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Long walks

Valais, Switzerland

PHOTOGRAPHY: Renata Šifrar
TEXT: François Dey, published in ¿Creative Villages? #3 

(Part 2)

My friend Xavier had just arrived for a visit. He asked us if we wanted to have our morning coffee at the local café, Chez Jacky. I later turned that into a habit of mine, going there in the mornings. That day I noticed the display vitrines, full of antique technical apparel: phones, radios, and photo cameras.

Some days earlier I had driven by the Emmaüs shop looking for stuff. At the time, I was buying a second copy of the same disk I had found earlier in Sion, in the Cash Converter. It was of Aldo Defabiani, a blind Italian singer who sang together with the Musical Space Orchestra, giving a modern touch of synthesizer to his remarkable voice. He could beautifully switch from a perfect local accent to having a sudden touch of Italian in his French, singing classics like Les feuilles mortes from Jacques Brel, or Plaisir d’amour from Elvis Presley. The album looked sort of amateur, but in a good way.

No information whatsoever could be found on it about the date it was pressed, or even the credits of any songs. It felt like local music production. Earlier in Sierre, I had bought a random book at some other secondhand shop, perhaps because of the title or simply its cover and the funny portrait of its author holding a toad in hand while smoking a pipe: “Worries of a biologist, Jean Rostand”. I had fanaticized that this could be the start of a new work. The book contained hundreds of oneliners, most often with a moral undercurrent, taking on things and people, and with a rather pessimistic view on the present perspectives in contemporary life. Often one or two sentences had this quality of contrasting themselves, like paradoxes do, or simply being polarized.

“Never did we speak so much about the future since we’re not sure if there will be any.”

I could recognize myself thus speaking more and more about my project to everyone around me. Usually we say this is a way to listen back to yourself, the other merely mirroring yourself, perhaps as well as to believe that what one does, actually, already exist.

“The researcher should allow himself to recognize the little he has found and also dare to claim the immense importance of it.”

This gave me the hope that I was actually really busy with something. The fact that it was possible that “little” meant something. In Saint-Pierre-de-Clages, the “book” village right next to Leytron, I found the same book once again on the discount shelves outside of a bookstore. The same day I exchanged a few words with the German lady, the owner, wondering if she was well integrated here in Valais. We agreed that it was difficult to penetrate the surface, perhaps it would take years, but once that was done the doors would be open for a lifetime. I bought another book, Ludwig Hohl, “Youth Diary,” and we headed back with the Audi. Later that same day I ran into a Bolex projector in another shop. I needed to be sure about what I had in my hands. I opened the case and verified that it was really a 16mm. I looked again and again, I measured it, and told myself this one should cost four times the written price. I must take it right a way.

So back to the café with Xavier and Renata, it was now all making sense. I had this newly bought projector and I didn’t know what to do with it, but now there was the possibility of finding a 16mm camera with which to perhaps film my project, this group gathering, or collective action. I wanted to put something together, but wasn’t really sure what.

Once home, I took the phone and called the number I’d noted from the collector who used the vitrines. The man was welcoming on the line. He wasn’t that surprised that I was calling. I started explaining to him, “I work here as an artist, I’m interested in old technology.” I said I felt it had a sort of implication. Once it was shot, it was shot. No way back. It made any preparations a decisive moment. One had to know what they were doing, because the material was costly. One had to accept – maybe I was talking about destiny – not to postpone any decision but instead achieve a state of acceptance. He understood what I was explaining and said he didn’t have any 16mm camera, but perhaps he could contact a friend of his. He then thought he might have one double 8mm camera with a sort of cassette, that contained two 8mm films. It was then split in two. I imagined possibilities. I could make two shots of two stories, and project them together. One of them would be upside down. I sensed there could be a meeting point in the middle, where the two films would encounter one another. I stopped for a while and we agreed to see each other at the café Chez Jacky in the coming week.

I was excited something was moving forward, but I wasn’t sure what exactly. It seemed like I was putting the cart before the horse. Would the newly found form give me input regarding the content I should film? I wasn’t sure what was happening but it felt comfortable following this newly put together puzzle, piece by piece. We met and sat at the same table where I’d had tea with Xavier. He wore thick rings and seemed very friendly. It felt like I was having a blind date or something. I always get a rush of goose bumps on my skin when I think too much about the situation and wonder, “What am I doing now?”. He took me through the story of his collection and explained to me that his brother had a similar collection of objects. He had often been approached by other collectors asking him to sell part of his assortment, and it seemed as if a very complex emotional relation existed between these objects and himself. On the one hand, he loved them, repaired them, and was happy to have found a place to exhibit them. On the other, he spoke of the constant propositions to sell part of it and how he had to be on the top of his transactions.

I still cannot figure out what drives connect objects and people. Perhaps it’s something about their function and their beauty, processing them maybe, or being part of their history? I was getting a little bored as we went through the list, but I showed respect and nodded with “Yes,” “Oh,” and “Ah”. It was clear I just wanted one thing. I was trying to borrow one of his double 8mm cameras for my project. He was fine with it, but we had agreed I would visit him at his house in the valley. He would take the chance to show me the rest of his assortment, stored in the attic of his home. We then moved from the café, and I remember wondering if he would pay the drink or if I would do it. I noticed that value or money was very clean terrain, and no doubt was to be projected there. We each paid for our own drink and remained on neutral grounds. Before we parted, he told me how he lost his job a few years before going onto pension, and how he had then just grabbed the first one that came along: driving trucks. He didn’t care that it paid way less, he enjoyed keeping being busy and encountering new people. I didn’t call him as I said I would during the next week. A few weeks later I called him and he didn’t answer, but he called me the day after and I also didn’t feel it was the moment to talk to him. My plan was once again hanging in the air; I just wasn’t sure what to tell him.

Later that day I called Mr. Zuber, the priest of the St-Martin church. I told him about the problems I had encountered with the organ, but mostly I wanted to ask him if we could meet and talk about my idea of organizing an aperitif: a sort of introduction to the organ for the population of the village. He thought it would be best if I called the counsel of the Leytron commune to see what they thought about this idea before I undertook any kind of action. He couldn’t t really understand how it had come to the last situation where I ended up playing with the electrical system of the church in an attempt to repair the organ. I could only give my apologies once again, and explain that this wouldn’t happen anymore. I can’t remember if it was after or before this call that I drove down the hill one sunny day, but in any case, we had set a meeting in Fully.

I came a little before the time and paid a visit to the church. It had thick wooden doors with engraved armories, and the entrance had an automatic light system which would switch off very fast. A large nave followed by a chancel painted entirely in dark violet tones and with a large portrait. It’s impressiveness shrouded any other decorative schemes behind the altar. Reverse mounted marble plates stood in the front of the altar, separating the believers. They formed symmetries with the drawings of their veins. Above the entrance to the tribune, the front row of the organ pipes seemed oversized and too well installed. They created three half circles. The balcony itself was decorated with musical instruments and notes suspended in the air singing a melody. At the opposite end of the church was the parish house. I rang the bell.

“Hello, I have a meeting with Mr. Zuber.”

“Yes, please take a seat in his office.”

For a second I feel like I’ve just entered the Vatican, there are two old, beautiful chairs from the 18th century – or perhaps not the Vatican – with a little table in between. I sneak around and take a photograph. He comes in and greets me warmly. He offers me a drink but won’t have anything himself. For a while I try to match his face with the voice I’d become familiar with. It’s not really true; I’ve already seen his portrait on the information paper at the entrance of the church. I tell him about my visit next door and explain about the painting and its unusual size. He reveals to me that the organ is just a decoration, and that it was replaced with an electronic version a while ago.

– “It’s cheaper and we do not need to tune it.” Soon enough we talk about Leytron and the double edged political knife. How to handle it? He admits to being a bit puzzled by the situation too. It’s a little cold perhaps, he is still adjusting, it hasn’t been long since he’s taken that position.

We laugh together but he is a priest; I feel like I’m in a job interview watching every word I say. Or maybe it’s only the seriousness involved in the first meeting and the importance of actually dealing with the church, I mean, Zuber, standing there in front of me representing the parish of Leytron. I wonder for a while if I should ask him if he has a family. I feel stupid, I don’t even know if a priest can marry in the Catholic Church. We decide that if there is to be an introduction to the organ, or some aperitif, it would be better if it took place somewhere other than the church. In that way, we could reach not only the parishioners, but also the inhabitants that do not feel connected to the church and its rituals. He explains to me that the graveyard falls under the administration of the commune, and sometimes when someone is buried, friends prefer not to come into the church, so they wait at the entrance.

So, I was now hanging out in front of the church looking at the speakers mounted onto the walls outside, thinking of a sweet organ melody to be heard one day. Giselle, who I didn’t know yet, was coming toward me with a smile already formed in the corner of her mouth. She was moving with a fourwheeled walker. We greeted and she asked if I could give her a hand with something. “Of course, what is it?” “My daughter is not with me, I can’t open the doors of the church by myself.” I knew from Stéphane that the automatic system wasn’t working anymore, nor was the alarm system. The doors of the church were always left unlocked. We entered and she started to explain to me how much she liked to come here. She was living just a hundred meters away, down the road. Coming to the church was a way of getting out of the house and keeping in shape. I couldn’t help but notice how loudly she spoke. Each of her words would resonate throughout the space. I found it wonderful. I found myself stuck in the old habit of whispering, removing my hat, and behaving. We chatted a bit and she told me about a young fellow who tried to play on the organ, but it didn’t work properly, and about another man who came from Hungary who she’d heard playing every now and then for a while. She went to buy a candle, lit it, and then sat for a while. I told her she should take her time and I would help her on her way out. Right after we’d met, it seemed clear to me that she should be part of the collective action I was trying to put together. My subconscious had already written this. I would only have to wait for this thought to come to the surface to recognize that she was to become a part of the puzzle taking place in my head.

Another devoted parishioner was Jackie. He had been involved, against his will, in the catastrophic moment of the burning electrical relay. I was now calling him and trying to explain the idea for the gathering. We would take some pipes out into the street and march with them toward the old church. There, we would sample them digitally and let the people listen to a virtual organ while sipping a glass of wine and discussing a possible future for the instrument. What really surprised me, in comparison to all the other people I got on the phone, was that he directly answered saying he was kind of busy today, but that we could do it tomorrow. He was living day to day, a little bit like me. Usually when calling busy people they give a resonating tone, without opening their mouth, making you think perhaps later or in a month, otherwise known as never. I said I wasn’t sure when we could meet, and that I first had to call Dominique to see if she could help me get some children to join the march. He then understood I didn’t know what was going on and said, “Call me back, but tomorrow. I’m also kind of busy.” Once again, I was just messing up someone’s schedule on the phone. The plan was taking shape, though: the young ones would blow into the flutes of the organ through plastic tubes, while the older people carried them at the front line.

My time at the residency was coming to an end, and the feeling that I’d achieved nothing was growing in me. This one flute was standing there in my apartment, facing the window and looking back at me. The thought of powerlessness had given rise to ideas of chance and destiny once again. The elderly people remained a key public in my mind. I’m not really sure why, but perhaps when I asked around whether or not they remembered hearing the instrument, most of them had given the answer, “I don’t remember”. I saw, and felt, an unimaginable distance of about three, or four, or five decades of time. For perhaps fifty years the sound of that instrument was stuck in their memories and had slowly faded away. It simply waited there, somewhere in between their neurons, pending reactivation. Recovering a memory was the best I could do. The forgotten could reappear. This is when I thought it could take the form of a Bingo evening. Each number would be a different tone played on the organ. The Bingo would write a random score, but collectively build a song to be played once-off. And then another idea popped up in my head, about how the inhabitants of the village could participate symbolically in the recording of each and every pipe. I went to the “Coop” and bought a packet of balloons. A big pack with 500 balloons for 3.49 CHF, or a small bag with 80 for 2.49 CHF. We never know, maybe we’ll reach that many people. Following the balloon thought, I went to write a little questionnaire with a few items:

– Have you ever heard the instrument?
– Do you think it’s a good idea to try repair it?

– Would you symbolically give one breath in a balloon to have one pipe recorded?

I was already laughing when I pictured the situation, thinking to myself that we use the same word to describe a glass of wine and the other balloon that drivers are asked to blow into when police are eager to check the alcohol content of their blood.

Time was running out and there was still no performance and no aperitif planned. I met with Benoît in Sierre at the Café du 1er Août. It was sunny, so we sat on the terrace. This was our last drink before I would get back to my city life and perhaps think this through. I started explaining to him that during these last days I often stopped in Montagnon at the Café des Mayens. I’d met Christine and Françoise, the two twin sisters, there. We sat outside looking at the sunset and enjoyed a glass of white wine with Renata, recollecting memories. We had engaged in conversation with them and asked if they knew about Creative Villages. They complained about the use of English for the project name, but they were very happy to meet us both, and started to tell us about the association they were part of, la Récré, a collective that organizes events for children in the summer. It was a great deal of work, but they like it. Although, communicating with Alexandre, who was in charge of overseeing youth and tourism in the village, was difficult. Things were hard to organize on time and extra money wouldn’t be invested. They were sharing their discontents regarding the situation. I said, “I understand, you really need to meet people between four eyes.” They told us that Montagnon was about to get street names and house numbers: their street was to be named this way and dealing with the phone company was extremely difficult, what with trying to explain that their new address was the the same place. They laughed and laughed about it. I said we would have to go now and they offered us a drink before we could stand. Their friends were now busy leaving. I asked Christine what was said at the talk about the Cervelat. “Yes, this friend is creating a problem, he wants to cook ‘Cervelat’ for the BBQ at the pétanque dinner this Friday. You should come! It’s just we can’t seem to agree about what kind of sausage we should have and sell. He says Cervelat is good enough, but we like the white one, veal, you know them?”

“Yes, I know the ones.”

Inside, the whole group of the local community council was having dinner. The chapel was ten meters farther down and I thought it must be Friday, they just had the mass in Montagnon. This was my moment. I was going to the toilet. I entered the café, and walked right up to Dominique, with whom I had the most running affairs. I had just called her, wondering if there was any possibility she could help me find children for the organ march. I greeted Janick and Robert, the Priest. They were having the full service, with dried meat, fondue, and some wine; oh I was jealous! I now explained once again about my project and this mysterious performance: marching with the population. She nodded and replied, saying that now they were too busy, because the children were about to write their exams. But then she said, “We will still be here when it all starts again in September, just come back and give us a call!” My mind was lighting up and I felt now as if they’d accepted me. I wasn’t just passing by, no, I was now part of their lives and we could make a plan. I said, “Sure! Goodbye, enjoy your dinner, I’ll contact you.” This is what I explained to Benoît, “I think they’ve accepted me, I got in!” “Yes,” he replied, “we would like to have you a little longer.” I wasn’t sure what I was getting my shoes into now. Interdependency, was that the word? Was I now trying to find a reason, a project, to come back? Had I fabricated a problem concerning them, about us? We parted. I drove to Plein Soleil C and threw my things into a bag.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Renata Šifrar
TEXT: François Dey, published in ¿Creative Villages? #3

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