Johanna Householder

\Trans*la”tion\, n. [F. translation, L. translatio a transferring, translation, version. See Translate, and cf. Tralation.]
1. The act of translating, removing, or transferring; removal; also, the state of being translated or removed; as, the translation of Enoch; the translation of a bishop.
2. The act of rendering into another language; interpretation; as, the translation of idioms is difficult.
3. That which is obtained by translating something a version; as, a translation of the Scriptures.
4. (Rhet.) A transfer of meaning in a word or phrase, a metaphor; a tralation. [Obs.] –B. Jonson.
5. (Metaph.) Transfer of meaning by association; association of ideas. –A. Tucker. (1)
by Johanna Householder

My Japanese translator was killed. He was found stabbed to death in his university in a corridor, and the evidence found leads directly to the Iranian state. … The Italian translator … was likewise stabbed and fortunately survived. The Italian government took no steps.

– Salman Rushdie (2)

…translation is a treacherous business; states as well as artists seem to take interest in its attempts and invest in its outcomes. One would be foolhardy to attempt it without serious consideration. And yet we rush in, trying to figure things out — words, gestures — trying to fill in gaps, intuit, see through the wordage to the thoughts behind. We try to gauge accuracy in that most inaccurate of practices. We do try.

And so, trying and failing to find a word that meant precisely the same thing in French as in English for the title/touchstone of a cross-lingual project, curators Paul Couillard and Éric Létourneau decided to evade translation and its vicissitudes; evade by exploding. Pas de traduction! And shift the focus to the phenomenological, “… the title reflects how the practice of performance privileges direct action and shared presence as a way of expressing ideas and moments that are ephemeral and essentially untranslatable.”(3)

Now, I think it could be argued that translating actions into words and vice versa may possibly be the chief occupation of humankind and since Couillard and Létourneau, also decided to hire two writers to do just that, perhaps they are being a bit coy. We must note that from a global perspective the monolingual country is a rarity.

“PAS DE TRADUCTION dances among the ambiguities of what needs no translation, what cannot be translated, and what we refuse to translate, focusing on the interpretation process between artist, audience and location.” (4)

Ah yes well, we do try, but we fail. We cannot capture, we cannot ever capture what we saw, and how we felt when we saw it.

6. (Physics) Motion in which all the points of the moving body have at any instant the same velocity and direction of motion; — opposed to rotation.(5)

Armand Vaillancourt
Constanza Camelo
Jocelyn Robert
Sylvette Babin
Sylvie Cotton

Eric Letourneau

Johanna Householder
Sonia Pelletier

Pas de traduction
about the artists


Constanza Camelo has set up a card table in a very small inner city park, Bellevue Park in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. It’s a sweet, damp summer morning and the park is just waking up. On one of the paths through the park she’s laid out the outline of her body in tape on the gravel, evoking the chalked outline that police make around a body. Dressed in a cheap plastic rain covering, she sits on a bench next to the bronze statue of Al Waxman..(6) She’s given Waxman a wrestler’s mask that looks like The Scream, but he’s pushed it casually back on his head. Constanza changes benches, gazing pensively into the park. She confronts Al and then takes his mask herself, placing it on the back of her head. The tape on the front of her raincape reads “artista.”

She kneels and reads from Al’s plaque: “Trust your gut instincts, there’s a lot to do down the road, there’s always more, in small matters trust your mind, but in the important decisions of life, trust your heart.”

Encountering this quotation earlier, Constanza had inferred the possibility of revolution. (Retroactively, I reflect upon the likelihood of Toronto commemorating a revolutionary in one of its parks.) And from this she divined (the roles of) the artist and the activist as possible positions for herself in a dichotomous world. Traces of the stains of colonization and post-colonialism emerge as she seeks to be understood in a “third language.” How am I perceived differently in each language and where does each perception place me temporally? Past, present, future … in the present, l’activiste est mort.

She crawls a bit further forward to a pair of boxing gloves. They’re Canadian gloves, red and white with maple leaves. She puts them on and immediately cuts several slits in them with an exacto knife. My guess is that she doesn’t really want to fight. She strides down the path to the body-outline and lies down in it. The tape on the back of her raincape reads “activista.”

She lies still for three or four minutes – long enough that the kids in the park start to notice her and come over. Abruptly she stands up, takes up the tape and strides over to her cardtable, where lovely plaster doves with red ribbons at their necks sit like prizes at the CNE.(7) The sign taped to one side of the table reads: El arma mas efectiva para matar el aburrimiento. The park kids are immediately at her:

– “Can I play?” “Can I play?”
– “sit down.”
– “Can my cousin help me?”
– “of course.”… “This is my magazine… this is the most effective weapon to kill boredom.”
– “uh-oh,” says skinny eight-year old “time’s gonna kill me! Can I do it at my nonna’s, its going to take an hour!”
– “You have to kill time — we are here to kill time. ok?”

It’s WordSearch — in Spanish. If you win, you win a pigeon. If Constanza wins you have to answer two questions. You have to tell her your birthdate and your favourite way to “kill time.”

Constanza is drawing upon her own experience of boredom, of killing time, during her first months of exile from Colombia, eight years ago. She was in a country where and a time when she was out of language. Playing wordgames in Spanish, was a ritual of sorts, a bond to a language she had to relinquish.

Ten kids cluster around, kibitzing, “I’m the man,” “you suck,” with an outer circle of adults and audience, while the battles rage. It’s a good scene in the misty park. The feeling is open, generous, but with some tough competition going on. Killing time can be serious, and she’s activated them, inscribing “a temporary, utopian territory over the existing landscape.”(8)


We watch Constanza and her opponents, completely absorbed in their play, and then pick up our bikes to cycle down to the Scadding Court Park wading pool, where Sylvette Babin is attaching a megaphone snout to her face.

She’s got the guts of a harmonica clenched in her teeth, so when she stands in the wading pool and breathes the reedy tones issue from the homemade mouthpiece, a silver piece of stovepipe about eight inches long, duct-taped to her head. Inhale, honnk; exhale, tweeet. She’s dressed like the soloist of an absurd orchestra — a long black scoop-necked gown, which drags in the water as she starts to circle the pool. The effort of walking briskly through the filling pool labours her breathing. hoonnk tweeet hoonnk tweeet hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet. She makes a chalkmark on the edge of the pool, then wades back in and starts running. Around and around, hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet hoonnktweeet. Alternately running and walking in the filling pool, her dress dragging, making marks. In the background, a city pool with a couple of cold kids and a bored lifeguard. Eventually the misty morning coalesces into afternoon rain, and the lifeguard clears the pool. He comes over to the fence behind. Honk! Tweet! he shouts. The wading pool starts to empty, and Sylvette strides on, running and walking, around and around and around and around, grimly determined, very damp, her thick red braid uncoiling. Tiring, she take off the metal snout, but continues around, swirling the water down the drain, one note of the harmonica left… peeep peeep peeeep peeep peeeep.

“Is it Wicca?” asks a passerby (with all that counter-clockwise motion, one might wonder) “or performance art?” A public/private ceremony.


A few dozen yards away on the south side of the park, Sylvie Cotton has begun hanging loonies in a tree. She’s found a beautiful tree-shaped tree, a round ball of branches on a thick stalk, where someone has left some bedding underneath.

Sylvie’s arms are festooned with little clear bags, each holding a golden coin, there must be over a hundred. She decorates the low branches and then, given a boost, she climbs up to put some up high, almost out of reach, she climbs. It’s becoming a fairy tale, a childhood fantasy, the answer to our prayers… The Money Tree. It’s green and rich in the park, but it’s a wino park too and a cop on a bicycle questions some picnickers. He doesn’t come over though. Higher into the branches she goes. Robin Hood, the Easter Bunny. We can hear the noise of a car race(9) in the background. Sylvie climbs down and steps away. We love the tree. We wish every tree in the park could be covered in the same way every morning. Every wino could wake up to a branch full of money over his head. People walking through admire it, but they don’t touch. When we come back an hour later, ever last cent is gone.

The powerful attraction of this work lies not in its overt generosity (and surely it would be difficult not to see it as generous) but in the way we are the makers of the work (not authors) in a sense very like that of Gestalt dream analysis which asks the dreamer to position herself as every aspect of the dream: we are the tree, the climber, the viewers and … the money. We see ourselves as active participants in the economy of this work. And as Bruce Barber has discussed in “The Gift in Littoral Art Practice” this casts this work into a practice which he has called “donative” — a work which uses gifting to interpret the economics of an art practice. In fact three of the five performances in this series, Sylvie’s certainly, but also those by Constanza Camelo and Jocelyn Robert might be examined in this context. As Barber explains:

Claude Levi Strauss argued that “The automatic laws of the cycle of reciprocity are the unconscious principle of the obligation to give, the obligation to return a gift and the obligation to receive” (1987:43) But as Bourdieu demonstrates in his critique of Levi-Strauss’s structural logic of the (Maussian) law of reciprocity, in reality “the gift may remain unreciprocated” (98). … this realisation would necessitate that the givers themselves become the first targets of conscientization. But each cultural intervention, exemplary or not, engages “a logic of practice” that encourages an infinite variety of exchanges or gifts, challenges, ripostes, reciprocations, and repressions to occur. (These) examples of operative art practice have the capacity to creatively engage their public in conscientization and in this sense alone provide service of some social and cultural value. But in accordance with Bourdieu’s wry observation on the politics of giving and receiving these examples acknowledge also:
The simple possibility that things might proceed otherwise than as laid down by the `mechanical laws’ of the `cycle of reciprocity’ (and that this) is sufficient to change the whole experience of practice and, by the same token its logic.(99)
…Bourdieu’s logic of practice privileges individual agency, in all its unpredictability and contrariness, as the primary component of a generative model of giving (and understanding). Perhaps this logic of practice, like that promoted by Habermas himself “provides an alternative to money and power as a basis for societal integration.” (Calhoun 1992:31) And without an acknowledgement of individual agency within communicative action, that is of the potential for contrariety – the act of giving, the gift of food, the gift of labour, the gift of blood, and of life itself, would seem valueless. (10)

Sylvie speaks of her work as addressing distribution and infiltration and calls attention to the fact that “the human exchange” is the principal material of the work of art. “… desire or life itself becomes the real nature of the performance and gives the work its real quality of ephemerity and immateriality. My work emerges from issues oriented by the relation between social and individual needs.”(11)

Sylvie Cotton’s performance map
Sylvie Cotton’s notes from the Round Table discussion

It was mentioned in the press release for these performances that “The title (“no translation”) refers light-heartedly to the traditional tensions between English and French Canada.”(12) Now probably this should read between English and French in Canada, as of course one of the sites of tension is what we call the places — both the province and the language — from which this “performance community” comes. We in “the rest” of Canada have been taught (by Armand Vaillancourt among others) to take pains in this particular translation — Québec and not French Canada — is the place these folks are from. PAS DE TRADUCTION!

Main Entry: trans·late
Pronunciation: tran(t)s-‘lAt, tranz-; ‘tran(t)s-“lAt, ‘tranz-
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin translatus (pp. of transferre to transfer, translate), from trans- + latus, past participle of ferre to carry — more at TOLERATE, BEAR
Date: 14th century
1 a : to bear, remove, or change from one place, state, form, or appearance to another : TRANSFER, TRANSFORM
b : to convey to heaven or to a nontemporal condition without death (13)

Now Ed Johnson drives his van up into the park and starts to unload Armand Vaillancourt’s parade pieces. Cloaks, cows’ skulls, pieces of metal, a huge rope net, white flags on blue poles. People are enjoined to take up these emblems, some dragooned. Some grumble on the outskirts, not sure whether they want to be made into the spectacle. They are given green robes. Armand himself puts on a huge blue tarp cape, a black rubber skullcap over his snowy shoulder length hair and then a mask headpiece made from a cow’s pelvic bone. It has great bony protuberances that look like an owl’s ears. Passersby and audience are costumed in cloaks and put under the rope net. Istvan Kantor and his kids provide the core. Some have blank white flags. A decidedly medieval feel is developing; The Children’s’ Crusade, “Bring out yer dead!”, a morality play without the oxcarts. Armand instructs them to be careful not to poke each other in the eye with the cow skulls. Gradually the mass of the group takes shape, about twenty or twenty-five. A woman who had joined Darren O’Donnell’s Talking Creature(14) earlier in the day, is further exploited (no value judgment here – she was willing) as the central yellow-cloaked female principal. The shoes she’s wearing will surely give her blisters. Two strong men are invited to carry the poles from which hung metal plates. As they walk the plates clang together, summoning, announcing the procession.

Armand exhorts them to moan …”the torture, the exploitation without words of the planet, the earth… think about that and let’s concentrate, let’s not make sound while very superficial or out of context. I propose that you just play with your throat…. Oooowauggggghhhh…. Not maybe all the time….and some people could say ‘rape’ some say ‘war’ ‘democracy’ ‘false democracy’ build your own context.”

They walk from the park along Dundas St. to Kensington Market. In his massive blue cape escorted by the Jeanne d’Arc in yellow he has a commanding presence and can moan from his bowels. “We keep it serious, eh we don’t joke about it. It’s a serious matter.”

I had the impression that Armand was simply constructing a sculpture, a moving sculpture, and a kind of tableau vivant, the participants his raw material. It looks as if the Burghers of Calais have decided to protest the amalgamation proposed by the provincial government. For fifty years he’s been doing this. (He’s a pioneer in the field of art actions and performance manoeuvers, creating happenings and political protests in urban and rural Quebec since 1953.(15) )

So this is a generic march of gloom, which the marketgoers could construe in any way that seems appropriate to them. Accompanying them from a journalistic distance, I’m reluctant to interpret this image/event for the folks who think I may know. What are they protesting? ‘No translation’ I remind myself. Animal rights vegetarians? Pro-choice or anti-choice? Ban the Bomb? We don’t usually see religious penitents on the street except on Good Friday. Your interpretation is as good as mine.

Solemnly but gamely they trudge off, clanging and moaning. In its generic nature this runaway public sculpture is packed with contradictions, which I must assume that Vaillancourt, with his long history of community actions, understood. It reminds me of Robin Collyer’s photo landscapes in which all the signage has been erased leaving blank awnings and billboards: message = no message.

Night, route 47, Québec. Sometime in the 1980s. Rain. As Armand Vaillancourt nears the site of his studio and foundry he can see that something is amiss. Earlier that evening he had been at an official reception in Ottawa. The kind where artists, arts bureaucrats and politicians meet to ‘celebrate’ the arts. The kind of situation that Armand has frequently turned into a forum for symbolic action in support of his political views. He turns his car into the lane. He can see muddy ruts where large trucks have been in and out of the property. His enormous sculpture is missing.(16)


While all this is going on, something else has been happening on a performative level in town; another donative gesture, employing the act and the art of giving. Jocelyn Robert is going from shop to shop, distributing his CDs. He’s not going only to music stores though. He’s depositing his recordings to be found by unsuspecting shoppers on the shelves of a drugstore, the Dollar Value and the hardware store. He has 400 CDs to distribute. In Canadian Tire he stocked the shelves right next to a stockboy who took no notice. Éric, assisting him, opened up the boxes of vacuum cleaners and put a CD in each one.

Take home a new Hoover and get a complimentary recording of…..what? What will I make of this, my new vacuum unboxed, attachments idle as I sit in front of my stereo with a ‘whathe… Qwerty…fuckisthis’

The CD is one of a series the content of which is a multitrack accumulation, layering and building into a wash of exponential density.

Jocelyn Robert confesses that he is “preoccupied with the notion of imprecision as quality, fascinated by blurry pianos, hollow nerves, packaged gods, and the ambiguity between work and context, music and noise, object and site.”(17)

Although Jocelyn sees his gifts as “romantic strategies of despair” and not a provisional new economy he also sites his “refusal of public entertainment / gathering rules” which calls up the “potential for contrariety.” By enabling a private moment of exchange/experience, reaction or riposte, Jocelyn’s practice falls upon the littoral — the shoreline between the sea of individuals and the land of the social… The scarf is better than the bullet.(18)

Look how we can, or sad or merrily, Interpretation will misquote our looks…

— Shakespeare (Henry IV, Act.5, ii)

In conversation with the Paul and Éric, we learned that the title “Pas de traduction” came from the desire and then the inability, to find a word that had exactly the same meaning in English and French. (I am not convinced that the inability to find a common language-concept doesn’t have more to do with the contrarian proclivities of Messers Létourneau et Couillard.) I am also unsure which words were considered – we segued directly into a discussion of le mot, ‘performance’ and a discussion of translation vs. interpretation. However, it doesn’t matter, the starting point is always arbitrary — the theme and its sense, the meaning-making will out itself in the process, in the déroulement. Nevertheless we began with the notion of translation …

“He was one of that kind, it is easy to think, who to those he loved might give all he had, at once, without thought of gain.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes he was. He was one of that kind.”
“Sometimes to give away is the only way to keep.”
“Yes, it is.”
“So then it was he who was truly the translator,” said Gavriil.

— John Crowley, The Translator(19)

(1) Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
(2) Interview with Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Progressive, v.61,n10 (Oct 1997): pp. 34-37.
(3) Fado press release, July 2003.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary
(6) Canadian actor Al Waxman played the “King of Kensington” in the eponymous 1970s TV series He died in January 2001.
(7) The Canadian National Exhibition, known for its midway games.
(8) Pas de traduction programme notes, Fado Performance Inc.
(9)The final qualifying heats for the Toronto Molson Indy, part of the Champ Car racing series, were taking place approximately two kilometres away.
(10) Barber, Bruce. “The Gift in Littoral Art Practice” [in Symposium 2000: Aspects of Post-Object and Performance Art …(Christchurch, NZ: Robert MacDougall Art Gallery, 2000] accessed at http://www.novelsquat.com/gift.htm September 2003.
(11) Accessed at http://www.exitfestival.org/index.html [server no longer online].
(12) Fado press release, July 2003.
(13) http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary (entry abridged by author).
(14)The Talking Creature is a series created by O’Donnell in which a group of people comes together and then goes out to solicit strangers to come back to the group for a free form conversation. Since he had planned to do Talking Creature on the same day as the Pas de Traduction performances it became an adjunct event.
(15) Fado press release, July 2003.
(16) Conversation with authour, July 2003.
(17) http://www.electrocd.com/bio.e/robert_jo.html
(18) Jocelyn Robert, email to author, July 16 2003.
(19) John Crowley, The Translator, William Morrow, New York, 2002.

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