The first fifteen minutes pass by giggling, haunting and sometimes laughing. In the silences in between, everyone is staring at each other in bewilderment and tries to think of what it means that we are really going to do this: keep silent for two hours and call it a conversation. I go round the circle with my eyes and in my head I give names to the seven women and nine men around me. Céline. Timo. Karel. Maartje. Bram. Eve. Erik. Mathilde. And so on. I am surprised at first about this impulse, but then conclude that I consider it a challenge to view this meeting as a real conversation. And that is what I feel is the first thing that you imagine to each other. So that you can name each other a bit.
The Conversation without Words feels more like a game than a theater.
At first it may seem like a harmless or innocent undertaking, with all these kind, benevolent people, but that is only an appearance. This is a subversive game. The participants deliberately distance themselves from speaking, the usual sound layer that directs our contacts in daily life and leads in clear channels, even if some intensities between people may be weakened. After all, talking is so practical. If you do not talk, you have to do it without that layer. What are the consequences?
In the beginning our conversation is a bit like speed dating. To stare at each other so unabashedly – after all, you only do that with people you want something from. There is a brutal interest, an interest that is far from neutral. I am reminded of a documentary about an American boy on death row who, in the course of the conversation with the Dutch journalist, apologizes to her: he is so overwhelmed that she constantly looks him in the eye while she talks to him that he has difficulty to express himself in words. He explains that he has failed to look people in the eye. On death row it is an unspoken code of conduct to avoid each other’s eyes. Every eye contact is seen as an outright act of aggression.
When I become more and more aware of the situation in which we find ourselves, the main question becomes more and more apparent: We are here with the idea of having a conversation with each other, but how do we deal with that without words? Now that we can not use our speech, we have to explore what kind of vocabulary we have in our body. It produces an almost juvenile situation. We are just a bunch of high school students who are staring silently at a campfire on an introduction weekend. It is clear that we as a group are dependent on each other, but everything is strange and new. I realise that this association with high school may also have to do with the inconvenience of exploring the boundaries of your own body and your relationship to the other while your own body is still in full transformation. As Nick Cave puts it in the film 20,000 Days on Earth: the memories of your youth are shaping because at that moment the cogs of your heart are still in full swing. By taking up the language as adults, that instrument with which we can so smartly and quickly identify our own identity during new encounters, we are suddenly thrown back into a hyperphysical experience. It feels uncomfortable to suddenly have to rely radically on the expressiveness of our silent bodies in this situation.
Non-speaking evokes associations that go back even further: to the circle in kindergarten.
The place where we take the first steps in learning to speak and learning to listen to each other. How often did the teacher remind us that we had to let the other person talk before we said something ourselves? How old are we when we learn to speak ‘with two words’? Conversating is a discipline that is taught to us early on. All kinds of courtesies traditionally find their way into our language. And now, in this silent circle in the studio of an anonymous visual artist, somewhere in the Jordaan, where there is only the buzz of the fluorescent lamps above us, we return to an awkward state, in which we can not use of our civilized language skills.
In the beginning it feels like ‘big guns’ in the category of non-verbal means of communication, but those who dare stare at their unknown circles unabashedly, for seconds, sometimes for minutes. Even though we are not prisoners on death row, it is also difficult for us to experience this as an aggressive crossing of your comfort zone. New laugh bursts are the result. The situation is therefore funny, not to say hilarious. But is it only funny? Laughter also reveals other emotions than just pure pleasure in the game we play: doubt, powerlessness, stress, irritation, incomprehension. But how can we take the conversation in silence? Is there a kind of middle way between someone and not looking at it? This process is by no means boring at all. There is more of an overload of impressions. Some people sometimes seem to get too much. The boy I called Bram, I regularly see his eyes closed and his hands in the lap. Others follow his example from time to time. But when I close my eyes myself, it does not really feel like rest. I feel even more looked at. Everyone is still there. It was not a strange dream.
Silence, I realise in the course of our non-verbal conversation, is a very democratic starting point for an interview, or at least very anti-hierarchical. In a Conversation with Words it is usually the case that the person who speaks has a clear leadership and feels increased responsibility for the further course of the conversation. But what about that in a Conversation without Words? There is no clear guidance. Nobody here carries the ‘highest word’. Everyone carries a certain responsibility for our exchange. We try to find out exactly what that responsibility is. After a while, new perspectives are continually emerging about what exactly evokes silence in the circle. Sometimes I feel like I often have a meeting with a large group. There is a certain focus on each other, but not everyone is always involved in the conversation.
Sometimes someone stretches out, starts to move. Someone pours a glass of water.
People pay attention to others, but also want to make their own point. Sometimes someone makes a joke (change chairs!). Only nobody is speaking in this meeting. I wonder if I now know other things about these people than if I had listened to their reactions to a series of agenda items.
When the biggest laughs are over, I continue to engage in longer ‘dialogues’ with people. These dialogues start with cans that stick together. The question of what it could mean to enter into a conversation in this situation is always haunted by my head and I am going to see that question more and more as the starting point for an experiment. I try to open myself up to the impression of the people around me, their faces, their bodies, their expressions, their attitudes. While my eyes are stuck to the look of ‘Maartje’ I see her light brown eyes that shine with fun, framed by eyelashes that want to touch the sky. I see how she makes selfies with her boyfriend in the sun on the beach. The puppy she has picked up from the shelter dances around their feet. After high school she went on a South America trip with her best friend. Now she has been living in Amsterdam for years, in a small room, but in that small room she thinks big thoughts and realizes the first steps of the accompanying grand plans. Maartje blinks with her eyes and for a moment she bares her teeth in a smile.
Then my eyes will rest on ‘Erik’. In his eyes lies a certain resignation that reveals a lot of life experience. I see him standing in his kitchen in the morning and leaning against the marble top of the kitchen counter, waiting for the coffee machine. He looks through the window to the garden, where the autumn leaves slowly cover the green lawn under a threatening sky. It does not matter, he does not like a raked garden. Just as he does not need shaving every day. A person has something better to do. In my mind books go through his hands and he cycles through the rain – for God’s sake – passed the canals.
Then Eriks head bends slightly to the left and my head bends unnoticed. It is difficult to say exactly what is happening in his face, but with a minimal shift of muscle tone his expression changes from light-amused to pensive-serious. Although I can see him in front of me with a bucket and scoop, the times of innocent boyishness have long gone. The man here before me has also been unable to escape the suffering of life, that much is clear to me. The questions will arrive automatically. Then tell me, how was that exactly, with the separation of your parents? Did your hands cover your ears not to hear their quarrels? Or was it a silent battle and your dad was suddenly gone, while afterwards you felt especially guilty yourself because you had no idea at all and that afternoon that your mother told you about his departure was just as happy with the new cross bike that you had been given for your seventh birthday and where all your friends in the neighborhood were jealous of? Or would you like to tell me something about what happened later? When your best friend in high school got something with that girl in your class where you had been secretly in love with for years? And that there was a school party at that time and they were dancing close together and that she suddenly looked at you – over his shoulder – with a look that didn’t lie? That there was so much in her eyes that you felt that you could spend at least a year there? And that you met her twenty years later on a Wednesday afternoon in March in the Albert Heijn on the Elandsgracht – Elza! My god, Elza! – and she lashed on a buggy and that life was life but that you could still see that she still knew it and also that she knew you still knew it, but that you only exchanged some platitudes about the fact that it was it funny that you both ended up in Amsterdam and also in the Jordaan, yes, both in the Jordaan?
The look of the man on the other side of the circle that I have called Erik has become quieter.
Suddenly he slightly protrudes his chin and folds his arms. A quick smile draws like a wink over his face. Is this it? Do you also want to know something about me? If you really want to know something about me, I would tell you that I liked to walk away when I just learned how to walk, because I was curious about what was happening around the corner of the street. And I would show you how ten years later I was sitting on the edge of my first boyfriend’s bed and that it took two hours before we dared to kiss each other. Then I would take you to the sand dunes in Death Valley, early one morning in January when the sun casts long shadows over the dunes. Do you feel how the cold stays hidden in the windless, dry air and how the salt crystals of the Devil’s golf course crack under our feet? Pleasant, Erik. I too have broken my heart several times – who does not? – and now that heart is a glued together. But don’t you agree with me that there is a beauty in it? Nowadays I cycle along the canals that you know so well – weather or no weather – and our paths must have crossed one another more than once, be it unseen. Erik smiles. Does he nod understanding or is it my imagination? Did we really have this conversation? I turn my head away in confusion.
Finally, I cast a sidelong glance at ‘Céline’, the young woman sitting next to me. Her eyes are focused on someone else and suddenly fill up. Moments later I see the tears on her cheeks. I can not ask her what’s there, even though she sees that I see her. It feels inappropriate to touch her and instead I look at my hands in my lap. Through my eyelashes I look around me and in one quick glance I see that everyone has noticed the tears and reacts in the same way. Céline has our attention. She speaks to us. Yet we have trouble understanding her.