I arrived in Basel in the beginning of April with my project The only language I speak is not my own - a collaborative workshop initiative on the refusal to write down a language. The project involves working with specific diaglossic communities, who code-switch, to collectively invent and perform an orthography for a coded language, which mirrors the practice of code-switching as an untranslatable act. The project is concerned with the potential for subverting public street signage into an orthography, for colloquially-spoken, officially un-transcribed coded languages. I used my time in Basel to work with public signage as orthography, which led me to look more critically at the relationship between language and the not-spoken ideological discourse of public signage in a Swiss-German urban setting.
Red Light District
Late April, over dinner one evening, a visiting artist from South Africa, whose work deals with violence against women and lgbtqi+ people, tried to describe ‘signs’ she had encountered on her walk home to her hotel, for delineated areas for sex workers to operate within. She could not find the word for the thing she was trying to name: a plaque . . . a graffiti . . . a temporary notice . . . a label? I tried to help her find it but, the thing that she was referring to does not have a name that comes to mind too easily - it is not really something that can be named directly.
What she was describing were green dotted lines, stencilled onto short sections of pavement, concluded by a white and green stencilled pictogram of a stick figure in a skirt with large breasts, leaning against a street lamp.(2) These stencils demarcate the beginning, or ending, of labour in an area in Klein Basel, as determined by the Canton of Basel or rather, the collective vote of the community of Klein Basel.
In contrast to the pictogram on the pavement, warmly-dressed women stood on the precipice, arms folded, open for business.
I think the reason we could not think of a name for the signs immediately is because they appeared to not have been so permanent and not even so official. Crude cartoon depictions of a real life business transaction made me think of someone describing the scent of a field of meadowsweet from having only seen it in a photograph(3). Or a live translation of a foreign language film by someone who does not speak that language.(4) Allegedly, the dotted lines are meant to signify a kind of porous border, which sex workers can move between, depending on whether they are soliciting sex or not. However, what does soliciting sex look like and when does the state intervene and, how? Normally I would assume to see policemen/ state officials on the scene: the voice of the law that calls us into participants. However, in my experience of Basel - the signs are enough. As I cycled by, I would unconsciously glance at the people hanging around these sections of pavement to see if they had stepped over the dotted lines or not. However I may reflect on that - as an innocent curiosity/ gross fascination/ not relevant - I had in this moment become inaugurated as a third party to this interaction: my job was simply to witness and, in witnessing, I became the law.
Maybe this was the reason we could not think of a name to call the signs by: the signs had called us first, before we could position ourselves, we were already also named in the transaction: witnesses.
It is worth noting that the sex workers who were derogated by the street signs were not Swiss-German speaking. Sex work is legal in Switzerland, however; I assume one would also need to be legal to work in the country, to work in a brothel, for example. My point is that the sex workers would generally not have spoken German and the signs recognise this. Public signs are supposed to speak across language and in this instance, it was apparent to me that these signs were intended for foreigners.
“[P]ower is understood on the model of the divine power of naming, where to utter is to create the effect uttered” (Judith Butler, 1997:32). However, when there is not a common language to utter in, what does the utterance look like? I think it looks like a sign.
During my first month in Basel, I realised that I had not entered a Swiss person’s home. I did not know what Swiss people liked to eat for breakfast, I did not know what type of milk they generally like to buy, which cheeses are preferred, how do people make their coffee, are they are into tea or not? Do they eat bread with everything? What do they do when they arrive at home at night? (5) I started to reference public signage akin to the experience of being in a Swiss person’s home: you can ride your bike here, you can’t walk here, this is a line on the road, these are neon green drawings in front of a phone booth, here are three stripes in front of the number 30, you can’t eat on the tram, police existence is police brutality, construction work is happening here, don’t walk here, here is not for you, this is for blind people, these are lights you should move to, this arrow is significant, all cops are bastards . . .
Some things I understood, others I came to understand when I started riding a bike, while some signs and notes remained a total mystery to me. I realised I had started to use smell, sound and (non)physical interactions with strangers in the same mode as I approached public signage - as though there was a correct way to do it. I became aware of how I had started to make my own signs for others in public: a child behind me on the tram was being annoying so I sucked air through my teeth in response to this - to say to their parent that I was annoyed and that the child should stop doing this at once . . . (6) I suppose this interaction operated in the same way the sex worker pictogram did: it relied on other people witnessing my transgression to work: that the parent might feel ashamed and make their child behave.
All of these experiences inaugurated me to a language that is not heard and I started to become fluent in it.
Interdiction/ The etymology of a ‘no eating’ sign
I began to consider how the Basel linguistic community records itself - Swiss-German is an officially un-transcribed language - and whether the public signs aren’t a transcription of a language, interdicted by the official German written form? The etymology of a public sign cannot be read in the same way as a written word: it can only be told about.
I came to learn that many signs in the city had specific histories, known by heart by those who they applied to: a friend had relayed a story to me about growing up as an Italian second generation child whose mother did not speak German, the whole family (mother and all her kids) would arrive at the official translation station (that’s not its name) to have important documents translated for them by Swiss officials. The process involved hours of queuing - there were not enough translators and so, my friend’s mother would bring a picnic for the kids. My friend described the scene as a spectacle, which in turn embarrassed her. In response, her mother told her that if the Swiss thought that Italians liked to create a scene, then that is what they would do, besides the children needed to eat. In any case, a few weeks down the line a sign was quietly installed in the translation offices, which simply read ‘no eating’.
A public women’s-only swimming pool in Basel was frequented by many elderly, white Swiss women. In recent years, Muslim women would come with their kids to swim. A sign was recently installed at this pool that read: ‘No Kids Allowed’. Apparently this was prompted after the elderly women complained.
Of course in both instances one might say that the two things have nothing to do with each other. However, the signs stage an interdiction regardless, which prohibit those they speak to from participating in public discourse as a pedestrian, a swimmer, a walker, a vehicle, a child, only . . . I could have simply been trying to suck something out of my teeth on the tram that day . . .
Indeed, one can be interpellated, put in place, given a place through silence, through not being addressed and this becomes painfully clear when we find ourselves preferring the occasion of being derogated to the one of not being addressed at all. -Judith Butler, 1997:27
Something that did not stand out to me immediately was the absence of mosques, the signs for mosques and the sound of calls to prayer for mosques.(6) In 2009, as per public referendum, Switzerland voted on the banning of minarets. If public signs in Basel are the equivalent of an utterance - the act of naming to inaugurate a subject to the law - then the absence of a sign might be the equivalent of not being addressed at all: if you are seen then you are already breaking the law.
In the first two months in Basel, I documented all the public signs that interested me. I approached my task as if I were listening to two people have a conversation in a language I did not understand, at the point where words are bodies and not words - I wanted to grasp the signs’ opacity to me before I became inaugurated. In my practice, I work with a process called islanding, which is the attempt to isolate the vocabulary of a formally-spoken language from given signifiers, in order to free up its words for new modes of linguistic cognisance. Islanding is a process of counter-translation: repetition, alienation, abstraction, denial and blind optimism. I approached public signage in Basel as the officially written form of Swiss-German, therefore I wanted to work with a mainly Basel-resident public in this process, so that we could make an island together.
I redrew images of public signs and I reduced the scenes to one part: a construction site became an orange cone, the sex worker pictogram was a dotted green line. I wanted to retranslate the signs into something, which did not immediately refer them back to themselves: repetition, alienation, abstraction, denial, blind optimism. I then turned these images into laminated ‘playing cards’ for a silent multiple choice survey performance between myself and my participants.
The performance called on referendum as its mode: as per Switzerland’s law: everything is voted on. I adopted referendum as the structuring premise for the language: I suppose it stood in place for an underlying linguistic ideology, which normally dictates how we communicate with others. My participants were prompted to choose between specific playing cards to name the primary playing card I presented to them. There were 11 multiple choice questions in total. Each question involved a selection process to find the name for the primary playing card I presented to them.
I did not speak the entire performance, so participants relied on my gestures: pointing, looking, walking, sighing, sucking through my teeth, in order to act. I drew on the experience of being called to answer to a sign by invoking the urgency to do something: act or witness. My participants choices would ultimately build this island and, without their participation, it would not work.
The playing cards were not only limited to drawings, I used gesture, smell and sound as equal parts of the language, for example, the act of smelling meadowsweet had three possible names in the three playing cards I presented to my participants after the act. Imitation was also a card: I made two specific signs (7) (8) with my white gloved hands as possible names for the primary card and my participants would need to mimic one of the hand signs in order to choose. I wanted to call on the urgency to act as a playing card: participants recognised a lot of the references however, out of context, they were often perplexed and frustrated as to how to follow the sign. I referred to a google form on my laptop during the +-8 minute survey, on which I recorded the answers for each survey performance, (9) I suppose this added an elements of anxiety for my participants because a lot of people thought I was grading their answers, however I was simply recording data so that I could make the island. In any case, after the first ten or so surveys, I realised that my presence took on the silent voice of the law and participants acknowledged me as such. Anxiety was a playing card as well.
At the end of the survey I brought out my tarot card deck and gestured for the participants to draw a card, I then scanned the card and printed it, handing it over to the participant as a concluding gesture: ‘thanks, please leave now’. I used tarot cards as a means of breaking the game and introducing an esoteric factor, which both served participants and informed me about them. I included the card they drew in the google doc. It was the 11th question.