we feel we have a good measure, a very good understanding, of your work. A very broad output indeed. Landscapes mainly, wouldn’t you agree? A degree of escapism? Some Longing? Classic straight composition, with the odd effort, off-piste, as they say.”
Harry’s eyes roll around the very small room.
The inspector waits.
“I guess, I’m drawn to landscape, somewhat.” He shifts in the chair.
“Yes, yes. Landscape is a fine subject. A fine way to spend a day off, out in the open air, recording the conditions, the light, the weather. The change and the unchanging.”
Harry shifts uncomfortably again.
“And of course, some street work here. Black and white in the main. Very, I suppose, un-intrsuive. Unintrsive street scenes, with little eye contact. Some reflections, windows, skies, observations. Perhaps a sense of, disconnect? Certainly a measure of observation and complexity. But a distance nonetheless. Very interesting. The curse of the observer, in the street, of the street, but always feeling outside, perhaps?”
Another long pause. Harry looks up at a fan cutting its loop overhead. Snipsnipsnipsnip…
The inspector nods and stares, his finger still flicking across the screen. He angles it so Harry can’t see what he sees. Pale blue light strikes his steady inspector face, and into his steady inspector eyes.
Eventually he puts it down again, and turns to face Harry, folding his hands carefully after thoughtfully brushing dust from the corners of the desk.
“So, this is good. I think we can come to a very clear understanding.”
“I hope so.”
“Certainly. Certainly. You see, your work is excellent, very good, very broad. Curious. Introspective. Persistent. And very consistent. Perhaps trying at times to, er, find a, find a foothold. A voice. What do you think?”
“Well, I guess, I mean, it’s… hard to say. I’ve put a lot of… It’s not really something I’ve…”
“Not to worry. Not to worry. Of course overthinking can disrupt the intuitive quest. Art is an, active form of contemplation, and expression shouldn’t be, pigeon-holed. Never tied down, strictly, fully. In any case, I’m sure it has been a valuable process, very educational. And an interesting, active hobby. We must always strive to see, to see better, no?”
“Yes, We have to be, be in the world, and, take it for what it is, with us, in it, in the, flow, exactly. We have to let the world flow by us. Through us. Let it settle, percolate, integrate. Exactly. You have explored and I’m sure have learned a great deal about this human condition of ours.”
He rubs dust off the desk again, and glances at a clock that hangs on the wall behind Harry. Smiles. Teeth.
“Now, I’m glad we agree. You have learned and experienced and explored. A valuable process. You know, people like you are very important, vital even.”
Harry tries to stretch his body out of its slouch. The plastic chair seems designed to push it into a collapsed hunch. The tiny room is warm but he shivers. The daylight that had striped between the narrow grey blinds is gone.
The inspector puts his hands together in another practiced gesture.
“Of course, it is vital too, essential, to help people find their right, role. Their best calling. Vital to all of us. Otherwise, so much, so much potential, goes wasted. A great inefficiency.”
Harry stops fighting the slouch.
“I’m sure you have studied the greats. The giants of the art. Bresson, Capa, Adams. Man Ray. Atget. Aarbus. Koudelka. Steichen. Mann. Strand. Kenna. So many, so many. So true to their art. Art in every direction. We must never forget to study them, learn from them. Try to see as they saw. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, of course we do. And at the same time we must also struggle, struggle to find our own path. Sometimes we fall naturally into it, but of course, we can be helped. can we not? We have to embrace our path with integrity.”
“As sure as we are sitting here. As sure as the sun still rises. We must help each other, for the sake of all of us. Not in a theoretical way. In real ways. Concrete ways. We must keep our purpose clear and our hearts open. Would you say that you are open, Harry?”
Harry lets his eyes float again, from those clean careful hands with close cut nails, to the looping fan, to the grey blinds.
“I, I.. maybe.”
“It is a fact. It is obvious from your work. You are an open, inquisitive individual. With so much to offer. I am sure you can see the opportunity, and that is all it takes, to see it, to see the path ahead.”
The inspector seems to count a preset number of seconds of pause, looking intently at Harry, then thoughtfully at his desk and office and the upturned screen and the clock, as though they have suddenly just appeared and are arranged just right.
“So. Time has no mercy. I am sure you are eager to get moving. It is great to find agreement. I am sure you can have many new experiences, good, great experiences. There is always time” As he speaks he pulls the screen back across with one finger, without looking at it. Then he does look, and it lights up again with the same blue, and he touches and taps.
“Now, here we are. Harry Samuel Thomas. One Seven Six Zero Seven Six Five Nine Two. This is you.”
“Of course. Now. Let’s just quickly… (tap tap tap).. and (tap tap tap) ”
He leans over the screen on the desk, but Harry can still see.. another gallery of his photographs. Numbers and dates. His memories. On one side he can see a star rating and underneath it some comments.
Two and a half stars out of five.
The inspector stares for a long moment then tap-tap-taps again.
Now a big button appears saying “Confirm Cleanse”
He looks at the screen.
“No point in looking backwards Harry. We must learn from the masters, pull together, find our optimal path. We must let our lives be our content.”
Harry watches the inspector’s quick fingers tap “Confirm Cleanse”. The screen flashes. A new view: “Confirm content cleanse. All feed content will be removed. Save feed content to archive? Remove all archive material?”
The inspector de-selects “Save feed content to archive”, and selects “Remove all archive material”. He taps “CONFIRM”.
“Identification required. Level Four. Department of Culture and Data Provisioning.”
“Ah, of course.”
He turns the screen to Harry.
“Can you put your thumbs here. Both thumbs? On the circles.”
Harry presses his thumbs onto circles marked L and R.
“Identification confirmed. Processing request.”
A loading bar appears.
“Removing feed content. 3%”
Harry can hear the fan and his own breathing. He tries to remember the places he has been. Fragments. A windswept day out on the coast. Deep grass, hollow-pocked under tripping feet. A windy afternoon and the sun blasting between clouds. Crawling on his belly to the edge and holding the camera over it.
The ocean bellowing below sheer cliffs. Seagulls squealing. The huge mass of the sea stack over the waves. Lines of white froth and bullets of specular glint. Clear horizon and sea sound and sea smell from one edge to the other.
“100%. Source material removed.”
“Removing archive material. 1%”
Or, another time and place, getting out of the subway at night, during winter in a cold city, and turning to look down at steps running back to the station. A man hurrying down, and suddenly jumping the last few steps. Too many to be practical. A flourish, not meant to be seen. Just for the heck of it.
A long time ago now.
“100%. Archive material removed. Procedure complete.”
The inspector smiles broadly and leans forward.
“That is it. That’s great. Nothing to it. Now we can move forward. Onwards and upwards, to new adventures.”
He continues to tap.
“And the requisition unit will call to your home this very day, for the equipment recycle order.”
He turns the screen off.
“Now, good news. We have a great position lined up for you. Perfect. A brand new opening. Right next to your home. A fine promotion. With a highly reputable content subcontractor- Merko Kontent.”
Harry feels far away, and being far away and empty, finds he is now able to meet the inspector’s gaze. It doesn’t waver. It holds his eyes and drinks them in and deletes whatever they are saying, unflinching, unreflective, steady.
“You will be straight into the images department. None of the ground floor work. A proper contract.”
It is easier to look at the blinds, and the lines of darkness where the lines of light had been.
Office six eight four, floor three, Merko Kontent Building Seven, Department of Content and File Administration. Eight minutes of brisk walking from the outside door of the apartment block.
A lady in a blue suit with a name tag shows Harry to his desk. His name and number are displayed on a large flat display. She points out the bathroom, the coffee and vending machines, and the smaller second screen to the left of the other. On this, a red clock showing “09:00:00”
“Just put your thumbs here.”
Harry puts his two thumbs against the L and R circles on the big display. It immediately lights up. Text appears.
“Assignment 3707124. Content Agent: 176076592. Session: 1186503. Time allocated: 24:28:00. Time accumulated. 00:00:00. Session length: 09:00:00. Press screen to begin.”
There you are”, the lady says. “Just follow the screen. Easy peasy. A basic session to get you started. It automatically stops when you leave your chair.”
She starts to walk away then pauses.
“Oh, and your work will be monitored of course, I mean, especially, for the first few days at least. It’s just protocol. Press the Support button under the clock screen for tech support. But you shouldn’t need it.”
She hurries off. Harry watches her disappear into a maze of separating dividers and then he glances up at the camera overhead. Then at the screen. It waits.
“Press screen to begin.”
He presses the screen.
“Assignment type: Image Allocation. ID 3707124. Session: 1186503”
“Assignment content: Private Feed Images”
“Assignment target cluster segment: Pornography”
“Press screen to continue.”
The only sound is a low background hum, and possibly faraway traffic, and something like flowing water. Overhead pipes?
He presses the screen.
“Instructions overview: Choose Yes if image is of a graphic or pornographic nature. Otherwise choose No. Press screen to continue.”
Harry presses the screen.
The clock on the left suddenly starts counting down.
On the main display: an image of a windswept sea, probably taken from a boat. Two buttons. YES and NO.
Harry touches NO.
A new image. A truck being unloaded outside a warehouse in the rain.
A group of people in a room, looking at the camera and smiling.
Two young naked women in a kitchen with their hands raised to their faces in ‘owl eyes’ shapes.
When the clock reaches zero, Harry realises he hasn’t eaten, or moved from his station for a full nine hours. The light has stayed exactly the same throughout. The sounds too, bar an odd shuffle of passing feet followed by clunks from a vending machine or whirring from the coffee machine. The big screen is blank. The small one reads “00:00:00”. Now it too fades into black. Harry’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He takes it out. New message.
He takes the stairs down and goes through door, door, gate, to get to the street. It’s dark and not yet busy. An eight minute walk home. He has finished early.
After four minutes, Harry reaches an intersection and stops. His stomach is rumbling. He stands there for two full light changes, watching other workers going home, and cars driving through. He sees lights switch off in the opposite block, and others switch on. He sees a woman walk by with a little girl wearing a dress and eating an ice cream. Instead of going straight on towards the tiny apartment, he turns left, and walks faster.
Eventually, he reaches a bridge and crosses, looking down into the dark river below. Now he is in the old part of the city, where warrens of streets thrown on streets mingle and twist. Old unprofitable shops hang stubbornly onto corners like barnacles.
Harry stops at a dirty lit window with red and black lettering overhead. “Darcy’s. Buy and Sell. Technology specialist. Classic items.” He looks around before pushing the door in.
A bell tinkles. An old man leans over a glass counter at the end of the dark narrow space, working with a little pliers over something disassembled. The centre and sides are lined with shelves and cases. Harry makes a slow line around the outside towards a display of antique cameras. Dented metal SLRs, a couple of worn rangefinders, and a random mix of lenses, bags, and coloured filters. He picks things up, twists knobs, presses shutters.
The old man stops his work and stares.
Harry picks up a small SLR.
“How much for this body and lens?”
The man peers through his thick glasses.
“Mmmmm, that’s not a common model, that one. In good nick too. Serviced it myself. And no digital footprin… mmmmm…. 50 pounds for both.”
“Do you have any film for it?”
“Mmmm, film? I’ll check.”
The keeper disappears into the back, and Harry waits, listening to the sounds of cabinet doors opening and closing and muttered swearing.
The old man returns with a small cardboard box filled with rolls of old film.
“Expired of course. But I had them in the fridge.”
He picks up a loose roll and holds it up to his face.
“You know, I don’t think you can get these developed anywhere anymore.”
“Oh, well, 3 pounds a roll, as they are.”
Harry picks up and puts down some of the rolls. He looks around the empty shop again then pulls out a battered wallet. Carefully wrapped inside an old receipt are two 50 pound notes.
“Will that do? For the lot?”
“Yep, that’ll do. I’ll find a bag.”
Harry hands him the cash and turns to the door. Back outside, the street is quiet. The streetlights that work throw cones of muddy orange along its narrow curve. Harry fumbles with a roll of the expired film and eventually loads it. He stares at the row of houses, the lights, and the blackness of the sky that they fade into.
He wipes the viewfinder and lens with his sleeve then holds the camera up to his eye. Fragments from the nine hours of “Assignment Section: Pornography” begin to dislodge. He tries to see only what is in the viewfinder.
All photos, drawings, and text by Donal Kelly. Please let me know if you liked it. If you hated it, that's ok. I can accept this. But no need to let me know. I find it really hard to get anyone to actually read my efforts, and I can't read it properly myself because it's too familiar. Maybe if I spend a year or two forgetting.
I had an idea to write a story about a committee or judge deciding whether or not to delete an artist's entire life's work. Not that I am such a thing. But, just like that: one click of a button. DELETE.
I was struggling to have much belief in my own work (still am) and this is one of the genre of malevolent fantasies that my mind sometimes spins. A committee made up of the type of commenter from websites, who say "I dunno, I think it's just shit". Once I started, I began to imagine what the world might look like for this to happen, or what else might happen afterwards, or even the room where it might happen. Just a few loose sketches. Hints and allegations.
Then I decided to draw an actual sketch. Of the little interview room. Who knows why. Then I felt I had to add lots more, for closure, and then I lost a whole pile of time. Hours and hours. Gobble gobble gobble. And I still think, it probably, should be, you know, deleted.