I started listening to the city again when I sent my iPhone to get repaired.
For some reason the phone suddenly refused to charge itself. As I watched the battery level on the monitor slowly retreat to an ever thinner stripe of red before draining into utter blackness, I was already thinking of what I would be missing. I’d get a cheap mobile, of course, to make calls while the phone was being fixed, but it wouldn’t give me access to my email, tell me how cold it was outside, or give me directions to an out-of-the-way café in an unfamiliar part of the city. And then there was the music.
In the next few days I began to realize how I used the phone to tune out the city and wrap myself in music when I walked around town or sat in the trolley or worked out but most of all when I was waiting. Doing most things in the city means waiting in some kind of line. And this being southern Europe, when people have to wait, they talk. But it was only until I was deprived of the curtain of song the phone had given me that I realized how much they talk.
One tends to think of waiting as a still, dead zone in which nothing happens, an empty interim between events. It is the space between going to the doctor’s and being examined by the doctor, the space of being at somewhere. These intermediate times, to borrow a phrase from the title of Nina Pappa’s intriguing new exhibition at the About gallery, seem at first to be nothing more than a forced stop on our day’s travels, a tiny avalanche that blocks our train and forces us to take temporary lodging. But no one vanishes, no riddle needs to be solved. Nothing happens.
Or maybe something does. The places where Pappa secretly recorded the conversations she uses in her installation, the waiting areas of a public clinic, the engineers’ HMO or a tax office, are not dead zones at all. Since they are places where the keys to important things are kept—an appointment with a doctor, reimbursement from your insurance, a tax exemption—they are filled with anxiety, impatience and frustration. And watchfulness. You try to gauge the willingness of the staff to help, you look to see if they’re asking for a document you don’t have with you, you try to read the others who are waiting with you, your fellow combatants. Yes, you’re in the trenches and the enemy is an arbitrary bureaucracy.
And people talk. A conversation begins with a complaint about how long you’ve been waiting or how many times you’ve had to come back or how there’s never enough staff, but soon gives rise to an exchange about family or a digression into social commentary. Alliances form. Rule-breakers are ostracized. Time passes and it’s your turn.
Pappa adopted the perspective of an urban anthropologist but the methods of a spy in collecting her “records of waiting”, enmeshing herself incognito in waiting areas and secretly recording conversations between strangers. You hear these disembodied voices as you walk into the gallery space; they’re just a murmur at first, emanating from speakers attached to a bank of monitors set on the floor. Though the dialog has been transcribed and appeared in ghostly white letters on the screen, you have to crouch down to hear the voices clearly. I felt as I was eavesdropping.
The excerpts appeared to be random but had been carefully selected and edited to preserve the identity of the speakers but also I suspect to present the choicest exemplars of her archive. There are a few clues to the speakers’ identity. You can guess what kind of place they are in from what they say, and something about who they are from the sound of their voice and the way they use the language. Their age, too, is easier to guess than you thought. Voices do age, though it’s not something we usually are aware of. We see ourselves grow old but never really hear ourselves grow old.
The language we hear in these excerpts is raw, unedited. It’s full of repetitions, ellipses, and back-tracking, shot through with the weeds of everyday talk, the conversation fillers and stock phrases and clichés. But it’s also rich in the markers of speech that indicate mood and judgment. Reading a transcript of actual speech makes you aware of the array of the particles and tags we use to express our stance in the conversation and towards our interlocutor, the subtle but unmistakable devices to include the other as co-conspirator or keep him at bay, to seek confirmation or pre-empt an objection. The transcript of small talk reads like a heavily marked up study score, in which the annotations almost mask the melody.
The recordings are accompanied by a series of drawings which depict people in waiting rooms. The space itself is depicted in outline as a riot of crisscrossing lines, as if rendered by a compulsive, possessed draftsman. They reminded me of the reinforcement grid into which concrete is poured. Or cages perhaps.
We don’t need more than the outlines. We know these spaces. Even when not housed in the concrete boxes of soulless public buildings, they are still forlorn places. There is a heaviness to the interior spaces as if the fumes of anger and anxiety of the countless people who have waited in the days and weeks and years before had settled like a thin film over the pastel-painted walls and chipped wooden benches. We see the folding chairs arranged in rows before the bank of teller-like windows: theater, school and church together.
The figures, which to appear to be cut-outs from another sheet that have been rearranged and inserted into these spaces, are again anonymous. In some drawings they are blurred; in others we see them only from the back. Often they coalesce into an amorphous mass of bodies. Their only distinguishing features are perhaps the labels some of the figures bear—the number corresponding to their place in the line, the time at which they were called to the counter. It seemed somehow fitting, for in the eyes of such bureaucracies we are indeed all faceless, all just a “case” to be processed, assessed, taxed, fined, probed or expedited.
After a while Pappa’s voices segued into a carpet of sound in which the individual threads of conversation were lost in an oddly soothing background noise. Like the conversations of a coffeehouse.
In an episode of life imitating art I was spoken to by a woman sitting across from me in an armchair at the Starbuck’s I had gone to after the gallery visit. I had noticed her as I sipped my coffee, an ample woman in her 50s with the long blond hair of a much younger woman and dressed in unflattering, tight black slacks, a sequined sweater in mauve and grey and a cheapish leather jacket. It was hard not to notice her. She had been Skyping away in a Slavic language for the last ten minutes. Ordinarily I would have popped in my earbuds and withdrawn into my music. She asked me if I spoke English and when I said, quite well, she asked if I wouldn’t mind reading and translating a letter she had. I was intrigued. Who could this correspondent be? A long-lost relative? A foreign affair? But it was only instructions from the Canadian society security administration on what the reader needed to do to reduce the withholding tax on a pension. Apparently not hers. A friend’s, she said. We talked a bit. Small talk about her growing up in the Ukraine. How she came to Greece, but mostly how much she liked it here.
After a while she got up and left, and I slid back into my chair and let myself be lulled into drowsiness by the voices in the coffeehouse. There was something very comforting about being wrapped in this soft shawl of other people’s conversations. I like it more than I do the unison voice of a congregation at prayer or a choir in song. Now and then a word or phrase will rise up and stand out, like the crash of a wave amid the drone of the surf on a pebbled beach or a car’s horn in the buzz of distant traffic but for the most part it is just the life-affirming murmur of humanity, the expression of our drive for connectedness, of our embeddedness in a network of relations.
If one strains to listen carefully the subject of these conversations often turns out to be quite banal. But then again, most of what we say during the day is not particular significant. The declarations of love and swearing of vengeance, the cries of grief or despair, our confessions, oaths and curses—these are rare. Instead, our hours are filled with small talk. If we are lucky and have thoughtful intelligent friends who look into their lives and question the world about them, who search for beauty or truth or justice, we will have conversations that move or inspire us. But even with these friends we will talk of the mundane, of a stubborn earache and a leaky faucet, a song on Glee and last night’s trout.
With strangers and friends alike we will make small talk. But it’s small only when measure with the yardstick of life’s greater but much rarer events. Small, unremarkable but as much a part of our daily lives as bread or rice, and no less sustaining.
Image: Nina Pappa, Intermediate Times