the second part of an on-going conversation between Ran Zhang and Sonia Fernández Pan
(the text is commissioned by Zsf, Berlin)
April 2021

Ran: The sky has been closed for weeks. It could sound very much like coming from a sci-fi scenario. At the beginning of 2021, the robotica and Mitocon-motor hybrid launched the final multiplexed proton-optical-signalling canopy, starting the alteration of the sky-mind interface. Or, I am sitting on the decade’s old ochre coloured couch by the kitchen window, looking out into the sky. It is a perfect even toned grey disc, borderless and spatial-less. It could be that we are all living in a low budget studio set, where the mysterious crew didn’t have enough budget to paint the concrete studio ceiling with blue paint. I covered the couch with a blue sheet, without knowing exactly why. But I don’t want to have any mental power to think about it, because I have given all the rest of it to be with the dust around me. In the middle of the winter lockdown - as you were saying - we have never been so closely lived with the dust around us, our dust. Whether we see it as an adventurous opportunity to discover something new, or we are forced into the current physical condition to notice and emphasize it, the fact is, dust is getting real.
One year ago when we had our conversations in writing, the thought of dust was just a topic, a momentary thought-wavelength that could nurture our mind, but now, as many other things homogeneously mutating together with the virus, to start thinking about dust has become extremely intimate, without plotting it, and without being a metaphor. I thought that dust is a deformed, de-shaped state of information. Because we human creatures endure the logic of dust as if it potentially always is something else’ minor form, or source material. Now I think that dust is perceivably neutral. Each dust doesn’t need to participate in composing a bigger sum, in order to conjure meaning. On the contrary, they cover potentially anything and alter the meaning and sense of them by remaining IT, or, more precisely, dust is the kind of information that does not need to come together or become anything else. Dust seems to be equivalent to knowledge, but does not require any progressive learning, rather simply a ‘I notice you’. I think I am quite comfortable in front of its nakedness, even myself is covered with my own dust, which a minute ago was part of my skin. Instead of wiping each dust away, I actually feel lucky to think around it, especially when I find myself gazing into one ‘piece’ of dust. Then the term ‘dust’ also becomes meaningless. I guess here is where we can all start thinking about something.

Sonia: Yesterday I finished a science fiction book in bed. It had been years since I had read science fiction and I liked the feeling of returning to a “before habit”. Do you also feel that in the present, "before" is made up of much more "before" than before? In Spanish, to refer to re-establishing a relationship with something from the past, we use the verb “to dust off”. We dust off the memory, for example. The book helped me dust off a habit and I dusted off the book. Or perhaps there was a matter exchange, as I turned each page in the course of reading. I added another matter thanks to the particles of my body, fixed by the grease of my skin. Do you think that books are bothered by dust, or that dust is particularly interested in books?  The attraction that dust has for any surface is admirable. Its affections and desires are very different from ours, they don't seem to be manoeuvred by hierarchies larger than themselves. Although our conception of dust places us in the minuscule, so small that we cannot see it without the assistance of other vision devices, dust directs us again and again to that which is so large that we cannot see it either.  That immeasurable immensity that we reduce to the name "universe". Another habit I have had since I was a child is to recreate myself with a question to which perhaps I don't want an answering. If there is nothing beyond the universe, but the universe expands, how is it possible that there is room for the universe to expand? It both frightens and fascinates me to feel so overwhelmed by a question. I feel that the power of language expands as much as the universe. I feel it reading all your emails and messages. What you tell me is always fascinating, but it is also fascinating because of how you tell me. Each person makes us discover a different way of inhabiting and letting ourselves be inhabited by language. So do the books we read. Although we use the same language, it is never the same language. I feel that the becoming of our relationships is a becoming in language. We are many potential dialects at once, like the dust we do not yet see. This pandemic has made us become language more than before. We have a surplus of words and a lack of other contact situations. We have too many interfaces and too few surfaces. I wonder if computers miss the dust produced by disuse, if they are tired of our obsessive and repetitive fiddling, of the grease on our hands as we run them over the screen or the keyboard. These days Berlin is covered in snow and I can't help thinking of snow as a kind of lazy dust that accumulates and doesn't want to move from its place. Can you imagine if it snowed so much that the earth's crust was a huge layer of snow and later ice? And we would be inside it, like the inhabitants of Pompeii. But not dead or in a mould, but in a state of hibernation or stasis. When the snow melted again, Planet Earth would become Planet Water.

Ran: Funny thing is, in Chinese, There is a saying to describe forgetting one’s precious part: ‘dusting the memory’. Or to dust anything is to precisely highlight that something. It is just that we might be left out, so we savour the dust with a sort of mutated curiosity. Perhaps the dusted books - or ‘dustified’ books – create a coating as an extra layer of their existing character, the character of looking at themselves into the mirror, or a self testimony, a circle of intentions. But then, this circle, by circling within its dust-evoked character, a certain motion/velocity is generated, thus a new space can be created: outside of the nothingness of the universe, the universe expands into what? ‘IT’ may be just inhabited within its own on-going being. The conception of otherness is then a fantasy of that velocity. I love when you say ‘them’, although I don’t read it as a metaphor at all. It is a temporary registration of feelings that reveals my spirit.

Sonia: My reading of the day has been The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch. It is a translation into Spanish. Reading in one of my mother tongues makes me feel at home in this rootless paralysis. I have been to the beyond Earth. I have been to the umpteenth world after the end of the world. Given that we are now living through the end of the world as we knew it, it is ironic that a dystopia has temporarily healed me at night. Though I think it is more ironic that our end of the world is so boring, so exhaustingly static, so overwhelmingly social when our digital lives are forced to continue and accelerate as if nothing is happening. My body aches from not moving but I am more aware of my body's internal movements. I wonder if my guts were always as loud as they are now. The paradox of the apocalypse resembles that of the universe: life continuing to expand in the aftermath of life.

Ran: Your healing dystopia is creating a massive deja vu for me. What occurs first and what emerges from what? I think we always need to find a perfect shape to catch the electrified senses into thoughts, just like we need to contain water in different objects, so it can have shapes. Language is the water or the container? I guess there is no liquid without being contained, even the air around the dropping rain bounds these water droplets, which scratch open the invisible volume of the sky with sharp pathways while falling, and then keep falling downwards. Language is the air or the raindrops? The fading of my deja vu suddenly left me an image: an apocalypse wouldn’t mind sharing the universe with all the books, but the books would become the alien.

Sonia: I could say many things about the book and the aftermath of the book. Each story contained in a book dusts off many other stories, of fiction and non-fiction, of so many lives contained in our own. I feel like sharing with you that for the nth time, in this fiction, the Earth is a barren, arid, earthy and probably dusty wasteland due to the thousands of explosions caused by the holistic war that the planet has suffered. There is a heroine who is yet another classic hero. Of course, there is also a villain who is always a villain. The Earth is round, but the story is flat. Despite the writer's conceptual and poetic wedges to introduce materialist theories and a biology beyond the genre that misses the genre, it is all rather traditional and predictable. This is both disappointing and cosy at the same time.  An evolution of humans lives, imprisoned and nostalgic for human desire and touch, in a kind of spaceship at a vague distance from Earth. It is all very white, but not like snow these days, but like a shiny plastic that repels dust. The ship feels like an allergic surface, vulnerable to contact with others. The spaceships I imagine have always seemed to me to be very desolate environments.  They are dust-free, they don't get direct sunlight. Some inhabitants of that ship miss the sensual contact, the haptic dimension of bodies. So we do.  They miss "echar un polvo" / “catch a dust”, as we say in Spanish to mean "to have a fuck", and they miss the dust of the earth. Science fiction's obsession with the future is also quite paradoxical: all these futures are inhabited by an inconsolable nostalgia for returning to the past. To return to a past that we now miss too. And I'm not just referring to the pre-pandemic time, but to a time when the future was not equal with ecological catastrophe. A few days ago I was listening to Mark Fisher in 2013 saying something along the lines that nostalgia is a feeling of resistance and a form of rejection. Living something does not always mean accepting it. And I think it is possible not to accept situations without denying them. It happens to me even with Mark Fisher, I don't accept many things he says, but I understand the direction from which he says them. Another statement of his that I really appreciated was that, although we know that we are not doing well as a species, nobody really wants to go back to a pre-technological state and that it is impossible to disarticulate our desire for the new. Capitalism has done really well with its sophisticated emotion factory. 

I think about how dust has political agency when it gets inside our devices and slowly kills them. But also how aluminium dust makes the people who assemble our devices sick. I keep thinking about a question you asked me: how does knowing all these things, all these infinite non-linear connections in the world, help us? We seem to unfold the world and close all hopes of action. Museums are also terrified of dust and the wrinkles of time. One of their many daily activities is to constantly remove it. When dust covers them, works of art cease to be exceptional and remind us that they are just things. And it shouldn’t be a problem. It would be wonderful to enter a museum full of visible dust covering all the surfaces and artworks! We already have masks to help us breathe in that context.This morning the skies have opened up again. It' s heartwarmingly hopeful, don't you think? I wish I had a teleportation machine and we could go to a forest and lie together in the snow-carpet.

Ran: I slept poorly again last night, waking up feeling my heart beats slightly more significant than usual. So carrying this 'ringtone' in my chest I read your words, makes me feel very much alive! I then thought about all the dust bags I took out in Rotterdam during my renovation process. I knew I saw how the powdered fragments fell when I took their bigger parts off the surfaces of my apartment, I also knew I accidentally crashed the crispy skeletons of several long dead mice, and I knew there were fresh crumbs from my lunch. When I opened these dust bags, I dug into them and looked for what I thought I knew what should be inside, then I found nothing really. The dust evolved! I was very happy to see that, without personificating what I saw. Then I wondered if it was because of my personal interest in tiny things, or it was because reality can just walk into our souls, regardless. 

Sonia: Last summer I was out on my bike trying to lose myself in Berlin for several hours. I was trying to fall in love again with a city I already feel a bit tired of. And I really liked to come home and wipe my face with a lotion and let the blackened cotton wool be a material proof of my journey. To go out into the street is to let oneself be touched by the dust outside.  Wrinkles and pores are places of shelter for dust. I often use the cotton pads with which I clean my face to clean a part of the bathroom sink. Someone told me that there are videos on the internet of people vacuuming a dusty carpet, giving great pleasure to the viewers. I haven't seen those videos but I feel they are made for people like me. I haven't seen them because I would spend hours watching them. I imagine myself watching those videos tirelessly, for days and weeks, while the dust accumulates around me and the community of dust mites is so large that I can hear their internal movements. And they ask for more understanding and affection towards them!  For years I feel that I commit endless "dust-mite-cides" with my obsession with cleaning and dusting. Is it possible to eliminate what is everywhere but nowhere in particular, in particles?  The damp cloth in my hand hovers daily over a community of mites, displacing them massively and then submerging them under a stream of warm water.  Since I think of it this way, it seems like a terrible torture! Yesterday I finally took the hoover bag out of the dustbin. When I pulled it out I felt an emotion that immediately turned into disappointment. I wanted to send you an image similar to those of your microscope with my phone. A close-up of a magical, dusty world. The idea of a compact block of dust, accumulated for months and months inside the hoover is much more beautiful than its result: a cushion of dust, hairs, crumbs... Reading you made me think of what Jusi Parikka says in a text about dust. He calls it "non-matter" for the reasons you share with me. Every particle of dust contains all the dust in the universe. But every particle of something contains the whole, don't you think? There is a famous Latin phrase that says "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris": "Remember that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return". If dust is so full of life, why do we continue to insist on it as a metaphor for death and decay? We could show the same euphoria for terrestrial dust as for stardust, for they are the same (no)thing.