Public space as an intimate performative scene:
The atmosphere of a market in Guatemala City.

As an immersive embodied experience, a visit to the market contrasts with the virtual interactions normalized during the Covid-19 pandemic. As an experiment to feel digital, I took the challenge of documenting and translating the atmosphere of a physical experience into a virtual format. I regularly visit a market located in the historic center of Guatemala City, since my childhood. My great-grandmother used to be a merchant, and so, over generations, my family is used to visit this market. In principle, I have an economic relation with the place, but over the years, we have gotten to know better the merchants whom we meet every week. Different from technologized modern super markets, the traditional market allows for a personal relationship with the sellers, and I decided to run my experiment there. 

Saturday morning 9:45 AM. 

I arrived at the market with my mother. I asked Nadia, the merchant who we regularly visit, if I could take some pictures and videos; she agreed. My mother held a large list of groceries –like the basic script which guided the dialogue among them–. As I filmed, the conversation departed from groceries to personal stories. Another client arrived at Nadia’s spot to buy some artichokes, and he started to buy exactly what my mother asked for, as an echo of a secondary index of groceries which spontaneously emerged.  

I stood beside my mother filming. With the camera, I tried to emphasize all the products at Nadia’s spot as well as other simultaneous details: the traditional indigenous costumes, the noise and music at the market, the simultaneous conversations, and the physical closeness with people despite the sanitary measures that the Covid-19 pandemic demands. Some aspects that I couldn’t portray in the film were all the different smells of the market and herbs, the hot temperature, the feeling of being corporeally surrounded by many people, and dehydration. 

The market can be broadly considered as a public space: anyone can enter. Nevertheless, as the merchants have had to organize themselves against insecurity and violence, people know each other. During the pandemic, they have made sure that the market operates within some sanitary precautions.

As much as I love to film, I feel uncomfortable filming unknown people. I only asked for Nadia’s permission and focused on the details of the interaction between her and my mother. Nadia’s spot on the market is located in a hall which feels quite narrow for all the people that either stand in front or walk through. Visually, it was very hard for me to display in the film the walking through the market halls: the film is basically static in one spot. Nevertheless, despite the constraint, I aimed to highlight the details of interpersonal interactions in a routine activity and the soundscape. 

Atmospherically, there are other people surrounding us. I mostly regard the embodied feeling of a crowded space, which nowadays I relate to the danger of the contagious Covid-19. Despite this notion of risk, there is one aspect I particularly enjoy: the soundscape. Among the multiple layers of sound, I recall, for example, as an inter-ethnic space, many people speaking indigenous languages. Other layers consist of the outdoor traffic, the general noise of multiple voices speaking at the same time, and the music played from a closed-circuit radio where a locutor reproduces hand-made playlists for the market’s amusement. Such music also conveys familiarity to the place as the locutor is part of the inconsequential atmosphere which is just for fun.   

A feature such as “inconsequential talk” resembles Brown’s take on roadside shop talk in India: “jokes, gossip, and other forms of seemingly idle phatic talk were part of the process of trade […]. Speaking as if one’s talk is inconsequential and the interaction at hand is unimportant is part of a broader semiotics of indirection that enables the conduct of commercial transactions.” (2013) I also find that the atmosphere is constructed by the intimacy of the dialogues that people have while shopping, which transforms public space into an intimate place.

My mom asking for Nadia’s family members’ wellbeing, Nadia’s asking about us missing our visit the previous week, her knowing of the items we usually shop for. These conversations inspire me to conceptualize the market as a common space in the city that hosts a particular bond among strangers inside a specific soundscape that allows contingency. I regard the feeling of atmosphere as fully embodied and composed by the juxtaposition of all the stimuli that add up to the intertwined sensations within corporeal presence. Some sensations are the heat, the feeling of crowdedness, the uncomfortable feeling of interrupting someone else’s way. So, Nadia’s spot at the market might be analyzed as a performative space in which costumers enact relationships that would rarely take place at any other shopping or economic exchange place, such as sharing recipes. With recording devices, I might grasp soundscapes and the gestures and dialogues that take place among people. As a dance researcher, the interactive possibilities resonate with my approach on improvisation in dance where particular settings allow for contingency and play with both: the atmospheric sensations and the relationships among the performers themselves. The market is experienced as an intimate space of play and spontaneity with strangers inside the layers of music and noises. 

In general, a first-person recording allows me to film in an improvised way what is going on, especially with a camera phone that is rarely noticed as a vernacular filming device. Nevertheless, I got a sense of spying, of imposing a visual violence by capturing scenes of what is routinary to the workers and costumers of the market. I feel that in order to pursue a better approach to recording more confidently, even from a first-person approach, I would shift to a participatory action research approach that would involve the people from the place as re-creators of a digitalized representation of their environment. 

References:

Brown, Laura. 2013. “A public backstage: The pleasures and possibilities of roadside shop talk in Tamil Nadu, India”. Language & Communication, 34, 35-45 pp. 

Gift:

A poem that illustrates my experience in the workshop. 

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