Grand Union, 19 Minerva Works, Fazeley Street, Birmingham B5 5RS

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A Small Hiccup
Grand Union, Birmingham
24 May - 5 July 2013
Review by Beth Bramich

If you have ever spent any time considering how language mutates, from marvelling at how swiftly neologisms like ‘omnishambles’ enter the dictionary to bemoaning how IAU (incessant acronym use) is degrading the English language, then maybe it will not be too great a leap for you to imagine a world in which language itself has become diseased. ‘Pontypool’ (2008), a low budget horror film, which does what ambitious low budget horror should by working within its limited means to convey a disturbing but compelling idea, introduces a new form of viral infection: a linguistic disease spread through speech.

George Vasey takes inspiration from ‘Pontypool’ in curating ‘A Small Hiccup’, a travelling exhibition, events programme, publication and online commission exploring ‘diseased language’. This multi-format approach allows for an impressive number of manifestations of such a disease to be pursued, moving across page, screen, airwaves, internet and beyond to ask, ‘Is it always good to talk’‘

The exhibition, which launched at Grand Union in Birmingham and will travel on to The Newbridge Project in Newcastle, and later in event-form to Limoncello, London, features newly commissioned works by Jeremy Hutchison, Leah Lovett, Fay Nicolson & Oliver Smith, Siôn Parkinson, Erica Scourti, Simon Senn, Holly Pester and Charlie Woolley, who variously take on the idea of compromised speech. The artists instigate and investigate moments within which the instability of language is demonstrated; its quirks, limitations and failings, the moments when the ‘small hiccup’ disrupts the flow and leaves the meaning obscured.

For a show about communication the gallery is strangely hushed, the works holding a polite distance from each other and often requiring a careful approach and examination to discern that anything is being said to you at all. Erica Scourti’s ‘Unsent Letters’ are like magic eye puzzles, for which the viewer must relax into a hazy half-focus in order to receive their corrupted message; as what has been written becomes clear it remains ambiguous as to whether the words have been degraded by force of emotion or encrypted against detection.

Every five minutes Holly Pester’s ‘News Piece’ murmurs into life from a pair of speakers, delivering a short sing-song cut-up of this week’s affairs, the words washing over you until a fragment of a recognisable news item emerges from the fog. Similarly riffing on the media, Fay Nicholson and Oliver Smith crunch the news down to symbols printed in punkt pro, a coded font, on a series of tabloid newsprint posters, paring down the already absurdly succinct headlines of the red tops to a series of icons: a Newspeak for the emoticon generation.

The publication, designed by An Endless Supply and printed in newspaper format, extends out the pool of contributors to take in further artists alongside writers and curators. In this format Vasey poses two questions: ‘What does it mean to miscommunicate’’ and ‘Can mistranslation be a productive situation’’ with the ‘answers’ across the subsequent pages building up a dense and intermittently incomprehensible visual babble of cartoon sketches, screen grabs and ventriloquism.

While some areas of the project seem to be bursting at the seams, the central exhibition is more sparing and maintains a varied pace, landing a few heavy hitting one-liners but for the most part allowing for a slower unveiling of meaning, requiring an in-depth reading rather than a skim across the surface. The newspaper, along with the project’s Tumblr blog of extra-curricular materials, feel entirely necessary to hold the curator’s expansive research, which develops the themes of the exhibition even as it pulls them loose into all sorts of tangential directions. This is a highly engaging project for the most part due to its velocity; the huge enthusiasm that the curator shows to keep piling in and travelling on, creates a feeling of near infinite possibility, the elasticity of language being its only potential limitation.

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