Exploratory Practice III: at Kolenkit, West Amsterdam

During the second year of the research for my PhD, I spent several periods of time in the Kolenkit neighbourhood in Amsterdam. There, I followed a long-term community project developed by the collective Cascolandan initiative of Fiona de Bell and Roel Schoenmakers—a network of ‘artists, architects, designers and performers sharing a fascination for interdisciplinary interventions in public space.  The experience of working and living at the Cascoland project influenced a section on the field of socially responsible design and participation in my thesis. 

Kolenkit is a neighbourhood in the west of Amsterdam, with a strong presence of Moroccan and Turkish immigrant communities. It is regarded as a closed and conservative neighbourhood, currently undergoing rapid transformation due to increased gentrification. Cascoland has been working in the neighbourhood since 2010, developing several community gardens, barbecues and chicken coops; organising public interventions with invited artists, designers and architects, some of whom are residents at the Cascoland headquarters; and establishing services like a community managed hostel; a temporary ice-skating ring, a one-day community restaurant, or a burner which produces biogas from bread. 

During part of my stay in the Kolenkit, I accompanied Cascoland’s work during the set-up of the community hostel, the community gardens, radio programme and chicken coops, and spending time in neighbourhood centres such as the Buurtvaders (Fathers of the neighbourhood). As I became acquainted with the neighbourhood, I also developed a set of short-duration exploratory practices. 

Collecting borders of the neighbourhood

Listening to a broad range of conversations across the neighbourhood, I was curious to explore how people living in Kolenkit sensed the borders of the neighbourhood. So I handed out disposable cameras and asked people to photograph what they considered to be the borders of their neighbourhood. The borders pictured in these photos do not point to the geographical borders of a map, but comprise mostly landmarks such as schools, playgrounds, the market and residential areas, and are shaped by modes of inhabiting a particular area of Kolenkit. Schiphol, the international airport that is 15 minutes away by train, was perceived as the border to the neighbourhood by a Buurtvader. Remarkably, one of these landmarks, the mosque, could not be photographed. Anissa, the girl that wished to include the mosque in her set of photos, handed a piece of paper with the word moskee as a substitute, and chose to show me the mosque on Google maps, evidencing a taboo in representation. This expression of taboo in a physical landmark opened me to explore miscommunications emerging from the materialities of communication, and led to the analysis of relocating the village of Luz (see Relocations). Interestingly, some of the cameras that were returned contained photos of children participating in a dancing event, and families cheering. These were clearly not a response to my request, and unveiled a hint of the figure of the idiot, and brought me consider the implications of the conceptual framework of the idiot looking at public participation. 

The experience at Kolenkit led me to consider different types of miscommunication. First, there is the presence of the idiot staging layers of resistance to what apparently complied with the terms under which communication took place, but then deviating and showing a glimpse of something else, a strangeness that hinted at miscommunication. Second, there is the idea of a political scene staging miscommunication, leading me to explore other types of exchanges that take in practical accounts of communication, researching Isabelle Stengers’ conceptual frame of the diplomat as a figure of miscommunication. 

At Kolenkit, I distributed a Dutch version of the postcards developed for APC, extending them to a different format: a large table set on the sidewalk that allowed interaction with passers-by. People responded, seemingly participating out of a sense of politeness rather than enthusiasm. Responses were charged with negativity towards the Dutch language, and the difficulty in communicating caused by my poor Dutch and lack of knowledge of Turkish or Arabic led to stilted silence and a sense of confinement. 

Examples of stickers with translated sayings

I chose to focus on the question about a traditional saying. First I collected proverbs and traditional sayings among passers-by, residents, shop-owners, and people at community centres. Then, I asked people at these places to translate them from their mother tongue into Dutch, or from Dutch into their mother tongue. Traditional sayings, though clear to a native speaker, often become illogical, nonsensical, ambiguous, even absurd, when translated word by word. In a traditional saying there are underlying meanings ascribed to characters, to locations, to phonetic assemblages (i.e. the rhyme), performances of elocution. In a way, a traditional saying is a kind of verbal limit of a language within culture. It is, of course, always possible to convey the main idea, maybe even in appropriate manners, but there are always many cultural layers set aside. By trying to disassemble the traditional sayings these layers tend to unlock, slide, appear. The setup allowed observing the process of what was set aside, how meanings were negotiated between languages through descriptions, impressions, stories, and embodiments that emerged in translation. 

Examples of there of the stickers placed near doorbells along several streets in the Kolenkit neighbourhood.

In the Netherlands it is customary to attach nametags to doorbells; in Kolenkit these names offer a glimpse into the diversity of the neighbourhood. In an attempt to return these translations back to the streets where they came from I asked people to register translations on stickers that I installed next to doorbells. I observed little curiosity regarding the stickers; a few people stopped briefly to read them. Adolescents had fun moving stickers to the doorbells of people they knew. The following morning very few stickers remained attached to doorbells. 

In the process of gathering sayings and later collectively translating them, sayings unfolded gestures, values that needed contextualisation, and comparative readings. Words contained stories and experiences, frustrations and enthusiasm, geography, humour and irony. I would initiate a conversation with one person and end up surrounded by neighbours or family, a group of curious and enthusiastic people giving their opinion. Sometimes the dialogue contradicted the written translations. 

The realisation that people were willingly participating, enthusiastically taking part in the negotiation of a miscommunication between me, a Portuguese woman against a Dutch background, and their own cultural background, strongly influenced my research. Also, the grounds of this exchange were practical; we were actively engaged in creating something by working with miscommunication, leading to my engaging with the figure of the diplomat, as noted above. 

Posters presenting a few of the translations

Handwriting emerged as a powerful graphic element. Instead of words about words, there were metaphors, images, gestures and subtlety which carried an affective dimension that resisted translation. The handwritten sayings made public on the street, sometimes in a different writing system, added a material aspect to the strangeness of seeing a proverb de- contextualised from its language, its own symbolic home, appropriated into other symbols, in graphics that gave texture and a personal dimension to this contrast. This experience sharpened the focus towards exploring the materiality of miscommunication as a crossroad of meanings, that ‘speak more’ than representation.