BABELTECH™ and the power of language at NAC

And then one day he realised that of course he was always staring at his hand when he wrote, was always watching the pen as it moved along, gripped by his fingers, his fingers floating there in front of his eyes just above the words, above that single white sheet, just above these words i’m writing now, his fingers between him and all that, like another person, a third person, when all along you thot it was just the two of you talking and he suddenly realized it was the three of them, handling it on from one to the other, his hand translating itself, his words slipping thru his fingers into the written world. You. – bpNichol

Language is a virus. Laurie Anderson warned us. We weren’t listening. Like most warnings from the mid to late twentieth century made by artisitic prognosticators, she’s been ignored. (I can’t help but inject that other female contemporaries like Jenny Holzer, or Barbara Kruger, have seen their formal aesthetics appropriated, while the ideas that so challenged their – and our – worlds were not quite so popular…).

Now, Anderson is cited ad nauseum, but this is a dissapointing facile failure. Its repeated, but misunderstood. We don’t fear language like a virus as we should, like a drug resistant TB that might sweep across our city, leaving us without breathe to communicate.

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I’ll admit that these dark thoughts came to me while standing in front of two of the works in Eric Schmaltz’ exhibition BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…
THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL at Niagara Artists Centre: FUTURE and NOTHING, respectively, hung on the back wall as an apocryphal pairing, separated from the majority of works presented in the space which run along one wall.

Formally, they all employ a common template, with recurring sections and words: Assembly Instructions / Components / Tools Required / Product Detail all are contained in grey institutional boxes that move down the right side. Pride of space is given to a larger square captioned Exploded View. Like any good guide / map / instructional display, trademarks and disclaimers and warnings proliferate.

There’s something about their construction that references the impenetrable hopelessness of an IKEA catalogue but also the generic and overtly genuine and eager public health warnings (how to use that anti bacterial wash to avoid spreading the flu that will weaken our immune systems for future pestilences, perhaps).

Each image bears the disclaimer running along the bottom of the image, in its own thin grey box: USE PRODUCT AT OWN RISK. BABELTECH™ IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATION OR MALFUNCTION: after all, tools – like language – can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and just as everything looks like a hammer to a nail, language has NEVER been a clear medium through which meaning travels from one to the other without some form of corruption, correction, critique…or code, perhaps.

Perhaps the “Old Stock Canadians” reading this will nod in agreement….or our once and future king, Stephen Harper, will enlighten us at a later date. The King’s speech, or the King’s English, if you will.

Schmaltz is described as a “language artist, writer, & researcher” and that first term is the one that my enjoyment of this show hinges upon, as it can incorporate so much, and so many incongruous threads….BABELTECH™ are both works in words but also in image, and this offers a multiplicities of readings and ways in which to interact with the pieces. How might these works be spoken? In describing them, I find this to be a liberation, not a challenge….its is appropriate here to the reference of “Babel”, but I’ll evoke a number of those later, too, as they are multiple, and can mean many things to many people.

This is a good point to admit that I’m a fan of the late bpNichol, whose works were self described as borderblur, whether his graphic Selected Organs: Part of an Autobiography or more challenging Martyrology Books. I encountered his works when I was 13 (ABC: The Aleph Beth Book, which is usually listed under his “visual” works), and since then my expectations of poetry have never dropped. Kaie Kellough’s performance, the same evening as Schmaltz’s exhibition, is worthy of mention in this lineage, but more on that in a moment….boundaries are there to be broken, not to constrain, like a living, growing map that’s more about the intangibles than about the clear, hard edged marks. Was bpNichol drawing or writing? Visual or literary? Speaking or sketching?

Let’s delve into some art theory (sorry, only time this review I’ll do this to you) for a moment, and consider the notions of signs. Some are indexical, that provide physical evidence of an object, such as a shoe print, or referential, like others that are made to look like what they resemble (the simple drawing of a tree, or the gender symbols on washrooms).

But what matters here is the more abstracted sign, that has no clear, immediate or obvious relation to that which it “represents” and we’ve simply – as a society, a community, or within even more intimate spaces of communication – agreed that “this” means “that.”

Amusingly, Letraset (I’ve had numerous moments of nostalgia for the 90s since my return to Southern Ontario, and this is / is not one of them) is ideal for this. It’s all components, parts and assemblages, literally breaking apart words and symbols to make new ones, literally cutting and sticking components together to make something new, newish or disturbingly familiar…

For example, on one level the seven pieces could be a fragment word poem. Read them as a sentence, traditionally Western, from left to right: CAPITAL INTELLIGENCE DESIRE AUTOMATION SINGULARITY DATA TECHNOMICS ENNUI LANGUAGE MACHINE SIMULATION THANATROPIC SUBJECTIVATION FUTURE NOTHING. They could be switched around to form different relations to the word that proceeds or follows them, sentences or associations that build or destroy, like blocks or bricks of language.

I’d be curious to have had someone track my interaction the first time I saw them: to track my viewing, or the viewing of others…CAPITAL to DESIRE back to CAPITAL…FUTURE NOTHING FUTURE NOTHING THANATROPIC MACHINE MACHINE…our veiwing constructs the “sentence” and our attentions defines what is the verb and what is the noun. THANATROPIC DESIRE THANATROPIC DESIRE…or perhaps if I was in more of a Marxist mood, CAPITAL DESIRE AUTOMATION ENNUI ENNUI CAPITAL DESIRE and repeat as compelled…

But each work / each word in itself is an individual poem, a unique work of art: whether deconstructed in Components down to its “bones”, or reconfigured in a new way in Product Detail (which may, or may not, be seen as having a relation to the “word” itself, like any “finished product” image in a set of assembly instructions) that are simple images that could stand on their own aesthetics. THANATROPIC’s is almost like a mystic sigil, with an eye, perhaps. SUBJECTIVATION alternately resembles a plant, or foraging locust. FUTURE is more architectural, suggesting an arch or monument. NOTHING resembles a weathervane, a compass gone awry. ENNUI seems to hang in space, a hook with no loop…while DATA is dense and solid and pointing, with a purpose. LANGUAGE combines loops and points, both rounded and pointed, contradictory…

I could look for “definitions” of THANATROPIC or SUBJECTIVATION: or I could accept the ones provided by Schmaltz that don’t presume or preclude other interpretations, or the nuance of communications (though no responsibility is taken for miscommunication or malfunction…deliberate critically at your own risk. No slavery to preset meanings here, and no “freedom” in submission to someone else’s definitions).

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But let’s return to Babel as the titled point of reference: the story of the ill fated Tower is from Genesis 10 – 11, after the Flood, in which humanity, speaking a single language came together to construct this architectural wonder (I was often told as a child that the premise was to build it “to heaven”, an act of unbelievable hubris) but “God confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world.”

A typical “Sunday school” story to “explain” different languages, with a vengeful, prideful God “punishing” humanity with a multiplicity of language .

Ironic, when you think about the Judeo – Christian focus on the Ten Commandments and “so it shall be written, so it shall be done” mantra of the film of the same mythology…(my art historian is more of a fan of the Golden Legends that incorporate the flowering of Joseph’s staff, or the eroticizing of the ear of the Virgin Mary as the site of the Angel’s announcement of her impregnatoin).

But if we’re going to step into that realm, I’d rather mention Borges The Library of Babel, with its books that are alternately infinite and limited (read it. My description shall but pale in comparison). Or the babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the notions of memetics and (mis) communication from Richard Dawkins might also be worthy of consideration here. William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded may be of use in choosing a place to stand and which word you might wish to assemble. All of these are relevant when considering the BABELTECH™.

Less theoretically, BABELTECH™ is an ode to the formal possibilities of Letraset: I say that without irony or smugness, but considering the “prefab” nature of the words and language therein, they can again be seen as either constricting or liberating, and what Schmaltz has done here is entertaining and unique. While depending on the medium of Letraset, he also transcends it, and makes it so much more than it usually is…

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My affinity for concrete poetry was something that made me appreciate Kaie Kellough’s reading, especially the initial performance of RAIL that was as much musical as visceral. Kellough worked the components of spoken language in a way that reminded me of early painted abstraction. It was dangerous and honest in breaking language down to noise / sound / speech, like how past Modernist painters broke their practice down to geometrics, “pure” colours, monochromes and a refusal to tolerate any pretty pretense of “picture box space.”

rr rll rail ll rr rll rr r rail became an intoxicating chant. This in itself was hypnotic and seductive and reminded me of what good spoken word concrete poetics can be.

And then things went to another level. But first let me say it was an excellent pairing at NAC as this fluidity of speaking, this breaking down of the Components, this irreverence of Assembly, and an exposure of the banality of the usual use of language by Kai Kellough only enhanced your experience of BABELTECH™ on the walls when Kellough was done. His voice filled the room and interacted with the works, especially FUTURE or DESIRE or CAPITAL.

That other level: from an exercise that could be deemed formal, Kellough moved to a piece about the current immigration crisis that was able to cut through the calcified cynicism of the media narratives, election rhetoric, posturing and the essential egotism of the debate here in the first world. I offer nothing more in terms of description than my high praise, my appreciative amazement at his ability to move everyone in the room, and that if the opportunity presents itself to hear this artist speak, you must take it.

BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL, an exhibit by Eric Schmaltz at Niagara Artists Centre, was regrettably only on display for a week. Perhaps, like language, its just fleeting…

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A Word 24.09.2015 Stuart Reid and Rodman Hall

This week’s episode of the A Word Niagara, coming to you from CFBU 103.7 FM, is a dialogue with Rodman Hall Director / Curator Stuart Reid. This is an enjoyable conversation (I like to see what’s on air as just another segment of the engaging chats we had after Sarindar Dhaliwal’s talk, and after we finished recording this week’s A Word) where we talk about upcoming shows and the unique architecture and history of the site and how that enhances and elaborates what’s presented there – both of my reviews (Magenta, The Sound) of Sarindar Dhaliwal’s excellent exhibition The Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies touched upon this.

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We talk about two shows that are opening at Rodman soon and you can listen to us here.

Bill Burns, whose Safety Gear for Small Animals is a favourite of many both within the art world and outside of it, will have an exhibition opening at Rodman the same evening as a solo exhibition by Donna Szoke. The image to the left, Decoy, is from her show. Burns will be presenting Hans-Ulrich Obrist Hear Us, which I think you can tell that both Stuart and I are very much looking forward to seeing…

The project that Stuart talks about, with Camille Turner’s work, is part of the Spare Parts Symposium, and you can learn about that at the preceding link.

Now, if you’re listening to the show / reading this as it goes up, in the week of September 24th, then I’ll also put out that if you catch the next issue of The Sound that comes out in early October, you’ll see some thoughts I have on both the Rodman shows that are upcoming, as well as some thoughts on the show currently in the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School. If you’re reading this on the day I’ve posted, the 25th, go see BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL, an exhibit by Eric Schmaltz at NAC tonight. I plan to be there for a little while, later in the evening.

One other thing to mention this weekend in St. Catharines, and that would be Culture Days: everything you need to know about that is here.