My works reflect upon the limits of language and the flaws of communication. I am fascinated by the myth of the perfect language, which can express everything the mind can think of. The impossibility of such a language nurtures my artistic practice. The translation of ideas into language and also translation from one language to another constitute the core of my time-based pieces. I find this problem intriguing because it is a part of a larger philosophical question and simultaneously it is an everyday matter.
In Some Remarks On Logical Form, Wittgenstein describes the relationship between the mind and language with a metaphor of two planes. On plane I, there exists ellipses and rectangles of various sizes. These shapes are projected as circles and squares to Plane II. A great deal of data is lost in translation irreversibly between Plane I (thoughts) and Plane II (language). This flawed process of translation is the center of my curiosity. I am interested in finding ways to visually investigate this phenomenon. I utilize time-based media to create performances as well as documentaries and interviews in order to capture the constrains of language.
The idea of a perfect language that can express everything goes back to the Book of Genesis:
In the beginning there existed a single language given by God, a language thanks to which Adam was able to understand the quiddity of things. It was a language that provided a name for every thing, be it a substance or accident and a thing for each name. (Eco, 352)
According to this account, the world and everything in it came into existence through speech acts; the utterance of the names gave birth to the things themselves. Therefore, everything that existed had to have a name, there could be nothing inexpressible. However this language was only granted to Adam. Eve and their children learned only an imperfect derivative of this divine language. Moreover, with the Tower of Babel incident, their imperfect language was broken into various branches making communication amongst them impossibly complicated.
My latest piece In a Manner of Speaking (2012) comments on the myth of a perfect language. I began the project with a simple metaphor for language and ideas:
I imagined ideas as analog signals which were continuous and theoretically had infinite resolution. When an idea was translated into words, it was downsampled into a discrete digital realm. By looking at the digital signal, we could never reconstruct the precision of the original, what is lost in conversion is lost for good. Likewise, language is a limited conductor of thought; it lacks the detail and the level of abstraction in our minds. When two people speak, they can never get the same picture in their minds because the details of the picture get lost in translation, leaving them with approximations.
To reenact this analogy in time-based media, I utilized live-action and stop-motion techniques. A performer is asked to undertake a simple task and this action is recorded on video. Afterwards, the performer reenacts the same action frame by frame (24fps) to create a stop-motion version of this event. The same movement is meticulously recreated in the exact same amount of frames, however the second version results to be discrete and choppy when compared to the smoothness of the original. Translation from live-action to stop-motion alludes to the translation of thoughts into language. The final version resembles the original, however we know that something is not quite exact.
During the shooting of In a Manner of Speaking, I also documented myself directing the performer for stop-motion. I used a stop-motion software to overlay the live-feed over the original video. This way, I could be as precise as possible while matching the stop-motion frames to the live-action video. Looking at the overlaid frames, I knew exactly how I should position the actress, however I did not know how to put it into words. We do not have words for the trivial movement of the eyes, the tiniest wiggle of the finger, or the openness of the lips. The process of me struggling to tell the actress how she should position herself became a metatext of the piece, which gives a clear reading of the concept. The piece is installed in such a way that the audience initially encounters the juxtaposition of the stop-motion and live-action videos, which plays in a seamless loop. This video is projected on a screen that is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a gallery. The sound of me directing the performer invites the spectator to the other side of the screen, where she/he can see the “metatext” video.
Another piece in which I explore the theme of translation is Ineffable (2011). The series of interviews in Ineffable question the possibility of translation from one language to another. Fifteen interviewees who learned English as a second language are asked the following question: “Is there a word or a phrase in your native language that you can not translate to English?” Through this question, I was predicting to find divergences among various languages, thus cultures. My hypothesis was that these differences were rooted in the culture to which the language is closely tied. The answers I got were fascinating but also were trivial when compared to the struggle the interviewees were having. I edited a piece where the interviewees fight with themselves trying to communicate “the ineffable” through gestures, examples, analogies, or ambiguous words. The question was a paradox by its nature but it revealed the glass walls between languages.
In a Manner of Speaking and Ineffable deal with different kinds of translation problems. However they both originate from the fact that language is not sufficient to articulate what we strive to express. In On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, Walter Benjamin argues that the mental being of men is the divine language in which the creation took place. It is infinite when compared to the limited realm of the spoken word:
In the word creation took place, and God’s linguistic being is the word. All human language is only reflection of the word in name. Name is no closer to the word than knowledge to creation. The infinity of all human language always remains limited and analytical in nature in comparison to the absolutely unlimited and creative infinity of the divine word. (323)
Benjamin continues to say that “the Fall marks the birth of the human word, in which name no longer lives intact” (327). Spoken in the Garden of Eden, the divine language accommodated the meaning in the word itself. If the word “apple” was uttered, that word answered every possible question about the thing such as the exact size, color, taste, smell, number of seeds in it, which tree it came from etc. The perfection of the divine language did not leave room for ambiguity. On the other hand, after the Fall, the word “knows good and evil” (327) and it is being “externally communicated” giving birth to what I call “translation from mind to language”. In City of Glass of New York Trilogy, Paul Auster takes on the quest for the perfect language from the point of view of a delusional philosopher, Peter Stillman. In his writings, Stillman also mentions the Fall as the origin for the corruption of the perfect divine language:
In [John Milton’s] Paradise Lost, for example, each key word has two meanings- one before the fall and one after the fall. To illustrate his point, Stillman isolated several of those words - sinister, serpentine, delicious – and showed how their prelapsarian use was free of moral connotations, whereas their use after the fall was shaded, ambiguous, informed by the knowledge of evil. (Auster, 43)
Stillman believes that he can reverse the Fall by locking his two year old son in an isolated room for years without any human contact and language. He assumes that this way his son can unlearn the human language and eventually begin speaking a pure, innate language. For a similar reason, during the production of In a Manner of Speaking, I asked the performer to eat an apple, a lemon and a grape. In different sources, each of these fruits are indicated as fruits from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the source of temptation that led to the Fall. In post-production, I reversed these videos so that the performer appears to take out a slice of apple, a slice of lemon and a grape from her mouth in order to make the fruit a complete whole again. The action of uneating the fruits is a reference to the romantic quest to find the lost language of the divine.
The myth of an ideal language with the power to verbalize any possible thought is a recurring theme in my artworks. Such a language does not and cannot exist; therefore we are doomed to communicate in a flawed medium. Expressing ourselves through an imperfect interface and losing some of the “meaning” in translation are the major questions that lie at the heart of my artistic research. In In a Manner of Speaking, I attempted to show the divergence between thoughts and words through two forms of moving image: stop-motion animation and live-action video. In the installation, I also included the “production” video as a metatext of the piece, which illustrates the incompetency of language. In Ineffable, I investigated another variable in the process of communication. This time, I explored the possibility of translation from one language to another. Both pieces depict a struggle that is rooted in the uneasy relationship we have with our words. This is a major problem that has been keeping many philosophers as well as writers of fiction busy. The fact that the relationship between thoughts and language is a grand philosophical question as well as it is an everyday matter makes my works approachable from many levels and by everyone.
Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1987. Print.
Eco, Umberto. The Search for the Perfect Language. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1995. Print.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. "Some Remarks on Logical Form." Readings on the Philosophy of Language. Ed. Peter Ludlow. London: The MIT Press, 1997. 209-215. Print.