A student recently gave me the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Word, Sound, Power’ which was held over the summer at the Tate Project Space. It included artists working across sound, video, performance and text to consider issues of globalization and identity. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s installation, ‘Conflicted Phonemes’ draws on a process which took place in September 2012 where a group of artists, linguists and representatives from refugee organisations met and discussed the practice of ‘language analysis’ which has been used in various (institutional) ways to probe the ‘legitimacy’ and accountability of peoples’ accents through the voice and its relationship to identity. This ‘testimony of place’ reminded me of a conversation I had recently about drawing as a form of process of voice and language that brings together concepts of witness and presence.
The writer and theorist, Hélène Cixous sees language as a different kind of interrogation, dynamised through activities of exchange, ‘not fixed in a sequence of struggle and expulsion or some other kind of death’ (The Laugh of the Medusa). For her, ‘in giving voice, life acquires meaning’. Neither French nor Algerian with a background of French, German and Arabic, many insights have been made about the double landscape of meaning in Cixous’ work as a refugee. Writing within a subjective landscape of North Africa and Europe, her themes of otherness, exclusion and marginality can be seen as set against a background of conflict. In Cixous’ work, language is an interstitial space of exchange which explores the nature of interaction, collaboration and encounter in a dynamic indeterminacy. Silence and fluidity, presence and absence and spatial interstitiality are all embedded within the fabric of her writing. Proximity in Cixous’ work is a space of belonging.
Another form of Derridian deconstruction took place when the same student had the builders in over a period of several months over the summer. Forced into a space of communication with them and not into a space of exclusion in her own kitchen, she compiled a glossary of builders’ terms – a vocabulary through which she could learn their language. Mud jacking; veining; spandrel; buttering; top mopping; reglet; ponding; gunite and raggle-block were just a few of the terms she learned and thus gained some ground (in the epistemological or metaphysical sense at least) and a sense of empowerment amongst the debris.
This sense of being marginalized has a kind of poetic resonance when reflected on at a distance. On a trip to Iceland 2 years ago, I attempted to compensate for the complete otherworldliness of the place by noting the names of things which were ultimately geological. I recently found the scrap of paper on which I had attempted to map a sense of the alienation I felt by perpetual rain, dead volcanoes, larva deserts, icebergs and the (almost) complete lack of human culture. Gravel flats; meltwater; sulphur pits; spatter ring; pseudocrater; fissure; magma chamber; silica ripples; tephra and cinder cones imply a landscape more vivid than the many photographs I took. I speculated if it could be an interesting place in which to set up a writing workshop by four-wheel drive..?
Reflecting back on Cixous’ work, elements of it is resistant to translation as if ‘the words lie underneath the surface’, suggesting its own difference and potential for meaning (Pam Shurmer-Smith, ‘Hélène Cixous’ in Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift, eds., Thinking Space, Routledge) . Another kind of interplay between language, place, cultural difference and identity was explored recently by a student from Hong Kong in relation to traditional and simplified forms of Chinese words (according to her, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are the only places that still write traditional Chinese). She made interesting insights drawing on the differences of the calligraphic elements in the character, ‘country’ as an example. In Simplified Chinese a lack of detail reveals a focus on symbols of dominance (king, jewelry, wealth); whereas the complexity of the Traditional Chinese character emphasises the relationships between space and people in its more diverse symbols of field, land, people and nation. In Hong Kong, apparently, TV subtitles and internet searches had changed overnight to Simplified Chinese, potentially shifting relationships between language, culture, place and identity and the awareness or even diminution of these relationships dramatically.
In another kind of cultural translation, an MA Fine Art student recently brought our attention to the ways in which the collective term ‘people’ has shifted as a cultural concept in relation to contemporary art. She historically traced its genesis of appropriation from 1910 (the crowd); 1920 (the masses); 1960 (the people / community / spectators); 1970 (the excluded); 1980 (the viewer / consumers); 1990 (participants); 2000 (the activated audience, co-producers, volunteers) to 2010 (client, case-studies, subscribers). These changing concepts usefully reflect and reveal the complexity and problematics of the relationship between art and how it is seen. Seemingly, ‘the audience’ or ‘the viewer’ are continually re-conceptualised in relation to the changing economic and political environments of culture and how it is made visible. As I wade my way through the tsunami of online information on the Barbican’s or National Theatre’s websites (as just two examples), both of which include contemporary art, I am sure that I constitute part of ‘an audience’. At the recent 50th anniversary event of the National Theatre, there was an ‘audience’; and the same performances were also broadcast and screened live (and also, luckily, on BBC iPlayer) to ‘viewers’. Insights on Cixous’ work which have described her writing as a form of textuality that merges experience and representation has useful applications.
In another seminar recently, a student identified a number of words which described or evoked the process of dialogue in a project she is working on which involves volunteers in a discussion about trauma. This ‘word assemblage’ became a way to make visible, or interpret that which, in Freudian terms cannot be represented. ‘Narrative, history, dialogue, gesture, utterance, memory, ambiguity, exchange, transformation, resonance, diegesis, interplay, translation’ become evocations of actions of speech and meaning in a flow between presence and absence. The intra-lingual and inter-semiotic are concepts in translation theory which describe expressive meaning and the interpretation of non-verbal signs which could be useful in thinking more about equivalences in the practices of contemporary art.
An example of a methodology of transmutation occurred towards the end of this semester when students compiled a ‘dictionary of practice’ as an ongoing work in progress. It elaborates and speculates on concepts such as ‘appurtenance’, ‘oxymoric knot’ and ‘retrouvaille’. Under Space-shifting were two entries that echo Cixous: Space- shifting, also known as place-shifting; ‘I am here, then there and again somewhere, on the move, place-shifting, space-shifting, species of traveler, type of itinerant. From the window of the night bus I see the stars. Illuminated, ribbon development flick-flickers by and the rhythm of sleeper tracks becomes concrete. In the window of the night bus I see those behind me, hear snoring, coughing, chewing and a remix of worn clutch Hindi-pop. I see in my own eyes all the thoughts of all the places I have been and that wait to be seen.’