© Nada Gambier 2019

The Voice of a City - Eurometropole region, Belgium/France

Research residency hosted by arts centre BUDA (Kortrijk)

with support of Le Vivat (Armentières) and Le Phénix (Valenciennes)

29th of May-23rd of June 2017

Local assistants in Kortrijk: Hannah Maddens and Kristof Jonckheere

Public events in the Eurometropole region: 

21st of June 2017: Soirée The Voice of a City-Eurometropole, Budatowers, Buda Arts Center, Kortrijk (BE)

22nd of June 2017: Eurometropoliscafé, sofa session, Gare Saint-Sauveur, Lille (FR)

Arrival in Kortrijk

 

A seamless arrival.

No jet lag time zone warp out freak out here.

No barrage of unfamiliar smells and different heat.

No gauntlet of taxi drivers to run and negotiate through.

No ATMs to scurry to.

No phone calls in the dead of night for addresses and liaisons.

No deciphering of a graceful script on signs.

 

Just get off the train and walk towards the familiar.

from left to right: station café, all roads lead to Buda, bus stop by the train station

We have been here many times before, for other projects and performances, so it is familiar in some sense, but now it is different. It has to be different. Our previous times here have been spent cocooned within studio spaces, our minds encased in the work of the moment, our forays into town functional, with only the odd glance cast at a date on a wall or a photo of an old building to record where we really are.

 

Still, time is of little importance here – when was the last time we were here? – if you have been in a place often, time merges – it becomes one. So let’s say we have been here only once before. One Time – and now this is The Second Time.

 

This Second Time is different. We are now here to listen to the voice of the city.

 

We talk together about this, finding the unfamiliar in the familiar, on how we have to change the way we are here. We must see Kortrijk as if we saw it for the first time, take in every little detail, listen and look, observe and interpret with the eyes of aliens or scientists.

 

This demands some getting used to and a shift of mind. I notice I am looking down at my feet as we walk through the city. I do that when I don’t pay attention. I don’t pay attention because I know the place. But now, this time, we have to pay attention and see the things we thought we already knew.

 

And this, switching from looking down at my feet to looking up and around is harder than one would think. 

A first walk through Kortrijk, this time not walking from A to B and its supermarket destination but looking and feeling and turning and walking.

Back streets and left and right random turns take us to corners and curves, to squares and back alleys and dead ends.

Terraced houses of back streets and mansions and security cameras and railway-side memorials of the dead with crosses and flowers dried in the sun.

Addresses for meetings looked up and memorized.

Photographs and graffiti and mail boxes and posters.

Bracketed and scaffolded facades of preservation of history.

New builds, old builds, cranes and debris.

Offices and services, centers and departments.

Wig shops and clothes shops.

Broken cafés and bars and unbroken cafés and bars.

New bars of suited men and women dressed for a night at the opera.

Dreadlocked white men building pallet sculptures with the smell of grass and cans of Jupiler.

Bronze sculptures reclined on the river bank.

Comedy nights in Flemish and barking lap dogs litter the streets.

renewals in the urban landscape 

Free bikes and cycle lanes.

Crosses and arrows sprayed on to the street as a guide to something or somebody. We don’t know the details yet.

Bakkerij and Carrefour, music shop and Oxfam.

 

The tourist information center with its library of leaflets covering 1066 to the present day, no stone unturned.

This is organization. This is history catalogued all in one hundred meters of point A going to point B.

 

And still we look further into this Pandora’s box and its people. Looking for those stones that nobody has ever felt like turning and listening to the new songs they will sing to us.

 

We are trying to transition from one dimensional visitors to exploring Kortrijk in 3D now.

tunnel under the railway

Kortrijk is a small city with its ca 75.000 inhabitants. But it feels even smaller. It feels like a city where everybody should know everybody, everybody should know each other’s first names and addresses, problems and histories.

But one can walk in the city without feeling like an intruder, so perhaps my sense of size is wrong. 

Yesterday we were told people in Kortrijk sometimes think they live in New York. I’m not sure how that is to be understood but I’m guessing I am not the only one who has a displaced sense of grandeur, or as is my case, smalleur.

 

In any case, let the 3D adventure begin!

Thomas, Mark and Nada 31st of May 2017

no comment

put on your 80's dancing shoes for the sinksen city party in June

Kortrijk streets

Week 2

Our written archive has been swelled by words of priests and cleaning ladies, by socialists and café owners. Our library filled with photos of saved facades and revellers at the Sinksen city festival when Kortrjik became, for the time of a long weekend, a giant magnet for what seemed like the whole Eurometropole.

Old friends and new friends beered and wined and meeted and greeted. Old ladies walked to the pace of rave music and old men stared into the void of Flemish rap and voluminous reggae into the night and the dawn with the words of Jah Rastafari gate crashing the sleep of the righteous.

We cast our net further still.

partying Sinksen style, Kortrijk

A short train ride from Kortrjik and we should already be in France were it not for the  diversion and the train to bus to train routine that takes us weaving through Wallonia and into France proper and to Lille.

The bus takes us through a semi desolate landscape of industrial estates that appear to be doing something and rusted behemoths of factories and plants that are not doing anything at all, nor have they for quite a long time.

The rust is a tell-tale sign, and the height of the overgrown yards, where scrub and grass of recent abandonment have turned into forests of self set trees of 3 metres high.

The compost of litter at their bases nourishing them further. A dribble from an energy drink, a little Jupiler, a swaddling of polythene to protect against the climate.

Graffiti tags everywhere. Not just the head height spray and run kind we see everywhere with the occasional masterpiece between the beginner’s clumsy name tags of thick marker pen and school playground style. No, here they reach all over the rusted hulks to a height of 50 metres.

A sign that the rusting mountains of former industry are truly abandoned with no security watching over them. No hope of the restart. No hope of these wheels of industry turning again.

Broken and seized steel at best destined for China or India to build another factory.

An irony.

The factories there already stole the trade in the shoes and clothes and linen, and now they consume the very factories themselves.

Cathedrals, scaffolded and not, form a backdrop of an ancient history on our travels, a reminder, yes a reminder, of past times and conquests and the ebb and flow of power in this land.

Early morning, late night and daytime battles with order of words and language and countless impressions consume us.

 

We are being absorbed and digested, we are absorbing and digesting.

Mark 9th of June 2017

Tournai, BE

Irene's haven in the midst of Tournai

in search of traces from the past, Armentières

A letter box that has long since said goodbye, in more ways than one...Tournai

tired town, tired people...Armentières, FR

teens hanging out in Armentières

Week 3

Even after being here now for 3 weeks, I still find myself missing Tbilisi. Walking through the empty streets of Kortrijk at 9pm - one of many empty night streets we’ve seen these past weeks in the region- I dream of Tbilisi, the city that never sleeps, the city that keeps on being messy, chaotic and loud even after closing hours. Why is this? Why do I miss the numbing atmosphere of a “megapole” when I could enjoy the quietness of a metropole? I realize how hard it is not to compare, even when I know that comparisons lead nowhere right now. We are in another place, with other people, and sure enough, with a character very much of its own. A character with many faces, as we’ve had the pleasure to discover. 

These last five days we’ve been in Valenciennes, Fresnes sur Escaut, Ypres, Kortrijk and Lille. Time has passed quickly and, I know, has not been sufficient to give justice to the places we’ve been to. So, instead let us focus on the people we’ve met.

From police man to journalist, from student to activist, our encounters continue titillating our curiosity and amazement. The generosity of the people we meet, their willingness to share with us their stories, their time, their thoughts. Enough to make anyone humble.

Fresnes sur Escaut, FR

Together with them we have travelled through difficult childhoods, on 150 Peugeots across Europe, to small places that call themselves towns, through history and back to the present day. And together with Harvey and Theo in Valenciennes, we also travelled to the future, with small steps, but steps none the same. Reflecting on the world and changing it together, dreaming up solutions.

As François in Lille remarked;

A revolution will come when people realize they first have to make revolution with themselves. 

As one week closes another one opens but I am realizing now that we would need more time to fully understand this region… for that it is too complex, too multifaceted, too wide, too split into smaller parts. But we are here now. And while we are here now, we must be here now. Perhaps in hindsight things will get clearer but I can already sense a shift in our perception of this place, a shift from familiarity to incomprehension, to new questions, a need to look further. And this, dear reader, is way better than anything I could have hoped for.

Nada 16th of June 2017

It is easy to conclude that there are as many stories as there are people, all unique and all equally interesting. One just needs to listen. We really don’t do enough of that, just listening. Because to listen is to pause everything else for a moment, to forget yourself, and in these overly busy and information saturated times, this is one job which we never allow ourselves to do.

Every day here I find myself changing opinion on what I think about the region and how I understand it, feel it. This tells me the process is still very much in motion. The process of listening, observing, writing…taking in, with whatever means we have, all the little details that makes one day, one person, completely different from the next.

It is not always simple. We have found ourselves giving up, closing our channels of observation, travelling to other places in our minds…tired minds are not receptive minds.

Valenciennes, FR

Lille,FR

The Last Post, the traditional final salute to the fallen, The Menin Gate, Ypres, BE

Week 4

 

We have spent many hours on the road, following a thin female voice.

Turn right, at the end of the road, turn left, at the roundabout take the second exit… take the second exit…TAKE THE SECOND EXIT!!!

We have been wondering about the fork and what to do there, at the fork. Keep tight, oh no…right.

 

We have sat in trains that have turned into buses, and the other way around.

We have listened to announcements in French on train platforms and to Flemish conductors telling us about the next stops.

Het volgende halte is Mouskroen.

 

We have been riding our bikes as if there is no tomorrow – through the wind, the cold, the rain and the heat.

A lot of moving.

So, what do we know?

 

Ok, the landscape – trees, fields and flower pots. Little villages that we have discovered as we've chosen the “SHORTEST ROUTE” on our GPS. A route that has led us onto small backstreets, through the French and Belgian countryside. Trips of 30 mins have become daytrips. Daytrips have turned into weekend trips.

Weekend trips have turned into holiday outings. Our perception of time has changed.

Did we ever really intend to take the shortest route, I wonder?

Ecole primaire Michelet in Roubaix where we met Magalie on a tropical Monday afternoon

Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach, one of the women we talk to tells us.

I am at first not sure if that refers to the Belgian diet of French fries and lunches of cheese and cheese and some more cheese, with some salads that have stayed on the counter for so long that, in other culinary traditions, they would be considered as fermented food.

But no. As I learn, it refers to the fact that Belgians rarely move very far away from where they grew up. Sometimes living in the same street as their parents, for sure in the same village as them. And that they like to own property, build their own nest. 

A glimpse here and there of look and feel of people being together.

 

In Gainsbar in Kortrijk, the tattooed and the bearded and the shaven headed, talk and greet and smile and embrace, table cutting and crossing conversations, chairs set at one table with people sitting backwards and facing one another.

Our quiet talk with two guys becomes a small event, with details and recounts of recent laws and legislation on social housing policy on squats overheard, confirmed and updated without invitation by a guy with Duvel and a beard from ZZ Top. We are members of this club for now, a temporary membership issued by proximity to a full party member in the form of Andi. A group with some kind of cohesiveness, a little on the outside of the norm of Kortrijk, a little alternative, with no formal entry qualifications, but a group of belonging, a community, a vibrant and essential part of any well balanced city.

 

The pictures on the school wall in Roubaix, a mixture of kids and colours, of heights and sizes, the written comments all telling me there is a feeling here, a feeling more than just a school. Its bang in the middle of it all, front doors leading to kerbside and you’re in the community. A collection of multi ethnic parents at the door waiting for their kids, a scattering of languages, from Arabic, to Turkish, from French to Portuguese, there is just a feeling here, a no language required feeling, but sometimes faces can say a lot. Magalie tells us this is more than just a school for the kids, it is their place, some of the parents feel it too, asking or telling Magalie about things that happen elsewhere in the city, a stretching jurisdiction.

The Smokettes trying to attract people's attention to our sofa session during the Eurometropoliscafé in Lille

I see in Fresnes sur Escaut a village turning town. Jérome says there is still a community feeling here, a feeling of belonging but I see it dying, slowly, but certainly dying out. The place now has no bakery, no bar, no shop, surely places need these to maintain a community? Where else do people take 5 minutes or two hours to catch up?

Families move here from bigger places, and bring with them the habits of a city. Closing doors, and staying in gardens and back yards. Too busy commuting and resting and eating and dealing with the kids to bother with the neighbour or the youth group down the road.

Jérome says it is hard already to get people to give their time to help out down there, and this can only get worse as the western shift in work/life balance continues to skew to the former.

 

The Dingen community. On times off and late nights and a few sunny eves we have become a little part of this community too. Where book reading is allowed and guests and strangers alike are invited to cook for the others who happen to be in on the night.

A place to ask questions, a place to find solutions, a place to disappear undisturbed behind a book or to watch people learning to speak Flemish from across the bar.

Two bearded young men play (I think) RISK, the board game of global domination in the corner, as I step over the ever present cat, I hear the words “do you have any weapons of mass destruction”.

An old spectacular looking couple outside talk between themselves over their nightly aperitif (s) add something to the mix. And as the way of things, I find out they lived in Congo for 30 years and then he worked in the tax office in Kortrijk.

The outside tables murmur with languages from far afield, English, German, Finnish, a visitation of Portuguese, and of course, an American.

 

Brief visits elsewhere in the region where it’s been hard to pick up on this belonging and community feeling. It’s a sad feeling, but I get the impression that in places like Armentières and Tournai, the internal decay of the cities has contributed to the demise of these tight knit communities of old. Where one time work colleagues and their families would relax and mix together in the street, in a restaurant, a café, a bar, now only boarded up places exist, and the closed doors of the unemployed.

Hopefully things will change before people have forgotten this way of being together, of being a community.I am sure we need to look further and be here longer, I am sure we can find these places, I am sure they exist, we just haven’t found them yet…

As said before, comparisons make little sense here. Meeting 18 individuals and having conversations with them does not make the picture a complete one. It rather fragments it, diversifies it, and makes the region one of difference. The common denominator between the people is that we have met them and that they will be present in us for some time still. In our writing and our work, as it continues. We are taking the region with us to wherever we land next.

 

Many of the people we have met have been well educated, middle class, with somewhat solid daily lives. There has been a few exceptions but most of the individuals belonging to at least one of the above named categories.

We’ve regularly discussed about this and what it means. Are the people we talk to too similar?

The answer, until now, has always been no. They are all, very much different from each other and we have concluded that this is ok. When we have tried to extend our contacts, we’ve hit a wall. The ultra-rich man in Oudenaarde is not interested in meeting us. Not now. Not ever. 

When we arrived four weeks ago Kortrijk was a city of streets you could count on one and a half hands.

Now, after one month of being here, we need the borrowed digits of everyone at the Sinksen to count them.

Each street a library of stories and histories that we discover as we walk or cycle back from Carrefour, where we let tattooed thirsty and angry looking men that jingle and jangle with their collection of skull and crossbones rings, pass to the checkout before us. Tattooed fingers down to the nails clutching unfathomable numbers of beer bottles between them while his stained tee shirted lady friend clutches yet more bottles to her breasts, both of her nipples appearing to be leaking milk. 

An elixir of some kind of life.

A hungry child waiting somewhere for this thirsty mother.

 

We feel like nomads as we journey through this process. Nomads who feed themselves with stories, who drink the juice of the unexpected, who grow on ground that moves. Blank pages for people to write letters on, to a loved one, to a long -lost friend, to the city council or the mayor, to a neighbor, to an enemy, to a mother or a father.

We, the nomad community of letters written on paper that moves. Or something along those lines…

Nada, Thomas and Mark 23rd of June 2017