Delfina Foundation

Q&A - Luísa Nóbrega

Performance as Process resident Luísa Nóbrega writes on language, translation and the voice

Luísa Nóbrega, tsunami, 2016. Photo: Luciana Magno.

How have you been using your time in residence at Delfina Foundation?

I’ve been taking classical singing lessons and British Sign Language lessons. I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to learn two contradictory systems at once; how they could contaminate, cross over each other. For a long time I have had an obsession with the voice, and have become more and more fascinated by gesture. Voice and gesture dwell in this dangerous barbed wire zone of speech, often betraying us, making it clear that there is a lot more going on than the meaning we convey in words. Language is contaminated by accents, variations of pitch and volume, gestures and facial movements. Both classical singing and sign language work quite consciously and precisely with elements that, for the regular speaker, are often unconscious or paralinguistic. In sign language the sequence of gestures must be performed and read attentively in order for the meaning to be unfolded. With singing, the rhythm and the variation of the pitch of the voice become more important than the text of the song. The facial expressions play an important role in signing, you face distorts and becomes elastic as you open your mouth to sing. You cannot be neutral when you sing or sign.

Luisa Nobrega, still of a deaf woman, projected as part of Tsunami

Frame of video projected during the performance tsunami, 2016

Your residency here during Performance as Process is exploring the performance of speech and language. Could you talk on your idea of the 'performativity of speech'?

Speaking is an attempt to jump over the abyss between me and you, to cross the gap that at once separates and connects individual and collective experience. It involves a certain degree of improvisation and a lot of repetition; while we deal with the specific context in which we are speaking, we constantly repeat things we heard other people say in the past. No act of speech is completely spontaneous; we learn to speak by imitating others, by learning a series of conventions that are not only grammatical rules, but codes of behavior as well. The way we speak in a dinner table is not the same way we speak in a bar or at a funeral; we learn how to adjust the volume of our voice and our intonations according to the situations, in order to sound firm or laid back or reassuring. But no matter how hard we try to control them, voice and gestures often come out of tune, out of hands. Bad jokes, anticlimaxes, exalted situations make us stutter or become voiceless, and suddenly our hands tremble, we want to shout. Being in London, I couldn’t help realizing how codified the English society is, with a whole lot of subtle, unspoken rules regulating daily interaction among people, dictating when to praise someone, when to change subjects, how to finish a conversation. Speech is very sophisticated and controlled here, rarely direct. It is interesting how, as a foreigner, you start to tackle into these codes that at first are not obvious for you at all.

Luisa Nobrega, still of l'extase, projected as part of Tsunami, 2016

Frame of video projected during the performance tsunami, 2016.

Can you talk a little bit about tsunami, the performance you created for Transpositions?

I projected two videos in the stairs of the Delfina building; in one of them, a deaf woman uses British Sign Language to tell the story of how she survived a tsunami, and in the other a soprano sings L’extase, by Debussy. I was sitting there with headphones on for eight hours, attempting to imitate the signing of the deaf woman and to sing along with the soprano at the same time. I wanted to see how singing and signing would merge after many hours of exhaustive repetition. No matter how hard you try to imitate someone else’s action, there is always a gap; I wanted to dive into this gap, instead of ignoring it. Language often comes to the verge of collapsing when it attempts to translate extreme experiences such as confronting a tsunami or being in ecstasy, so any kind of failure was welcome here. I like this idea of following strict rules, and yet losing control. By the moment the audience came in, I was already doing that for four hours. People were aware that the action started before they were watching and would continue after they are gone. Perhaps it felt more like eavesdropping than like watching a presentation. I like to make actions that can’t, or that could hardly be fully documented, or that even if fully documented they would be almost unbearable to watch.

Luisa Nobrega, I am a sign, 2015.

Luísa Nóbrega, I am a sign, 2014. Photo: Luísa Nóbrega.

How important do you think the voice is in a world that increasingly communicates in images and signs?

I was reading this amazing book by Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book, written in 1989, long before the mobile phone took over such an important role in people’s lives. Back then, she was already saying that the telephone was not a functional apparatus, but an ambiguous prosthesis of the mouth and the ear, and now it seems to have become also an extension of the eye and the finger. Ever since the gramophone and the telephone were invented, voices coming from the past and rushing into the future surround us like ghostly presences, and we float amid this bunch of conversations we cannot fully grasp. Perhaps this has something to do with this re-emergence of exalted, vehement voices in the political arena, echoing the ghosts of fascism in the social media and beyond. Recorded conversations and telephone tapping played a major role in the political crises Brazil is facing right now, which led to the president being suspended and a right-winged government raised to power in a rather unscrupulous way. Disembodied voices can be powerful and uncanny - maybe we should learn how to raise our voices or to be silent without being overwhelmed or possessed by them.