The effort to be modified by the field

It now seems more and more that this is a general project related to the topics of memory and communication. In this sense, maybe ‘Somos Todos Estrangeiros’ and ‘Cidade Arquipélago’ (also ‘Arquipélago’) belong to this series, but I’m not that sure. And I think it’s worthwhile checking ‘The Foreigner Condition’, an interview conducted by Melissa Pons; and a seminar I presented on Xabier Erkizia’s research about Brazil’s Oxcart’s tradition. Anyway, what follows is a brief documentation (really brief, there’s plenty of material slowly being organized) of the work I did in Brussels, in 2018 and 2019.

“Language learning as field recording, body as media - Between Flanders and Wallonia, the effort to be modified by the field” 

This project / performance gravitated around an expanded idea of field recording, initially in order to partially document language variety in the City of Brussels. The aim was not only to have a first contact with the city and its inner workings through its linguistic variety, but also to be modified by a city, somehow recording aspects of it in my own body. In order to pursue that idea, the following set of rules / methodology was initially imposed:

1. Spend at least 90% of the residency’s period trying to communicate in the local idioms, only;

    a. Pas d’Anglais / Geen Engels / لا الإنجلیزیة.

According to BRIO’s most recent public research entries, besides the prevalence of the official Dutch (Flemish) and French languages, there has been a noticeable rise in the use of English and Arabic in recent years. However, as a fundamental rule of the project, I decided to discard English as an option and to dedicate learning time (2-3 hours of study per day) to the city’s official languages. I also decided to dedicate some of the learning time to a first contact with Modern Standard Arabic and the related specific language/‘dialect’ (I then thought it made sense to think it that way, but obviously ‘reality’ was way more complex) spoken in the city of Brussels.

    b. Dictionaries were also restricted to local languages, so, for example, I had to consult a French dictionary in order to find the meaning of a word in Dutch or in Arabic, and vice versa.

    c. My access to texts and news were also restricted to local languages and news vehicles (newspapers, local tv, etc.). This was also valid for internet access.

2. Study and map regions of the city according to language diversity. Spend most of the time out there, in these regions;

3. Document the whole process, through phonography (binaural recordings when possible: prioritize “subjective perspective”, admit and expose your presence), photography and chronicling / diary maintaining;

4. Organize a public presentation of results; while presenting, mix languages if possible;

5. Accept confusion;

    a. Probably the hardest thing to do.
Caroline Profanter asked me a final question for an interview (partially released in this book), and the answer I gave summarizes a lot of information about how I spent my time in Brussels, I guess. So here it is:

Caroline Profanter: How did you conceive your last performance which was a collective bike-tour, using the megaphone as an amplifier, and what importance did it have, to do this in the public space ?

Paulo Dantas: This is actually a very difficult question to answer in simple terms, basically because this last performance was sort of a reunion of most of the ideas I had during the whole of the residence. But I’ll try to answer it in parts, following this first message.


There is a general idea of feedback which was important for all the works I developed during the residence. For my first performance at the Q-O2 concert, I explored an instance of this idea: I had microphones outside of the building, with the windows closed and, because of these microphones, we could hear in the room what was sounding outside. When I opened those windows I could then generate some feedback in the room. This feedback was controlled by the acoustic properties of the room, which were excited by the sound of the outside space. I guess this is something I transformed in the idea of interacting with the architectonics and the acoustic properties of buildings and constructs through the city in my last performance, using a megaphone, at places such as the Ring at north and south, the Docks area, a park at Anderlecht and also the aforementioned window at Q-O2. I tried to interact with the acoustic properties of these constructs with the megaphone in order to explore echoes, reverberations and equalisations, which could all be the first step to feedback; ‘signal re-injection’, but without gain reinforcement. 


Another idea present at the first performance was inspired by my use of the Google Translate tool, something which would sometimes give me very wrong translations. There is this button in Google Translate which inverts the translation, it is symbolised by two arrows, crossing in opposite directions. When you press this button it ‘inverts the translations’: for instance the translation in Dutch of a given word in French becomes the new ‘original word’, to be translated in French. But when the proposal of a translation was given as a new original, it would not always convert to the same original word. As an example, the French word transducteur would give as a result the Dutch word omzetter; but when I pressed the ‘invert button’, asking what omzetter would be in French, Google Translate would give me the word ‘convertisseur’, which is not the same as the original, ‘transducteur’. I was inspired by that and wrote a text narrating this specific research with these words, and used it in my first performance at Q-O2.

This ‘Google Translate idea’ involves this movement of going and then coming back, and I consider it to be another instance of the ‘feedback idea’. Besides that, it also generated a whole new performance, in which I basically replicated this procedure but with people. I presented words in French and they would give me a correspondence or a translation in Dutch or Flemish and this generated a new set of words because there were lots of mistakes in the translations proposed. And this would be the set of words which I would use for the next person I would interview, asking them for translations in French. I recorded some of these conversations and those audio takes generated the material which I would use to feed the megaphone in my last performance. So basically I was diffusing conversations, confusing conversations inspired by ‘google translating’, in some spots of the city.


The set of words that I used to feed the first conversations came from a text from Wittgenstein, the aphorism 18 of the Philosophical Investigations. In this aphorism he proposes a parallel between an ancient city and the completude or incompletude of language. I used this text not because I’m especially fond of or a specialist on Wittgenstein and Philosophy, but because I felt this text would be an adequate source, linked with more personal aspects of the whole process of the residence, so to speak. I felt in my skin, literally, the effects of gradually learning languages ‘through life’, while getting to know the city of Brussels. So I found in one same text a vocabulary with which I could describe certain areas of a city, for instance ‘peripheries’ or ‘streets’ or ‘houses’, and at the same time this text would reflect on language, through a language game. I chose to diffuse these conversations, which had their source in this text of Wittgenstein, in certain points of the city. Points which were some of my favourite, in which I searched for tranquility, let’s say; they were sort of refuges.


I decided to diffuse these conversations in public space also because I felt it to be the most adequate way to present the results of my research. The process of learning the languages during my residence was running in parallel with the process of learning the city. And I could only learn the languages the way I did because at some point I decided that the methodology of learning these languages would involve confronting people in the city, instead of studying alone and only then probing my studies on the streets. I guess the whole process became easier when I noticed that this should be the methodology of it. If I wanted to record aspects of the city in my own body I would have to give up studying alone and try to find ways to ‘study while life went on’. So, when I decided to invest more and more time in the quotidienne, in day-to-day life, trying to learn the languages as I went on through the day, I guess this was the moment in which things started to work out. And I guess there is a good analogy in diffusing the conversations exploring acoustic properties of certain points in the city with the process of learning the languages through day-to-day life in the same city.


Also, I wanted to give back the ‘dictionary’ that resulted from the conversations with citizens of Brussels to the city of Brussels. And some people told me that they could not understand the whole of the conversations. In those we were navigating something like four to five different languages, most of the time with really weird pronunciation and lots of mistakes… and yes, I understand that this would be confusing for most people. But, at the same time, I feel this is what happens on a daily basis in Brussels. And this summarised a major part of my relationship with the city: I was confused most of my time there, trying to understand what people were saying, trying to be able to navigate this bunch of languages. And I guess it’s interesting that, at the last performance, people of the audience could not understand the whole of what was being said, also for other reasons. For instance, the sound quality of the megaphone was not good, there is also the interference of the echoes, the reverberations and the different equalisations produced by the interactions with the specific places in which I diffused the conversations. But this was what I experienced through my period in the residence and I guess it’s ironic - I mean, it was not something I could predict because at that point I was understanding most of what the conversations were about - that most of the audience could not understand what was being said. In a certain way, I was giving back to the city a part of my experience there: an experience of lots of difficulties in understanding my daily life through Brussels. 


And finally, the bicycle was instrumental in getting to know the city. I felt really unstoppable with the bike. With it I could visit maybe otherwise unreachable spaces in the city, and get to know it from another perspective. So I felt the bike should play an important part in the last performance. Also the canal, I guess I’ve built an affective relation with it. There is an idea of ‘bridging’, also: I was diffusing, through the megaphone, conversations from one side of the canal to the other, hoping to hear some echo or reverberation, some answer.