Lifting Belly

Excerpt from a film-in-process, 2018
Conceived in 2010

Funded in part by Art Matters Foundation, 2011 and
Center for Cultural Innovation, 2011

Claudia Cabello Gaspar, Yanary Hernandez Herrera, Cira Hernandez Martin, Delioma Morales Perdomo, Maria Lucia Morales Perdomo


The Whistling Project was launched in 2010 at the Los Angeles-based nonprofit LAXART, in the debut performance of the women’s whistling group Silton formed, The Crowing Hens. The project evolves from Silton’s ongoing interest in the impact of voice (among other signifiers) on subjectivity, and what is a lifelong inquiry into voice and its aesthetic/discursive possibilities.

Lifting Belly is a film-in-process first conceived by Silton in 2010 as part of her larger Whistling Project. For the project, Silton traveled in 2016 to the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, the site of origin of the world’s most well-known whistled language called Silbo Gomero. Similar to other whistled languages, Silbo Gomero is a unique form of long-distance communication suited to the mountainous terrains of the island (whistles are known to travel up to six miles due to its frequency). The language originated before the 16th century and flourished in the 19th century, deriving first from indigenous language and then from Spanish after Spanish colonization. Faced with extinction in the latter part of the 20th century, the language became compulsory learning in all local elementary schools, and in 2009 was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Silton commissioned young female practitioners of the centuries-old language to recite excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s poem, Lifting Belly. Stein’s poem, written as a love poem to life partner Alice B. Toklas, functions like a conversation between two lovers, and was written while the couple lived in Majorca until 1917. As with much of Stein’s work, the poem defies literary categories in its linguistic experimentation and its privileging of sound over meaning. Adapting Stein’s work from English into Spanish and then from Spanish into Silbo Gomero—which is in itself a translation of Spanish—into pure sound, gives the project a resonating circularity. This is further supported by specific references to whistling in the poem: “I can whistle, the train can whistle we can hear the whistle, the boat whistle. The train is not running to-day. Mary whistle whistle for the whim.”

In the excerpt above, first exhibited in 2018, Silton plays with multiple translations: the poem—translated from English into Spanish by poet Jen Hofer—has then been translated into the sound-based whistled language that is linguistically more reductive than Spanish or English, but nevertheless imbued with meaning. The following is the excerpt being whistled from Stein’s poem:

I have my feelings.
Lifting belly is so exact.
Lifting belly is favored by me.
Lifting belly cautiously.
I lift it in place of the music.
You mean it is the same.
I mean everything.
Can you not whistle.
Call me for that.
And sing.
I sing too.
Lifting belly counts.
My idea is.
Yes I know what your idea is.
Lifting belly knows all about the wind.
Yes indeed Miss.
Yes indeed.