It's been a strange year so far. The Xtian millenium passed in a fog of abject pecuniary humiliation; I had churned out 60 paintings for a group show and as a result I owed money all over the place. So I made the great intellectual leap forward most artists are familiar with, and decided I had to find A Job that would pay for this bad habit of painting in the months to come. I made a few more begging phonecalls, dug the ancient work clothes out of a box, and spent my last francs on a train to Geneva. I have a Swiss passport and can work there. Here in France I don't even have a dog license but they let me stay, an exotic ornament of my village.
When I first got there I thrust myself on the mercy of The State, hoping perhaps to avoid any actual labouring, but while they were helpful and even came up with a wodge of cash, I could see that this approach wasn't going to solve anything in the long term. So I made the rounds of the employment agencies, looking for lucrative temporary placement for a couple of months or so.
I have to say I have a very weird CV. I wasn't always an artist; I came back to this after about 10 years of a Respectable Career which I dumped in favour of poverty, debt, and a wardrobe of shabby, paint-stained vestments. So when I began the groveling process, I got a lot of confused feedback: You did what? And now you do what? And you want to do WHAT? My main, my only advantage, is that I have been using computers since year N, and was hoping to find work of any kind on the basis of being able to feel my way around a lot of machinery.
Anyhow, just when I was beginning to panic, I got a call from a helpful lady at Manpower. She said, I think I might have found something, and she gave me a name and an address. So I put on a Suit and tottered down to the Swiss Permanent Mission to the UN, where I met with a swiss ambassador and a guy from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They seemed to like me, and the next day (whilst idling on a street corner debating whether or not to start panhandling, have mercy Leo) my cell phone went off and lo, I got the job.
So for about six months I worked with a small team of mixed nuts, coordinating the (breathe deeply) Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the Implementation of the Outcome of the World Summit for Social Development and Further Initiatives (held in Copenhagen in 1995). The Swiss government's contribution to this circus was a six-day event called the Geneva 2000 Forum, "The Next Step in Social Development". Within that Forum I organised an International Symposium, somewhat ungrammatically entitled "Partnerships for Social Development in a Globalising World". (Aside: For those of you who might not know this, Geneva is the Euro HQ for the UN and HQ to many of its agencies, like the ILO and the ever-popular WTO. This was, however, the first time the General Assembly ever met outside of New York, and as a result the Swiss were all a-twitter.)
I was shown to an airless office and told to get on with it. I didn't know who anyone was or what they were doing. The ambassador, my boss, informed me he didn't know anything about social development, organising symposia, or anything remotely relevant to the job. Well, this looked encouraging. I did, however, have some experience in these things in a Past Life, which is why I suppose they hired me. So I started to make phone calls, write letters, pester people, do lunches, network, make plans.
When the word started to get around I found myself at a sort of nexus of desire: these high-level, public events are like food and drink for professional talking heads, dozens of whom suddenly wanted a seat on a panel so they could deliver their views to the promising cyclopean eye of the TV cameras. Thus many important people shimmered into my radar screen and attracted my disdain. Ambassadors begged for favours, Heads of Agencies pled for a platform. Journalists, activists, academics, staffers, and toadies sought me out. I was ruthless, mirthless, deadly, and took none of it in the least bit seriously.
When the last week of June finally rolled around and all this shit hit the fan, I was having a ball. I got to bark at people on the phone with impunity. I got to crawl through the bowels of the Conference Centre with some very serious-looking security guys from the Secretary General's office. I got to issue ultimatums to the host broadcaster. I delegated most of the shit work to a team of logistical people so I could sneak away and drink coffee with other staff members and some interesting new pals. I could ask for a chauffered car if I wanted one and started using those to go to the lake and drink beers, work on my tan. They gave me a free cell phone with WAP that I used to send menacing text messages to unsuspecting friends (this phone deal actually backfired a couple of times when, after finishing a 15-hour day I'd be drinking wine and smoking controlled substances and the bugger would ring at eleven pee em and there would be the Chief of Staff of Someone Important and I would have to act like I knew what the fuck was going on). Still, not bad for someone who spends her real life painting large, unmarketable canvases of sexy chili peppers and androgynes with very small feet.
There was a social side, too. I was invited to attend many receptions and functions at the Palais des Nations and posh hotels; at a few of these, Prime Ministers, diplomats and Special Representatives, wrongly assuming that illusory power could somehow transform their fatuous features, tried to get into my trousers over warmish glasses of bad swiss wine. I heard the party line from wildly diverse action groups, altruists, and self-aggrandisers around mouthfuls of tiny toasted snacks. By the time the week was up, millions of swiss francs had been spent on food, wine, ice sculptures, fireworks, and cultural events to celebrate a conference on, primarily, the Eradication of Poverty.
I love the UN. Anyhow, that's what I've been doing. I made it through the minefield of Things That Can Go Wrong and it all went off beautifully. When it was over, I came home again to my leaky cabin, debts paid and another gallery show to prepare (which will of course deplete any capital I have accumulated). Cognitive dissonance, or maybe just a reality check: one week I'm sipping champagne with Heads of State, discussing issues of supranational import, the next swilling beer with vignerons in the local bar and nodding understandingly about Sugar Content in Grapes. Back to chaste anonymity in la France Perdu. An occasional thank-you letter finds its way here, an occasional email from someone I worked with. But aside from that, it sorta feels like it never happened.
BJ Sutton is not a French name. I'm originally from Detroit, the true Capital of Nasty.
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