Can I have your word?

10th International Conference of the Utopian Studies Society/Europe
Far Other worlds and other seas
Universidade do Porto 1 a 4 de julho 2009

Margins of the word
Between the two dark
Margins of the word
Clearing, mature light
rose of the word
Pure silence, our father
Caetano Veloso

I am another now and even though I am the same
James Joyce – Ulisses p.13

I am another me now.
James Joyce – Ulisses p.214

Water of word

Can I have your word? is a work that comes as an eye water. From nowhere, in the desert, from, from the heat, from the underground, and above all from hope. Can I have your word? is a bet on the flow of language, where a simple gesture becomes a creative act. Everything happens from a choice and from a decision. It begins with the election of a daily life object: one wooden clothes pin, and from this object and its significant name comes the decision of having it as the support for the other’s handwritten word. But who is the other? My interlocutor, once anonymous and always random, is now recognized by the word handwritten in his mother tongue, and is destined to get lost in a sea of other words.

“Is is not the sea what Algy calls a big, sweet mother?” [2] (Ulysses, p.6) This is the voice of Buck Mulligan, in one of his dialogues with Stephen in the labyrinthine novel Ulysses, by James Joyce. In thhe flow of water we have the mother-sea and the father-river.

Seas and rivers of words is what the title of our meeting proposes. “Far other Worlds, and other Seas”. It is now impossible to stop bringing closer to us one of the great inventors of Brazilian literature, João Guimarães Rosa. He was the author of the remarkable story, “The third margin of the river” that inspired Caetano Veloso to produce a song  with the same title. Let us analye an excerpt from the story that allows us to reflect on the margins of the word and the ability to believe in utopias:

“Our father did not come back. He had not gone anywhere. He only performed the invention of remaining in those areas of the river, half of the middle, always in the canoe, so it would not bounce ever again. The strangeness of this fact was enough to get us all numbed. What did not exist, happened”.
Can I have your word? is a work started in November, 2004 and it is included in a project that I have created 16 years ago, entitled UNFINISHED UTTERANCES. Different stages of this work have already been presented in many cities: Macapá (AP, Brazil), Umbertide (Italy), Paris (France), Vitória (ES, Brazil), Petrópolis (RJ, Brazil), Melbourne (Australia), Santiago de Chile, São Paulo (SP, Brazil).  and now it is making here, in the city of Porto, Portugal, during the 10th International Conference of the Utopian Studies Society / Europe, Porto, 1-4 July 2009.

I ask the word requesting it to be written in wooden clothes pin, in the mother tongue of my interlocutor. The clothesline in the wire of the anonymous poem, it is the outline of a likely horizon, verse and reverse of the handwritten quotidian. Here the attribute of choice emerges: a word among many possible ones that allow a significant to slip from one hand to the other. So, since November 2004, I have been asking people I meet in the most common daily life situations, their words. These people transform life in this delicate thread that holds the imagination of each one of us.
Transform one thing into another. That is the meaning of art, in which I seek the hope of a miscalculation, of the variable number, of the sum in which the unit prevails: 1 +1 +1 … infinitely, where a word in a clothes pin releases the metaphor of poetry, when one thing is what it is,  but could as well be something else. And here are placed, simultaneously, the sum and the difference between the word that was said and the written word: the utopia presented in a small interval of time, and within immeasurable space.

Bow of the word

One question generates another question. Most of the times when I propose “Can I have your word?”, it doesn’t matter in what language, the  almost immediate answer is “Can it be any word?”. This I consider to be an acrobatics of the proposition, a triple jump without any support, because it is a bid of thought towards a very broad scope. Any word! I reinforce, then, almost babbling: your word. As this point it seems to be enough to emphasize the intimate nature of my request, the calling of something what comes from within, and that could generate a particular speech. Your word, the one that could identify the subject, making him recognize in himself an attribute or an ideal. From the bow of the word one can see a horizon. Any word, when written in a clothes pin, suddenly becomes a special word.

Margin of the Word

Someone who asks other people to have their words knows this is not asking little. Someone who gives his word to another person totally trusts his recipient. Here a relationship is established through the word of honor. Keeping the word that was said or written is assuming an ethical stance before the world, between truths and lies that often go beyond the literary or fictional character of our subjectivity and reach the social, political and contextual paradoxes. At this moment it is important to tell about the origins of this work. I will try to summarize as much as possible in order to not omit relevant data related to my creation process. I was invited by FUNARTE (National Art Foundation) and by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture, to take part in an event that involved the displacement of Brazilian artists throughout the country. Once I accepted the invitation it was defined that my destination would be the state of Amapá, or, more precisely, Macapá, the capital city of this northern state. This area is known for its intense deforestation, caused by the importation of grounded wood. For that reason there are few trees on the margins of the Amazon River to produce shadow or a place to hide from the heat. Before leaving for this trip, (that up till now I call vertical horizon, because I come from the extreme south of the country) I realized the need for a map. Follow me in my sound design:


Thus, I kept in mind the idea of traveling with a map (which would be the masculine for Amapá), and a shovel (a loader shovel that I bought in a hardware store in Porto Alegre, instead of buying a cutting shovel, a garden shovel or a cement shovel). To carry a loader shovel to Amapá, having a map in hands would be my conceptual work. What happened next was that, arriving to the city, I got to know that the mayor was arrested since the day before causing some political tension in the city. This fact made it impossible to keep the event as it was planned. So I also changed my proposition. I bought all the wooden clothes pins I found that day in the city (space-time). The reason for that change is that I also asked to the driver who drove me to the hotel why had the mayor been arrested by Federal Police. The answer was simple: “He didn’t keep with his word!” Only the next day, reading the newspapers, I learned that the major was arrested for deviating money from the city’s funds. At that pointed I decided deviating words [3].

Rose of the Word

“I like Pessoa in person, I like the rose in Rosa”. That is what Caetano sings in the song Language, emphasizing: “My homeland is my language.” [4] Thus being, we have to water our flowers every day, exercising the construction of a specific language, still in a movement of composition, like a spider web tireless and proudly made of frail silk. Our secretions work. A rose is a name, is a flower, is a proposition of life, is an attitude, it is an idea. A wooden clothes pin is a boat, is a river and at the same time, it is an object that creates a dialogue with other objects and subjects who are close. It is a regular daily life object making itself home when it support a word.

Wing of the word

1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 … This is not about adding. The form of presentation of this work would be closer, perhaps, to a desire to understand what is between one thing and the other, after a disposition that juxtaposes objects (or words) side by side. In each presentation, there is something changing, because the pin-words (like the keywords in a text) always change places. Towards infinity, as the artistic proposition by Roman Opalka, entitled “1965 / 1 – “, becomes more an intention letter than a way of saying “I am still alive” as did On Kawara, with a series of postcards sent, since 1966, to friends and acquaintances that were part of this conceptual art practice. “Can I have your word?” is the way I found to say that I am alive until I die. Incidentally, I realize that this is a subjective strategy used to believe in immortality, not as in the myth of Sibila, with as many years of life as grains of sand in the shell of her hands. It is closer to the formulation by Jean Parvulesco, who replied to the journalist character Patricia , in the film by Godard: “What is your greatest ambition in life?” Answer: “Become immortal, then die [5]”.
“Can I have your word?” is a life project that provokes in me a permanent state of dialogue, and this is precisely what excites me. It is a kind of accumulation, but nothing is stagnant. Everything pulses, as words of a text which is not yet written. Somehow everything is connected to the first word was written, the one that has been repeated more often over the years: love. The meaning of each word changes when another is associated with it, especially when a repetition occurs; love love love love love … Always unique, for being handwritten, each word ensures relationships of space and time that are also unique. A rose is a rose is a rose, Gerturde Stein said. In one continuous line, are remote geographies, people who have already died, children who have grown up, and I myself in one single word: thanks.

House of the word

We are in a place of infinite possibilities. A shelter-world. A space to live and linger. A time to pause and stop. Can I have your word? requires stopping the march and making available some time we often do not have. Generally, one question raises another question: Any word? The sea of possibilities is open. Any word that can be written on the visible parts of the object and that can be read. A word written in the mother tongue, that leaves a trace of who wrote it. The handwriting is itself the signature of one author. It composes a collective work that is anonymous because there is no name written on it. But what is a word? And what happens when it is written to be offered to someone else? What happens is great, a generosity that puts the world in the language movement. Some give their word and some do not. That is, some hold the object in hand, refusing to do let it return, subtracting it from participating in the work by someone else. “Can I have your word?” is a work made from small donations, which houses a Babelism. Babel is the name of the tower which has its construction interrupted (an unfinished utterance), according to the biblical text of Genesis, when Yahwé declared the impossibility of having a proper name (Shem). But something is happening between word and structure. The text is not yet written.

The ember of the word

The heat is produced from the friction between the tip of the pen and the wooden surface of the clothes pin. That is how marks are done, with glowing iron, in the story of a time that runs and that we can’t detain. “Wanting to detain time is an act of heroism” says the American artist Jenny Holzer, in one of her writing-works. “As we weaved and will weave our bodies – said Stephen – day after day, their molecules are moving from one side to another, so too the artist weaves unweave his image. And as the  sign on my right chest is where it was when I was born, even though my entire body has been non-stop weaved with a new substance, in the same way, through the restless ghost of the father the image of the lost child looks ahead. In the intense instant of imagination, when the spirit – said Stephen – is evanescent coal, what I used to be is what I am and what I can, within the possibilities, become” [6]

Time of the word

The time of the word is that: now.
“Life is many days” would say Stephen Dedalus, in a dialogue of the novel-river, Ulysses. And he adds: “This must end”. What I propose in my work in process is almost the same idea but worded in a different way: Life is many clothes pins (or many words, if you prefer). This can not have an end. And therefore, falls within what I’ve been calling UNFINISHED UTTERANCES.

Out of the word

Being inside or outside the word, that is the question. Being caught by surprise by a question: Can I have your word? A word is given (dada), given (DADÁ) … incorporating the chance of a meeting and also some reminders of the Surrealists’ automatic writing. I loosen the individual word, removing it from an intimate context and incorporating it to something that still does not have a definite form. It assumes, though, the practical quality of a clothesline. It is  a suspended wire that is stretched and has its ends tied up in places that don’t require it to be cut (nowadays it has forty meters and eighteen pounds), so that the flow of words-clothes pins is not broken. Even though all words change places each time the work is presented, as the molecules in our body, there is always a flow of words in different languages, something that generates buzzes and voices.
A few weeks ago, in the Parc de Monsouris, in Paris, I was just walking and thinking about and format of this work that I now present, when I was caught by surprise hearing words that were lost in the air. Yes, this was my impression, because nobody was around me, only empty square benches and some distant passersby. As I walked, I heard whispers. I stopped. Was there someone calling me? Or was I hearing my own thoughts? At first I thought it could be a joke, a way to draw attention … I kept walking, but the humming voice insisted in saying a few words that I could not understand. I noticed a foreign object in some of the aligned square benches, and I deducted that those were the sound devices in question. Only at the end of one of the paths I read the following sign:

The sound work by Christian Boltanki MURMURES is located in the Parc Montsouris in the vicinity of the Cité Universitaire. What the artist did was recording a series of amorous confessions stated by students of different nationalities, in their mother tongues. A device was placed under ten of the park benches spreading, thus, these murmurs. This artistic proposition touches, at the same time, the multicultural character of Paris and the cosmopolitan context of the marshall’s boulevards [7] (The work is installed on the side of the park at the Bd. Jourdain – 14ème).
Would thus Christian Boltanski be asking and giving the word at the same time? In the mother tongue of students of the Cité Universitaire de Paris, words of love and of tenderness, as recorded by the artist, would be asking and also some resting time to walkers distracted like me. Only during my second walk through the park, I did stop and sit on the bench in order to fully enjoy the artist’s proposal. There are just a few minutes of recorded sound, but they are enough to create a gap between the inside and the outside of our everyday reality. Murmur is the title of the work. In French, the sound also promotes an image of permeable border: mur = wall / mure = mature. A mature wall, a soft wall, a surface that is already full of marks, scratches, accidents and various micro-organisms spontaneously generated as time passes. An unvisible written, an invisible text, a change from the silence to the murmur of the artist.

In 1950, Francis Pong published one text where he presented the work by artists as a work that has the effect of making us stop and reposition in relation to the problems caused by continuous fragmentations of time and space in the contemporary world. The objects that are conceived by artists, and that apparently serve no purpose in designing a mercantilist world will provoke feelings that are deep to the point of restoring the taste for leisure and for the deep pleasure of resting. Ponge is talking about “the murmur” [8] when he clearly affirms that the role of the artist is to reintegrate the human to the world functioning in its cultural, social and political contexts. And here we are, crossing the margins of the word’ mature walls, from a paralyzing silence to the eloquent murmur.

Log of the word

What did not exist, happened. That is what Guimarães Rosa said. The impossible act of staying between the margins emerges simply by exercising keeping this idea. Raymond Queneau exercises by telling the same story 99 times. In order to do so, he chooses an ordinary Parisian fait-divers, as ordinary as catching a bus. The log of the word is there, circling the city, for those who want to strut (not to sink in the liquid melancholy of daily life) Log-trunk, log-body, log-book in roll. Torah. What starts does not end: in the end there is the beginning as a way of life, with a powerful murmur, a scream against the machine -man that only does repeat, repeat, repeat, without being aware of what could be different [9].


  1. Text translated by Manoela Ziebell de Oliveira
  2. JOYCE, James. Ulisses.  Rio de Janeiro, Objetiva, 2005, p.6
  3. Direct reference to a work that was created concomitantly to CAN I HAVE YPUR WORD? and entitled  UMA PA LAVRA – a shovel that digs a hole, that carries sand and cement in a construction also is used for writing. One of the definitions of the verb LAVRAR, in Portuguese, is to WRITE. To handwrite.
  4. Fernando Pessoa: “I have no political or social feelings. I have, however, somehow, a strong patriotic feeling. My homeland is the Portuguese language. It wouldn’t matter to me if Portugal was invaded or taken over, as long as no one disturbed me personally. But I hate, with true hate, with the only hate that I feel, not who writes in bad Portuguez, not those who do not know Syntax, not who uses complicated Orthographe, but the page that is badly escripta, as a person itself, the wrong syntax, as people that are smacked, the Orthographe without ipsilon, like a direct sputum that disgust me regardless of who did spit it.
    Yes, because the Orthographe is also human. The word is full view and heard. And the pomp of Greco-Roman transliteration is dressed with its royal mantle, for which is honorable and queen. “.
  5. Jean Parvulesco is a French journalist and writer whose origin is Romanian. He was born in 1929, and decided to run away from the communist regimen after the Second World War. Arriving in Yugoslavia, he crossed the Danube River swimming in July, 1948. Thanks to his articles on the Nouvelle Vague in France, he did some appearences in films by Jean-Luc Godart, as À bout de souffle, whose role is given to the actor Jean-Pierre Melville.
  6. JOYCE, James. Ulisses. Tradução de Bernardina da Silveira Pinto. Rio de Janeiro, Objetiva, 2005 p. 219
  7. The Bd. Jourdain is one of the avenues of the district 14 of Paris, which is part of the “Le Boulevard du Jourdan est un boulevard du 14e arrondissement of Paris. It is part of the so-called “small waist” or “boulevards des Maréchaux”. This avenue was named after the Count Jean-Baptiste Jourdan (1762-1833), Marshal of France. (The Boltanski’s work is installed on the side of the park at the Bd. Jourdain.
  8. The title “The murmur” is followed by a subtitle that particularly interests us now, “Condition and fate of the artist.” PONG, Francis. Méthodes.Paris, Gallimard, 1999. P.153
  9. Reference to the verse by Manoel de Barros: “repeat repeat repeat until it becomes different.”
    Repetir, repetir – até ficar diferente
    Repetir é um dom do estilo
    (BARROS, Manoel. Retrato do Artista quando Coisa. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2002, p. 14