Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
Calla shirt on

OTHER PEOPLE’S CLOTHES

Intertwining theory and fiction into a layered meta-storytelling, Other People’s Clothes is the first novel by Berlin-based artist Calla Henkel (American, b. 1988).

Interview by Theresa Patzschke

In the beginning, she said she wanted to write a novel for airports. Mean­ while, artist Calla Henkel wrote a thrilling book about two art students from the US who take us along on their exchange semester in Berlin into a world of murder, drama, glam­ our, and depression. At the same time, they hold up a brutally humor­ous mirror to anyone who’s par­ticipated in Berlin’s art scene in the past ten years. Far from an auto­ fictional listing of anecdotes, the storyline unwraps matters of image production and narrative creation, only in a fatal way. Published last spring by Sceptre in the EU, Other People’s Clothes is forthcoming with Doubleday in the US this winter, but has already traveled the world through reviews and in suitcases. While parts of the book can be considered an important documenta­tion of a certain time and place, we can only hope that some parts remain fiction.

Theresa PatzschkeWhat’s so special about books and airports?
Calla HenkelI love airport bookstores. Reading in transit allows for a different type of consumption. And because time is infinitely wasteable, trash is totally accept­ able—thrillers and suss­-self­-help abound. I started writing Other People’s Clothes directly after a year at the Volksbühne, where all the plays I wrote only made sense in the political cosmology of Rosa Luxemburg Platz. With the novel, I wanted to write something that was the opposite of site­specific, something that could be read anywhere by anyone.
TPYou considered publishing the book under a pseud­onym. Authorship is a recurring topic in the book and the main reason for betrayal and cruelty. Why did you decide to use your name and what did it do to you and the story?
CHI considered a pseudonym because it made it easier to keep going. I didn’t know how to write a novel, so it took time. But I eventually got to a point where I believed in the story, and it felt like it made sense within my practice. And yes, you are right, it is very much a meta­-thriller, as the book takes place in a thriller writer’s apartment, and all the main characters are desperate to control the narrative. In some ways, I think I was making fun of myself trying to write the book.
TPIs the book a story about Berlin, or about Americans? Could it take place somewhere else?
CHForeign exchange students are such bizarre forms of late capitalism, meant to consume (culture, food, language, drugs) until they become. And yes, the American fantasy of Berlin really informed the book. But I don’t think it could be set anywhere else—the late 2010s in Berlin were unhinged, dark, and very cold.
TPThere are undeniable parallels between the characters in the book and your own life. Why did you choose fiction?

CHStructurally, I borrowed a lot from my own timeline; I went on exchange to art school in Berlin in 2008, I also moved into the apartment of a famous writer (but she wasn’t watching me), I threw a lot of parties and ran bars. But it had to be fiction. I could never have written what really happened. That would be deliriously boring.
TPCan fiction be theory?

CHI think fiction can bake a lot of theory into the cake, but it has to be serving more than that.
TPLike what, for example?

CHGood fiction should be transportive—it has to move you forward in one way or another, rather than just unpack ideas and dwell inside of them.
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