We hear squeaky sounds from the other side of the wall...

As the title of MAMA’s most recent exhibition Various Exhibition Titles suggests, variations and versions are at the heart of this exhibition. I was interested in thinking about how a piece of writing, which in the case of exhibitions is usually a review, can influence the experience of the visitor, and thus create another version of the exhibition for them. For an exhibition playing with the notion of suggestion and storytelling I wanted to write along with these ideas and try something different: to write a short story. With The All Hallows’ Eve (a.k.a. Halloween) approaching, I decided to make it a little spooky in a Goosebumpsian vein, mixing the lovely works of the curator & the artists with my own fictions. Enjoy!


I smirk, press ♥ and scroll further.

“Excuse me,” mumbles a man in a fur coat, sweat dripping on his cheeks. “Do you sell Tarot cards here?”

Not having noticed the man entering the store, I wince. Trying to quickly push my phone back into my pocket it slips from my hands and falls on the floor. Shit.

“Yeah, on the shell to your left,” I answer quickly. “Although if they are for you, you shouldn’t buy them yourself you know. It brings bad luck. You should receive your deck as a gift,” I explain.

The man stares at me looking bewildered, thanks me, and leaves as quickly and silently as he had arrived.

I grab the phone from the floor and examine the damage. The screen has two big cracks on it, but it is still working. I place the phone carefully on the table, next to pile of rose quartz stones I was polishing. I’m reminded of my sister’s theory; she had tried to convince me that phone screens broke not by accident as people thought, but as a result of too many unkept promises. ”I mean your phone knows you, it knows what you’re saying, what you’re doing, and what you are not doing… So, after too many contradictions your phone is just done with your bullshit. It’s a sign,” she explained.

I stare at broken screen waiting for it to light up. It is almost 19:00 and there’s still no word from Noah. Yesterday he had said he was going to check out some exhibition but that we could meet afterwards to go see the new Tarantino movie. I regret not having agreed on a place to meet right away.

After closing and locking the doors I try to call him, but his phone is off. As Noah is not exactly the most organized person, I figure there was a big chance he had just forgotten about our plans or mistaken about the time I was finished at work. Being unsure what to do and my sister’s words about unkept promises lingering on my mind, I decide to call Melvin; I had already several times promised to join for his Friday drinks again, but something had always come up.

Melvin picks up quickly, as usual, and sounds warm and somehow dynamic, as usual. “Yes, join us! We are just on our way to the Crab. Fuck, it’s about to rain, we have to run, but see you there in twenty minutes ok?”

The sky starts to indeed darken above me as well and the slowly dripping heavy drops predict a heavy rain. I jump on my bike and open the rigged thing that used to be an umbrella but can barely be recognized as one anymore.

Melvin is a chef but for some reason majority of his friends are either architecture or graphic design students. Most of them I have already met before but now there are a couple of unfamiliar faces. I get a chair next to one of them, a person dressed in high-waist jeans, dark blue blazer, and round glasses.

“Architecture?” I guess and smile.

“Haha, yeah. Aparna.” She says and stretches out her hand.

“Laura. Nice to meet you.”

“And you, you are an actress?” She states more than asks.

Melvin has an uncomfortable way of introducing new people to each other by condensing them to a banal list of descriptive statements such as “Marco. Half Italian, half German. Studies to become an art educator. Bisexual. Has a very cute dog.” I have never asked Melvin how my introduction read but had figured out “actress” and something about working in an “esoteric” store were included in it.

Aparna tells me she studied film directing before switching to architecture. “Those two things are not that different from each other, actually. Both as an architect and as a film director you want to make something big and enduring…” She has a lovely rhythm to her speech. “…and to move people. But eventually I got bored with stories and feelings and stories about feelings. The emotional truths. I wanted to do something more real.”

She recites it all with such confidence and ease that I’m thinking whether she came up with all of this on spot or whether it is a narrative she has rehearsed in multiple conversations before. I’m curious what she means with “more real” but Melvin appears next to us before I have the chance to ask. “Where is Noah by the way?” he asks me. “I thought you had plans today.”

I explain the situation and he rolls his eyes. “Typical. Well, maybe give him a call later, I’d love to see him.” I promise and head towards the toilet. “Noah. Laura’s friend from the theatre academy,” I hear Melvin addressing Aparna. “An actor, a poet, a loverrrr, you know the type. Long lashes, maybe the longest in the whole city…”

I check my phone and to my surprise see a new message from Noah. I try to unlock the phone to read the message, but the screen is not responding smoothly after the fall. After half a minute of nerve-wrecking sliding and pressing I manage to open the message. It only says: “Help”. At a loss for how to react I try calling him again, but his phone is still off. I head back to the table to show the message to Melvin and Aparna. “What the fuck. Is this one of his “plays” again? Or should we like call the police?” Melvin seems equally puzzled.

We explain to Aparna that Noah sometimes does these performances, “real plays” as he calls them, in which he involves friends, family, strangers, and whatever events are taking place. One of the most disturbing ones had been at a restaurant shortly after Noah’s brother Pieter had died. He had insisted to keep one seat empty for “a friend” who would join the dinner later. Unknown to us all he had invited an actor to play his dead brother. He greeted “Pieter”, who was almost an exact doppelganger of Pieter, as if nothing had happened. Curiously enough most of us went along with it rather quickly, although probably for different reasons. No, Pieter is not dead. Here he is, drinking wine with us…

“But this seems different,” I realize after staring at the message. “I mean there is no invitation, no information on his whereabouts, nothing to work with.” Melvin bites his lip and then his face lightens up. “You said he was going to see some exhibition before you were supposed to meet, right? Where was that?” I’m trying to think if he mentioned the name of the gallery. Suddenly I remember Noah giving me a sticker the last time we saw each other, a sticker he had received from a friend and which he said was from the gallery he was planning to visit this week. Perhaps it could give us a cue. I grab my bag and find the sticker folded between my agenda. It’s a simple one, black text on a white background saying TAKE HOT BATHS. I had thought it was funny and had planned to stick it to my bike but had forgot about it.

One of Melvin’s friends, a quiet redhead called Sam, pulls closer to our table as the rest go out for a smoke, and points to the sticker. “I know where those stickers come from if that’s what you’re trying to find out. It’s this gallery on Witte de Withstraat. You don’t want to go there, if you know what I mean. It’s a really bizarre case; the street used to be a quiet, boring residential block before the gallery moved in some years ago. And now it really is not safe there, at least not after dark.”

“Ahh yeah I’ve heard about this place. I think a lot of the former artists and curators went to jail,” Aparna adds.

“Wait,” Sam says and glances at the smokers outside. “Anna just talked about this place too, something happened with her boyfriend’s roommate recently. Let’s ask her once she’s back.”

Anna tells us that her boyfriend’s roommate had indeed visited the gallery couple of weeks back and had begun acting completely strange afterwards. Her boyfriend told that he started bringing home all kinds of stuff from the street – empty bottles, tree branches, bicycle parts, street signs – explaining they were “sculptures”. “My boyfriend is now staying with me because there is no space in their house anymore. And he told me that the roommate has apparently dropped everything else in his life, he just spends his days roaming the streets looking for stuff. I’m pretty sure he’ll get evicted soon.”

All this new information makes the situation even less comprehensible. After a brief discussion Melvin, Aparna and I decide to go see the gallery with our own eyes. “I mean yes it all seems strange, but we must keep in mind that Noah sometimes has a taste for… morbid things,” Melvin says and gives me the you know what I mean look. However, perhaps because of the rainy, heavy – somehow ominous – weather and the concerned look in Sam’s big, serious eyes, I begin to think this is something else. Or at least something Noah is not totally in control of.

We lock our bikes to a bridge close by and walk towards the Witte de Withstraat. The street is darker than others; many of the streetlamps are broken. On an empty terrace three pigeons are finishing someone’s dinner. An old dachshund appears from nowhere and lifts its leg against a trash can. We hear music and bursts of laughter somewhere in the distance but don’t see anyone in the street.

The gallery is located on a corner opposite of what seems to have been an ice cream parlour. (Only a neon sign of an ice cream cone and a graffiti on the window saying ICE CREAM YOU SCREAM are left to remind passers-by about its past existence). The gallery windows are all covered with thick, red velvet curtains and the place looks closed. Aparna knocks on the glass door. No reply. “What now?” asks Melvin.

“Wait, I want to try something.” Entertaining the idea for a second that this is just a performance, I dramatically step in front of the door, put my hands around my mouth, and whisper close to the door: “Take hot baths.” I turn around and see Melvin and Aparna looking at me like I have completely lost it. My giggling is interrupted by the sound of tinkling keys, and shortly after the curtain starts to move. A person with a blond, slightly tangled hair and swollen blue eyes appears. She opens the door a little bit and asks bluntly: “Who are you?” She is wearing a black hoodie, one wireless earphone, and worn out sneakers, which seem to be moulding. “Uhmm we are looking for our friend Noah. He told us to meet him here,” I lie quickly. “I don’t know anything about that. But now that I’m awake… Do you want to see the exhibition?” She pulls a smile with a visible effort.

Having already come so far, we decide to go for it. The air inside the gallery is warm and moisty and smells like artificial lemon. The space looks bigger from the inside. Through the rooms runs a large wooden tribune and the host instructs us to have a seat. “This exhibition is not your typical art exhibition. Maybe you can already feel it. We wanted to make an exhibition that… Truly has impact on people’s lives,” she begins. “In this space, you will both interact with and become art.” She pauses and continues choosing her words carefully. “Some things here have a direct relationship with reality, some things may not be real… Yet.” We hear squeaky sounds from the other side of the wall. “Ahh, the first piece will start in 30 seconds, please follow me.”

The host leads us towards the sound, and we take a seat on the tribune again. We are facing another window covered with a red curtain and two big loudspeakers on both sides of the window. She opens the curtains and we see a person dressed in a pink overall and a silver cap. He is wiping the steamy window with a squeegee decorated with shiny rhinestones; the source of the squeaky sounds explained. The voice from the loudspeakers orates: “Welcome… To the… Aura…” I lose focus on what’s been said further because I’m stuck staring at the figure cleaning the window. It’s Noah. There is no doubt about it, although his long hair is gone, and he has a visible bruise on his lip. I glance at Melvin and he has clearly noticed the same.

I see the host sitting on the other end of the tribune staring at her phone, and quietly drag myself close to her. “That’s Noah, our friend we were looking for,” I point to her. “No, that’s the Rhinestone Cleaner,” she replies almost without lifting her face from the phone. I observe her for any cues that this is all part of Noah’s plan, part of the joke, but she looks as if nothing unusual is happening. I start to feel nauseous; the air inside is hot and heavy…

I ask if I can use the toilet and she instructs me to take the first door on my right. I look at Melvin and Aparna who are looking at my direction and try to convey with an elaborate shrug and eye-roll that I have no clue what’s going on.

I lock the door and sit on the toilet seat, feeling suddenly a need to pee. I stare into the bottom of the toilet, checking for traces of blood, when I overhear two mumbling voices. I realize the voices are coming from the toilet and quickly get up. “Can you maybe talk a bit more about how you came in contact with these “forces” you mentioned…” “…a long process…” I see the water in the toilet bubbling. “…discovering “e-mail” was a turning point…” Unintelligible mumbling follows. “…regrettably the team was not willing to go for the extra mile…”

It occurs to me that I should try to record the bits of the conversation for Melvin and Aparna and I pull my phone out of my pocket. It immediately lights up and starts to tremble in my hand; someone is calling, but where the name of the caller is supposed to read, the screen is blank. My stomach twitches. I swipe to answer but the screen is not reacting. I swipe and press and shake the phone, but nothing happens. The trembling continues, the cracks have started to sweat, and the drops are spreading under the glass all over the screen.

I quickly unlock and open the toilet door but instead of the gallery space, I find myself in a hotel room. I feel my armpits getting wet. I look back to the toilet, it’s still there, and decide to run to the window. To my surprise I’m looking at the gallery, but now from the opposite side of the street. I see the red curtains and one of the windows open. I see Noah in the pink overall still cleaning the window, I see Melvin and Aparna sitting on the tribune. I feel strange. My fingertips are tickling. The earlier panic gives over to something else. It’s the feeling I get before premieres; nervousness mixed with excitement, the lines circling in my head. I stare into the person in the mirror, correct my posture, and say out loud: “I have lived in this hotel room for fifteen years…”

This story was written by Onerva Heikka on Halloween as part of Various Exhibition Titles, which can be visited at MAMA’s until the 24th of November.


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