The space of language

“I speak of my language in the third person.” With this statement, Lebanese poet Mirene Arsanios captures her sense of distance from language. Having grown up multilingual, Arsanios can feel an almost physical space between her and the languages in which she can say ‘I’.

This space, this gap, reminds her (and us) that language may sometimes define reality but does not always correspond to it. And in that space, one can reinvent reality. This edition of Kunstenfestivaldesarts takes that magical space as our starting point. We begin with the visionary work by Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg, Angela (A Strange Loop). Set in an imaginary television studio, we watch a day in the life of the title character. It presents a portrait of the actions that seem to define her and what it means to say ‘I’.

The festival has been grounded in experimentation with different artistic languages and takes place in a city with a beautifully unstable relationship with language. This edition can be seen as an adventurous journey into the abyss of language, exploring its ability to define or transform the present. Language can be transmitted to us as a mother tongue and sometimes become almost an identity. Languages are learned, forgotten, and reinvented. They trace the shifting nature of our relationships, build new bonds, and offer – in this gap – the possibility to reinvent oneself.

With Une traduction infidèle, Ahilan Ratnamohan investigates his constantly evolving relationship with language and identity. Sarah Vanhee returns to the festival with a tribute to her grandmother: partially performed with in a West Flemish dialect, it explores the homogenisation of modern language and society. Calixto Neto presents a new choreography in which manipulation, ventriloquism, and language learning give rise to a reconquered body. In the Brigittines Chapel, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme create an installation about the power of poetry – made up of words and empty spaces – as a form of resistance.

This year’s edition of the Free School adds to the theme, presenting a programme dedicated to language. With The School of Integration / Lexicon, Tania Bruguera creates a temporary language school open to all throughout the festival. She makes a case for integration that moves beyond enrollment in national languages, becoming a mutual exchange of knowledge. In this school, citizens and artists will teach their languages: Ukrainian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Lingala, and more. Among them is also Polari, a secret language spoken in the past by queer communities and transmitted from person to person. Language can be normative, but it can also act as connective tissue among people, creating a chosen family.

Family, like language, defines us. But we possess the ability to reinvent both. The idea of the chosen family, with relationships beyond any hegemonic model, resonates in many artistic visions of this edition. Nadia Beugré collaborates with dancers from the trans community of Abidjan to celebrate a model of solidarity through movements and stories. Kurō Tanino’s hyper-realistic style of theatre opens up a cross-section of two houses in Japan, where the bonds of friendship undermine the idea of a family nucleus. With Nocturnes for a Society, a performance that lasts a whole night, Myriam Van Imschoot asks us to create a non-verbal language together, forming the foundation of a new society. In an empty gymnasium, choreographer Alex Baczyński-Jenkins confronts us with a group of performers whose nightclub language has created a new community.

Language creates commonality, and it does so from within, by giving us the tools that make it possible to tell our stories. Mixing a canonical epic with songs, the MEXA collective – founded by homeless people from São Paulo – presents a work inspired by Homer’s Odyssey that searches for a new mythology. Claire Cunningham creates a powerful play about refusing to adhere to normativity. With Il Capitale, the Italian company Kepler-452 brings the workers occupying a factory on stage to tell of the life that appears – and the family that emerges – when production suddenly stops.

Some artists invite us to join unique explorations of life beyond production and the rejection of a society devoted to it. Dana Michel returns with a physical performance that traces a day in an office and the possibility of subverting its rules. Amol K Patil reinjects the tradition of protest songs about labour conditions into public space. Midori Kurata recreates a meeting with an insurance salesman, who insists it would be wasteful not to make death a productive moment. 

When rooted in the present, language is a powerful tool for constructing narratives that counterbalance the official discourse. Gosia Wdowik, Amir Reza Koohestani, Victoria Lomasko, and Rayyane Tabet use language and performance to show the present reality of Poland, Iran, Russia, and Lebanon in a new light.

Language feeds us: it is a normative (but inventive) tool we use early in life. An exploration of childhood runs through the festival in very different ways. It is at the centre of the new performance – accessible in Sign Language – by Léa Drouet, investigating the school as a factory of citizenship. Spanish company Ça marche creates a visually impressive theatrical performance that interrogates our gaze on childhood. For the first time, the festival commissioned a performance for children: with Lake Life, Kate McIntosh shows us the emancipating potential of creating new worlds, just as we create new words.

Language can bind us to the past. Lara Barsacq presents a choreographic work about the legacy of the figure of the Nymph in the language of classical dance. Her piece reminds us of what was transmitted from the past, while other artists examine what was not passed down. In the magical Théâtre Royal des Galeries, Amanda Piña creates a breathtaking choreography and scenography that travel through exoticism in European dance history. Faustin Linyekula pays tribute to the female figures of his family, often invisible in the family narrative, who come back to initiate a dialogue.

Language, family ties, childhood, modes of production; open-ended questions around these themes resonate throughout the festival and are explored in a text from Mirene Arsanios, published in the festival brochure. Her words invite us into the space of language, hinting at the explosion of artistic languages we will encounter in this edition of the festival: language as an exploration of what does not yet exist; language as a tool to challenge the present; language that creates new bonds; language that celebrates an unstable relationship with reality, rewritten every day.

Yet we are reminded that language also has limitations, the emotions and concepts that cannot be reduced to or expressed by words. When we confront the space between us and language, we realise some things cannot be said with words: things – we hope – we may yet experience during the festival.


Daniel Blanga Gubbay & Dries Douibi

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