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Animal Anti-Cities
Jannes Riemann
translated by Anne Diestelkamp
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

A black cat sneaks across a flower bed toward a shed, past some asters, and squeezes into a gap an arm's width wide. I watch the swirling dust calm in the evening sun and her black fur disappear into the darkness of a wooden void. I sip my drink. Some worn-down club-goers lay wasted on sofas, sweat and smoke in a late-summer landscape.

Many Berlin clubs are open again, but this one soon will close for good. Here, where I revel, day and night and day again, construction churns and soon an aquarium called « Coral World » will pour its concrete and its water. It’s fitting for a bay in Berlin, with a maritime atmosphere and pretty waterfront. The bass from the small open-air stage jounced the asters and stirred my thoughts. I turn my ear away, look across the fences and trailers toward a distant water tower; garish yellow cranes face the orange horizon of the evening sun.

My encounter with the cat made me think of my excursions into Club- und Katzenliteratur. I've been interested in clubs as sites of regulated chaos for the creative channeling of urban voids — I formulated this 'thesis' after a few nights of research in sound, smoke and industrial dust.

Back in the corona-calm of summer 2020. I was rewriting a cat story by Italo Calvino (« The Garden of Stubborn Cats », from Marcovaldo), relocating it from Northern Italy in the fifties to a decaying East German amusement park in Berlin’s Rummelsbucht now. Marcovaldo is a clumsy, down-on-his-luck guy in urban moloch, supporting himself and his family, stumbling through various bizarre situations. The narrator conjures a cat flâneur:

Il giardino dei gatti ostinati

But in this vertical city, in this compressed city where all voids tend to fill up and every block of cement tends to mingle with other blocks of cement, a kind of counter-city opens, a negative city, of empty slices between wall and wall, of the minimal distances ordained by the building regulations between two constructions, between the rear of one construction and the rear of the next; it is a city of cavities, wells, air conduits, driveways, like a network of dry canals on a planet of stucco and tar, and through this network, grazing the walls, the ancient cat population still scurries.

Was it not such an empty space in this « compressed city » that surrounded me here? Next door, « My Bay - My Way » advertising tarpaulins fluttered in the breeze of the East Cross Station. From the boardwalk’s gravel path, I glimpsed the distant mouth of the bay, looked into the rusty eye of the old amusement park; a Ferris wheel that stopped turning long ago.

Marcovaldo follows a fish-stealing cat into the garden of an old residence, where a lady living alone feeds a colony of cats. With the clenched power of their claws, they defend the house from sale and demolition. Spoiler alert: after the death of the old lady, the cats occupy the site and create their own « counter-city », an animal paradise with nesting birds and croaking frogs. In my adaptation, the old GDR amusement park would become a cat-and-human paradise; even the bars and clubs will have cat doors. The city of interstices, Calvino's counter-city, would become a true city, enabled by the lineage of the cat!

The clinking of beer bottles dominates the now quieter music. I look up at the heads of the cranes, whose company signs light up the night sky. Coldness sets in. People stream into the rumbling doors of the crumbling brick building. Crunching gravel announces a friend, who hands me an Aperol Spritz. The misty portal to the club’s rustic staircase smiles at us. Before diving into the disco fog, in anticipation of the rush, the melting, and the blabbering on, I wonder if the cat suspects that soon the fish of « Coral World » will take her place.

Italo Calvino
Il giardino dei gatti ostinati

Ma in questa città verticale, in questa città compressa dove tutti i vuoti tendono a riempirsi e ogni blocco di cemento a compenetrarsi con altri blocchi di cemento, si apre una specie di controcittà, di città negativa, che consiste di fette vuote tra muro e muro, di distanze minime prescritte dal regolamento edilizio tra due costruzioni, tra retro e retro di due costruzioni; è una città di intercapedini, pozzi di luce, canali d'aerazione, passaggi carrabili, piazzole interne accessi agli scantinati, come una rete di canali secchi su un pianeta d'intonaco e catrame, ed è attraverso questa rete che rasente i muri corre ancora l'antico popolo dei gatti.

Marcovaldo: ovvero le stagioni in città (G. Einaudi, 1963).


Marcovaldo; or, The Seasons in the City, translated by William Weaver (Harcourt, 1983).