Some lingering, loosely-strung-together, thoughts from this past weekend’s symposium

Going into the events, our staff had been talking a lot about translation between cultures, between forms, between artists and audiences. How do performance fans understand visual art exhibitions? How do painters connect with dance on stage? How do any of us relate to art coming from another country or culture? I mostly expected that we’d unearth some simple parallel between artistic practice and language translation, but the panelists and speakers only highlighted the complexity of the subject.

Jacqueline Shea Murphy’s talk on contemporary indigenous choreography touched on the idea that language is related to POWER and SPACE. Language is tied to identity is tied to location, and all of them are defined by who has power to speak. In Genesis, Adam names the animals, an act of definitive language that puts him above the other creatures. ”Who names whom” is most certainly a loaded proposition. In a trans-national art world, who contextualizes and describes projects? Mostly Western curators, who’ve become a jet set of authoritative guest voices at biennales and fairs, regardless of their location. In this sense, power stems from place—citizenship in Western Europe and the US establishes authority, giving the power to speak.

Adam naming the animals of the world, from the Peterborough Bestiary (MS 53, f. 195v), Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Adam naming the animals of the world, from the Peterborough Bestiary (MS 53, f. 195v), Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

But in thinking about “place” in the art world, can we move towards any sense of indigeneity, or do we remain dependent on the “Globish” and “International Art English”? And are these languages (read: English) actually universal, or are they just another lingua franca, the dominant tongue of commerce?

Carlota Ribas, a “localization” industry expert, shared a little insight into her work helping businesses root their products and services in different contexts. In contrast to localization, she spoke about a concept of “internationalization,” or I18n (removing the middle 18 letters as per industry standard), as the practice of removing all cultural specificity. But, as Keith Hennessy suggested, the idea of a neutral international vocabulary is inherently based in a particular culture. When translators and business people reach for a common ground across cultures, they usually grasp onto English, which is decidedly laden with its own baggage and limitations.

By way of example, Nyuol Lueth Tong, a South Sudanese author, wrote that the “big political units” of contemporary Africa, “are united by common experiences under colonial subjugation; colonial languages reinforce this unity as a common medium of communication and of national identification, an umbrella under which different ethnicities and cultures can find equal representation.” Clearly, communication across old boundaries came not from developing a new shared way of speaking, but through the top-down influence of an outside, colonial language. It’s remarkable how frequently whiteness, or Western values, or the English language are implied to be some sort of baseline. Like in the art world, how European dance is treated as a universal approach to contemporary expression, or how French post-structuralist theories drive international art education. These forms and philosophies are fine, but accepting them as neutral or somehow universal makes it seem as though they’re the only valid approaches we can take.

We are not post-colonial, post-racial, post-gender, post-anything. Declaring as much implies that we’ve reached shared understanding, which is far from the case. Over and over again, the symposium participants reminded us of the fact that post- is just another state in a continuum of mutual influence. Assuming an end point means believing in some state of eventual assimilation into a dominant culture.

It all got me thinking about the limitations of English—or any existing language—as a shared tongue, and considering what possibilities exist for a truly universal language. After Professor Richard Taylor’s talk on fractals in both physics and art, I was tempted to look to science and math as truly impartial modes of communication, unencumbered by politics and identity. I think this is what so many scientists find empowering about their discipline—that it offers the promise of impartial communication of essential truths. But the more the conversation continued, the less comfortable I grew with the assertion that science is less susceptible to intercultural biases.

Science and math have traditionally been seen as masculine/impartial/rational/unerring/monolithic.

While art has been considered feminine/subjective/emotional/fallible/multiplicitous.

When viewed in this dichotomy (reductive, I know, particularly after hearing Taylor’s impassioned argument to bridge what C.P. Snow called “the two cultures”), it highlights the ways in which scientific thinking is but a certain mindset with all of the attendant limitations. In treating science or math as having a firmer, more universal grasp on TRUTH, you end up denying the importance of subjective and communal knowledge systems. We have a cultural value system that privileges singular Truth over multiple understandings. Maybe the key is not to look for one common language, definition, translation, etc., but rather to find a way of comfortably existing with the idea of the MANY. At one point, Murphy stated that, “Dance has been a repository for histories not held in traditional academic canon.” Perhaps art stands as a multivalent counterpart to monolithic notions of truth?

After all, we heard from multiple artists over the weekend that they aren’t interested in one “meaning” for their work. Just after her morning workshop, Emily Johnson told Keith Hennessy: “I don’t mind confusion, I’m not offering a lesson.” Later, in his closing remarks, Hennessy joked that on each of the three days he was in town, a different curator said to him—completely unprompted—that they most appreciate the projects that challenge and confound them. This mindset necessitates an openness to difference, complexity, diversity, and confusion. It entails learning and inquiring, rather than seizing and knowing. Hennessy suggested that, as an audience, we similarly move from a state of interrogating to a practice of observing. It would entail what Murphy described as the “give and take” of reciprocity, rather than the “colonial come and take” approach of traditional art experiences. Can we look without acquiring? Can we experience without becoming interpreter?

This approach imagines a power shared between audiences and artists, based in a relationship of collaborative meaning-making and negotiation. Hennessy invoked the words of filmmaker and cultural critic Trinh Minh-Ha in saying that “all clarity is ideological.” When we think we’ve achieved understanding, we’ve only fallen into one possible frame, shielded from other interpretations. Minh-Ha has written quite eloquently that,

“…language is fundamentally reflexive, and only in poetic language can one deal with meaning in such a way that it can never end with what is said or shown, destabilizing thereby the speaking subject and exposing the fiction of all rationalization. Roland Barthes astutely summed up this situation when he remarked that ‘the real antonym of the “poetic” is not the prosaic, but the stereotyped.’ Such a statement is all the more perceptive as the stereotyped is not a false representation, but rather, an arrested representation of a changing reality.”

Translation is not a clean act of transmission—from artist to audience, from speaker to listener. The more and more we discuss it—whether literally, or as a conceptual approach to experience—it feels as though it is a fluid, two-way exchange and a very open-ended process. It seems crucial, then, to move away from a belief in a singular end point to an acceptance of multiplicity. What possible languages might allow for diversity of understanding? After a weekend of consideration, we don’t have any clear answers, but contemporary artists point toward many ways forward.

Ohad Meromi's Flat Dance, part of Anna Craycroft's C'mon Language at PICA.

Ohad Meromi’s Flat Dance, part of Anna Craycroft’s C’mon Language at PICA.