“Mr Watson, come here - I want to see you!” was the famous sentence with which Alexander Graham Bell inaugurated the invention of the telephone. A prescient plea, given the current denial of opacity characteristic of today’s advanced communicative technologies. It is the present-day communicative capitalism with its convergence of language, technology and exchange value, and the subjective mutations engendered therein, that acts as a backdrop to Kunstraum’s current show. ‘Unlearning to speak’ brings together a compelling assemblage of works that choose to disregard their communicative responsibilities in an attempt at probing the recalcitrance of language to succumb to the demands of semantic immediacy.
The exhibition takes its title from Tyler Coburn’s essay ‘NaturallySpeaking’, an adaptation of a speech-recognition software training-script exposed in its demystified helplessness at making sense of the sounds around it without the aid of human dictation. A composite text pointing to the complex processes by which humans and machines come to ‘understand’ and practice meaningful speech and the fundamental role played by the affective dimension of communication. With its dissolution in successfully making speech legible to machines, communicative capitalism’s financial imperative of turning language to sheer exchange currency is fulfilled. The piece is presented in an installation comprised of two computer screens: one displaying the text in pop-up windows, the other, a screensaver of the slow defrosting of an ice ship - a nod to a particular sea voyage in Rabelais’s ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’, that humorous and fantastic epic which famously burst the bounds of logic and language. The screens are accompanied by what looks like a computer generated 3D model of a Mies van der Rohe daybed, a mooring point from which to contemplate the poetic sensibilities of this techno-human lingo caught in a process of simultaneously congealing into meaningful speech and gradually disintegrating into ‘echoes of unbounded babble’.
The animated drawings of Henri Michaux’s mescaline fuelled forays into the furthermost reaches of the mind, flicker and pulsate in Joachim Koester’s 16mm film work ‘My Frontier is an Endless Wall of Points (after the mescaline drawings of Henri Michaux)’. Attempting to render visible the essence of communication as it is taking shape, prior to its disciplining by systems of codified signification, Michaux devised a kinetic calligraphy pertaining to the speed and nature of thoughts, formed and unformed. Extending their life beyond the notebooks in which they were originally penned, the celluloid support fulfils Michaux’s quest for eliminating the delay and imprecision of rendering thought visible. Koester’s film acts both as a reminder of the drawings’ sensual legibility and as an abstract invocation of their creator. As Gertrude Stein would say referring to her portrayal of Picasso, ‘a portrait of him saying and hearing what he says and hears while he is saying and hearing it’.
A different kind of speech-portrait is performed in Jacopo Miliani’s ‘Alphabet’. Taking Karel Teige’s typographic alphabet of a dancer’s body, Miliani re-stages it with all of the particularities taken out. Without a face - the dancer’s head is obscured by a parrot mask – or any recognisable letters, what is framed is the communicative act itself. A photo-ballet made up of gestures that without an ulterior end, communicate the potentials and impossibilities of communication. An elocutionary act is being iterated whose meaning is not unequivocal but derived from its context.
Similarly, in Luca Frei’s work, all legible markers are subtracted from the original material - in this case the handwritten notes of Alexander Graham Bell. Not quite words, nor exactly drawings, and lacking a clear communicative intent, the typographic ligatures of his ‘Soldering without fire/ Bleeding to death’ counter the overdeterminations of textual and iconographic readings and dramatise the complex dynamic of form and content. A similar effect can be seen in ‘Correction’, a vertical scroll covering the entire length of the gallery wall punctuated with cryptic red markings. For anyone with a reading knowledge of the proofreader’s marks these might amount to more than an ornamental pattern but as the original text is evacuated, the piece is more reminiscent of a mysterious score or an indecipherable dance notation. Through corrections a text is made to better fit its ultimate goal of smooth reception but paradoxically, in this case the ensuing effect is sheer impenetrability. Aptly the title also makes reference to the strict parameters of any given system and the resultant criminalisation of norm deviations, reminding us of the invisible disciplinary constrictions particular to language - the soft coercion of the sentence.
All of the works in this clamorous arrangement propose a practice of writing that disarticulates the parameters of dominant modes of power, freeing communication from the constant allocation of meaning and undoing its reflexive symbolic foreclosure. The question of power relations inherent in the act of communication is not addressed directly but implicit in the works’ reluctance to be read on any other terms than the ones of their own making. Their appeal is to be allowed, as Barthes would say to, ‘unexpress the expressible’. What’s left then is the sound of an unmistakably eloquent jabber.
Just as Alexander Graham Bell remarked on taking his turn at the receiving end of the telephonic machine - “As it was I could not make out the sense but an occasional word here and there was quite distinct.”