Barbara: “Excuse me, professor. Why is it that you have written a song with some strange words that don’t mean anything?”
Adriano Celentano: “… I understood that today in the world we don’t understand each other anymore. It’s very difficult. We don’t talk to each other. The only thing that’s left are looks—very sad…”
This coming weekend (June 7–9), we’ll host our second annual symposium, on the topic of “translation.” A large subject, and we’ve defined it rather broadly, but what exactly do we mean? And what business does an art organization even have in tackling the topic? To get you thinking about language divides, cultural crossovers, and translation as a fundamentally artistic practice, we’ve gathered up some of the loose associations that have been on our minds over the course of planning. Read on, explore the links and videos, and make sure to join us for a rich conversation all weekend long.
If we’re going to discuss translation in the context of contemporary art, it’s probably smart to acknowledge the dominance of one language—English—across the scene. More precisely, we might talk about a pangaeaic common language that has emerged from international interpretations of English—perhaps Globish or International Art English. What does it mean for there to be an international art market? Writers/artists David Levine and Alix Rule gleefully tackled the question in their Triple Canopy article on what they dubbed International Art English, pointing out how the need for cross-cultural communication doesn’t just fall to some perceived “neutral” language of art, but has, in fact, generated its own non-speak of abstracted, passive phrases from English press releases. It’s internationally recognized, but is it ever mutually comprehensible?
So yes, let’s accept for a moment that such a thing as IAE exists—shouldn’t that mean artists have a unique advantage to talk across the usual borders? Is contemporary art now fundamentally placeless? Or do we still face limits at understanding the work from another country or culture when presented in a foreign context? Do we miss something when we watched a Zimbabwean dance piece on an American stage? In an excellent Frieze Talk, Do You Speak English?, a cohort of curators and writers discuss the “in-between zone” of the art world, debating whether English truly is a neutral lingua franca. Over the course of the conversation, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, a Ghanian writer, filmmaker, and cultural historian based out of London, explained her work “translating” Ghanaian aesthetics into a Western idiom:
“I went to Ghana and looked for aesthetic concepts. They weren’t written down because my language wasn’t written language until the English came. So I went back and I looked at oral literature, looked at drum poetry and music, and I wrote theories, concepts that had never been written before. So, in a way, I was writing a trajectory… Sometimes I wonder about validity of what I’m doing, because it’s constructed authenticity. I’m sort of reintroducing a language in a way it was never mean to be introduced originally…”
The rest of the discussion is equally intriguing, and well worth a listen.
To extend Oforiatta-Ayim’s lesson, the mental specificity of a given language does matter. It sets the conceptual parameters for transmission and reception of an artwork. And yet, regional dialects and languages are vanishing at an alarming rate. English, Russian, Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish continue their march towards global adoption, flattening distinctions and subtleties between them. What do we lose as audiences when we not only experience an artwork outside of it’s native context, but perhaps that native context has actually gone extinct?
But while spoken languages die off along with their unique cultures, there is a burgeoning community of con-langers online, inventing new languages daily. Joshua Foer in his profile for The New Yorker, “Utopian for Beginners,” shares the story of one such inventor, John Quijada, whose Ithkuil was designed to remove all imprecision from the way we communicate. It’s a bafflingly arcane and complex set of rules, but it’s underlying concept reinforces the idea that language structures can change the way we think (called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it’s widely debated).
To be fair, these are mostly hobbyists and amateur explorers, rather than preservationists defending obscure tongues. Out-of-work linguists are now employed to devise diverse languages for fantasy television (Dothraki, anyone?). IAE, on the other hand, may be a construct of the art world, but it evolved naturally by way of globalization. Maybe a new, still unrealized language will have the reach to influence how the art world functions and how we experience art across cultures. Quijada himself offers this description of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase:
Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu.
‘An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly-integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically.’
Now, when we talk about “translation” in the context of our coming symposium, we’re not solely discussing written and spoken languages. Dance can be said to have a “vocabulary” of gestures. Visual artists speak of their “language” of forms. What is a language if not a coded series of symbols? Isn’t that a fair (if thin) characterization of art? As a firmly interdisciplinary presenter, we’re particularly curious in how audiences (and artists) cross between forms, how a dance lover experiences a gallery exhibition. This very issue is subject of wide conversation in the art world right now, as more and more visual art contexts present performance works. It’s been the subject of a MoMA symposium and numerous articles, including Claudia La Rocco’s New York Times write-up ”Museum Shows with Moving Parts,” in which she discusses some of the challenges of staging dance in a museum.
In some respects, those challenges are actually much larger than finding make-shift greenrooms for performers and hanging a lighting truss in a gallery—they actually dig down to a deep divide between mind and body. At PICA, we take it for granted that art can serve as the babel fish, deciphering discrepancies between forms and concepts, but many people believe there are fundamental differences between modes of thought (science vs. humanities; mind vs. body).A heady debate on a recent episode of Philosophy Talk took on the concept of “The Extended Mind,” challenging Descartes’ dualism and arguing for the interdependence of thought and action. In many ways, this seems to support a language of dance and the possibility to translate movements into words and ideas, and vice versa.
A lot of thought has been devoted over the years to promoting new models of learning (such as Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences) that acknowledge different strengths that people have to learn in individual ways. TEDxReykjavik featured Peter Anderson, a professional dancer who grew up as a child that was diagnosed with a learning disability. After retiring from the stage, he worked with the Icelandic school system to choreograph movements to teach the 300 most common Icelandic words (a language he doesn’t speak) to students.
Maybe body language can help bridge divides between different modes of experience? Maybe dance can help us communicate across cultures? Maybe that sounds embarrassingly utopian?
Once you start really considering language and translation, you realize how many directions you could follow the conversation. We could have mentioned a recent issue of McSweeney’s that played an international game of telephone with a series of short stories, or Liz Lerman and her interdisciplinary approach to dance and education, or Saussure (whose thinking we’ve skirted), or the latest e-flux Journal devoted to the significance of semantics in the art world. At our own symposium, we might not hit on any of the ideas discussed above, but we will be talking about creativity across art and science, localization of language in a global marketplace, and the limits of culturally specific readings of art. We hope you’ll be there as we imagine shared ways of conversing at the symposium, and all summer long over the course of Anna Craycroft’s residency.
Towards a new language!