The Webster dictionary describes the term ‘phantasmagoria’ as ‘a confusing or strange scene that is like a dream because it is always changing in an odd way’. Parrots and nightingales are mentioned profusely by Christopher Columbus in the diary of his first journey to America in 1492-93. Ana Torfs became fascinated years ago with Columbus’s diary, which describes the newly discovered ‘India’ as a cornucopia, a paradise of wondrous flowers, with a thousand variety of trees and remarkable fruits, not to mention astonishing fish and birds of the most dazzling colours.
The first thing that struck Torfs when reading Columbus’s journal is the constant repetition of words like ‘tree’, ‘cross’, ‘believe’, ‘nightingale’, ‘trade’, ‘parrot’, ‘danger’, ‘wonder’, ‘naked’ and ‘weapon’. The word that occurs most often – after ‘gold’ – is ‘sign’: signs that have to be deciphered and translated. Columbus as interpreter. At sea, every piece of driftwood, bird or fish is a sign that land is near, and when they do eventually land in ‘India’, they see signs everywhere of the presence of gold and silver.
While Columbus and his crew were crossing the Atlantic, he noted that the only thing missing was the song of the nightingale, the traditional metaphor for the poet. He later made countless references to nightingales, even though this species is not to be found in the Caribbean, the archipelago in which he ended up during his first expedition. Columbus compares the climate to that of Andalusia in May; they catch salmon and sardines, just like in Spain; and the native leaders are described as ‘kings’, as in Europe. The Admiral looks, but he doesn’t see. He listens, but he doesn’t hear the Other. When we bump up against the limits of our imagination and knowledge, reflections of what we already know become the blueprint for new descriptions and definitions.
The only creature (apart from humans) that Columbus recorded after his first day in ‘India’, Thursday 11 October 1492, was a parrot, a bird famed for its mimicry and repetitive speech. That same day, he wrote in his journal that the ‘Indians’ he encountered were like children who still needed to learn to speak (his language). Consequently, he also noted that they would make good servants, as they quickly repeated everything that was said to them…
In The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmagoria, we see an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who signs Torfs’s carefully selected passages from Columbus’s journal, while one of three Anglophone interpreters, each one fluent in a different sign language and alternating one another randomly, reinterprets the footage in spoken English. All the while, the viewer encounters slowly dissolving black-and-white projections of a tropical forest. The forest can be seen as a metaphor for the narrative text in general, whereas the interpreters represent the Babel-like confusion of tongues that arose during the first encounter with the New World.