Physicists have recently proposed a theory that all present, past and future exist together permanently, and it is us who move - travelling through this constant presence. In other words, according to this block universe theory, based on (what else but) Einstein’s theory of relativity, the past, present and future are always there, it’s only that we cannot perceive it that way, for we see only one aspect from our viewpoint, from our specific, space- and timebound frame of reference.
This idea boggled my mind, yet, it offered me a kind of reassuring perspective at the same time. Is it, then, that all the encounters one experiences, all the togetherness of people and phenomena in general are permanently present? Is it that the reason why we see one thing and not another, why things emerge and vanish in our life is just that our viewpoint is in continuous motion, while in fact, everything is eternally present? Chances are that I will never know the answer. Meanwhile, this gives me the awareness that when we cross paths, all of us are at a certain moment of our particular continuum, our personal story... And in these stories we meet and talk, express ourselves, communicate – tell our story and hear others’ in a multitude of languages…
Languages – verbal and non
Realizing that this multitude of languages is by far not limited to verbal communication, but it includes, among many others, fine arts and film that are the closest to me along with music, led me, at an early age, to look for the messages in these systems of communication. I soon found myself as good as obsessed with looking for these meanings, with trying to discover their nature and structures, and also with trying to mediate, translate these meanings to others. But more than merely giving my interpretations, I believed it essential to find and then to provide tools, settings, situations that may help people make their own interpretations. And this is the intention that has connected, and also driven, most of my activities ever since. Translation, interpretation, looking for and passing on messages, or rather helping people find their own understanding and their own way of sending their messages is there in teaching the languages that I teach, translating texts, making exhibitions, and writing about visual art.
And this is where the question of responsibility and moral obligation comes into the play. There is no need, I reckon, to argue extensively for the significance of enabling or facilitating communication, and those who take on the role of teaching and mediating also take on the responsibility that goes with it. Rather than assuming the elitist position of sharing one’s knowledge, in fact, it is all a very humbling exercise – given the magnitude and stake of the task, compared to what is in one’s capacities to serve it.
I first came to Brussels in autumn 2006 for a few months to work for a translation company. I had wandered quite a bit before – studied, worked or just travelled around in a number of countries: studied in Hungary, Russia (then called the Soviet Union) and a little in the US, then taught language, literature and translation, published articles, edited periodicals; wrote reports and reviews of cultural events, took interviews with artists across Europe, in China and South Korea, organised shows in art events in Europe and the US. All this meant being in a continuous flow of meeting people, permanent dialogue, ’translating’ between people and between cultures. Settling down in Belgium ten years ago (after coming in 2006 I left in early 2007and returned in 2010), came as a conscious choice, a kind of conclusion of all the experiences I had had before. With its history, position in Europe, its population density, ethnic composition, and becoming home to a host of nationalities and cultures, it was this place for me that I could continue my two basic language related lines of activities more naturally than mostly in any other place – at least on this continent.
One of these activities is making art exhibitions in places outside the mainstream framework for the widest possible audience, propelled by my conviction that visual art has a potential to shape the lives of everyone far beyond the extent it is generally realised now. This language, too, is there for most of us to communicate, learn, think – only we use it less than we could.
But it is the other essential line involving language for me that I would like to elaborate on in a little more detail – and it is teaching language.
In 2011 I began to work for a language school that participated in a social programme offering language classes for people on unemployment benefit. And it was in this programme where, in about five years, I met a few hundred students in a long series of one-to-one classes, from most countries of Europe, and also from some parts of Asia and Africa. And in these encounters, in these settings where our life paths crossed, I was teaching the language but perhaps I also learnt even more than the students did. Among the many things that these students taught me some are more relevant here than others. Let me mention just a few of many now.
Firs of all, having one-to-one classes, I came to realise how much more I had to take into consideration the students’ cultural background than I had ever considered before.
Just an example to illustrate that: it is not only personality but also culturally conditioned to what extent people are ready to communicate, to what extent they find it natural to go into detail about themselves or their ideas, or to what measure it is considered as being too personal, indecently imposing themselves. In some classes the answer to “How was your weekend?” was “It was good,” even if, as I came to find out after applying a bit of pressure on them, that they had had their wedding that weekend. Whereas, in other cases, with people from other cultures, the answer was more likely to become a long account of something like cooking dinner or cleaning the pantry.
Another interesting area is how revealing people’s regular mistakes can be in terms of their own language. For instance, one of the typical hardships learners come up to is the infamous Present Perfect tense. The structure in English, where we can refer to an action or event that began in the past and continues in the present or happened at an indefinite time in the past, an event that took place in the past and has an effect or result in the present, on which we focus. Therefore, in English, as the action is completed and we give the time when it took place, it is a mistake to say “I have been in the cinema yesterday.” At the same time, it took me a while to realise that the reason why French speakers make this mistake regularly is that the mirror image, the formal equivalent of the grammatical construction of the Present Perfect (have and the past participle) exists in French. However, there this tense is considered a past tense, as its name also suggests: Passe Compose. Having come to this recognition, it became easier for me to explain this matter.
The third conviction that grew in me over time was how mistakes that we fear and are so ashamed of are significant only when they stop our message from getting through. The only real punishment for making a mistake is when people do not understand us or misunderstand our meaning. This also stands for one of the most dreaded aspects of English, namely, pronunciation. Making the right sound perfectly is an ability that people have or they do not. And over the years, I have learnt that intonation, that is, the ‘singing’ of the sentence, the stresses in words and the sentences, and the prosody, that is, where you can stop in a sentence (utterance) and where you cannot, are more important in making ourselves understood than the impeccable pronunciation of the ‘th’, and are much easier to learn.
The three examples above are representative in terms of the many things I have learnt professionally since teaching in Brussels. At the same time, other than grammar and teaching, I have learnt from my students about myriads of phenomena that have added useful information or just colour to my life. Just think of cloud formation, theatre, artificial tastes, gene manipulation, flowers, design, cooking or architecture…
But all that is another chapter – also enabled by language to be told.
Zsolt Kozma: art curator, editor, essayist, teacher, born in Budapest, Hungary. Living permanently in Brussels since 2010. Studied in Budapest, St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Moscow and Maryland. Taught, translated, organised exhibitions and art events in Europe, US and Asia. Published essays, reviews, interviews and translations on various subjects, mainly related to art, film, culture, media, solidarity, education and social issues. Co-founder of the Soma Award for Investigative Journalism. Partner and curator of Videospace Budapest, and Inda Gallery. Founding partner and curator of Art of Care asbl for art, integration, social care and education, Brussels – his focus project since 2017.