Monday, 25 July 2016

Same Words, Different Tongues

Who decides where the boundaries between languages are drawn? And is your language 'foreign'?

This piece was originally written for Demos Journal, and was first published hereIt also features four terrifying hyperlinks.

Humans tend to throw up walls upon encountering ideas we don’t understand. Spectrums of experience are broken down into boxes; identities have their variations chiseled away until they become square-shaped pegs for square-shaped holes. Thus, with boundaries delineated for the categories we have made, we can file the unknown neatly away, and finally relax in the presence of a known quantity.

It should therefore come as no surprise to hear that the very tool used to define these categories – that of language – has also been broken down by humans with all the subtlety of a small rampaging child taking on a Tower of Babel made of alphabet blocks.

It is estimated that 6,500 languages are spoken in the world today, and within that number exist many more dialects, creoles, and regional varieties. Yet there is a certain futility in trying to organise languages when one considers their slippery, ever-changing nature. Take Catalan, for example: is it a language or a dialect? And is your opinion on this affected by your definition of either of these terms, or is it swayed by your emotional connection to Barcelona? Besides, where can languages, dialects, or any other category of communication be said to begin or end, when the very existence of spoken words is based on thousands of years of cultural and linguistic interchange?

Despite the world’s languages sharing snippets of vocabulary, grammar, turns of phrase, and even onomatopoeia, they arguably remain defined and understood by their differences. Encountering a language one doesn’t understand is to run up against a brick barrier of communication: you can’t break through it, so you sort of stare mutely at it instead, feeling vaguely disconcerted. Indeed, the very term ‘foreign languages’ owes its existence to the notion that languages we don’t understand are ‘foreign’ – beyond the boundaries of our own experience. Through this propensity to ‘other’ that which we don’t understand, we end up shutting ourselves inside the little box of language which we have labelled as our own, be that ‘English’, ‘Australian English’, ‘Australian Public Service English’, or what have you.

It’s also worth questioning whether perception of the ‘foreign’ nature of other languages is amplified within the mindset of English speakers. As English enjoys its era as the world’s lingua franca (such irony that that expression literally refers to the “Frankish language”), and reliance on technology grows, native speakers of English can grow complacent in language-learning. English and the West have become a primary reference point for much of the world, and English-speakers receive repeated affirmation that speaking English is somehow the norm, simply through seeing the majority of the world striving to learn our tongue. Subsequently, for all that we Australians hit the linguistic privilege jackpot merely by virtue of being born here, there is a flip-side: the need to interact with other cultures and languages is repeatedly presented to us as non-essential. We don’t need to interact with them; it’s them who interact with us. This is evident even at a worldwide university level, where English is becoming increasingly common as the preferred teaching language, and scholarships enabling study at Anglosphere universities remain ever-prestigious and sought after.

Yet the real losers in this situation will ultimately prove to be us, because while everyone else is out there learning a second, third, or even tenth language – and gaining cultural intelligence to boot – we’ll be retweeting articles about the wonders of translation technology. And while that technology may have many positive uses, it is unlikely to enable an individual to understand language and culture, entwined as they are, as well as somebody who has prioritised actual interaction with a worldview outside of their own. In Europe, for example, or more mobile areas of South-East Asia, multilingualism is viewed as such a necessity that people just make it happen, whether through education systems or self-motivated study, and whether they enjoy it or not. Schools have compulsory classes in second or third languages, and students leap at the opportunities to study or work abroad, in part to improve their multilingual proficiency. Such skills are prioritised because they are valued.

Granted, we don’t see multilingualism as essential in part because of our geographic position: Australia, like many Anglophone nations, doesn’t border onto a non-English-speaking country. Indeed, Australia technically doesn’t border onto anything. Yet we are a large island in the Asia-Pacific – a region of enormous linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as potential – and from a cultural understanding perspective, we are currently a bit of an awkward friend. It’s regrettable for everybody.

Furthermore, redressing this problem is far from evident. The fields of language and cultural studies necessarily advocate engagement with others, and thus acceptance – precisely the sort of mentality worth fostering within wider Australian society. One might have hoped that the ANU, therefore, as a leading educational institution, would do its part in promoting the importance of language-learning in Australia with regard to regional relations. Making cuts to studies of language, history, and culture of the Asia-Pacific with the finesse of a villain in a slasher movie (see here, here, here, and here), however, is a curious response to this issue, and unlikely to engender a solution.

So we must hope that in spite of setbacks, individuals – if not all institutions – will increase efforts to look outwards, and to embrace diversity with respect to both culture and language. Such a mentality would likely develop the framework through which one sees the world; similarities would become every bit as visible as differences (though both can exist and be acknowledged without one or the other consequently being invalidated).

On that note, to people who look beyond the horizons of their own country and linguistic sphere (such as the aforementioned polyglots who learn out of necessity) the concept of the foreign language is diminished in magnitude. It loses its mystery when faced with the understanding that apparent enigmas can be decoded. Its ‘foreign’ quality – and the intimidating aspect of this – shrinks in significance to anyone willing to seek out the points that different languages have in common.  

It is therefore a shame that we cling with such vehemence to notions of difference, separation, and foreignness when discussing languages; after all, differences between what we define as languages are far from insurmountable. Indeed, rather than seeing languages as existing within separate boxes, or even within separate families (Romance, Germanic, and the like), perhaps it is time that we began to view them as existing in a perpetually developing state of interconnection. Maybe we should try adjusting the radio frequency before denouncing the words as unintelligible.

After all, the confines of language – along with language itself – are ultimately all inside our own heads.  

Friday, 15 July 2016

Bottoms up? A recto-verso residency

Exploring quirky interactive art in Taipei – alcohol not required

(Originally written as a foray into art journalism for the Young Art Journalism Awards; this piece has been published on their website here). 

There is a house in Taipei which is standing on its head. 

Upon first setting eyes on the upside-down dwelling, one could be forgiven for thinking that Taiwan’s notoriously strong Kaoliang liquor has finally taken hold – and if not on you, then certainly on the construction workers. Yet the topsy-turvy effect of Huashan Creative Park’s most eye-catching attraction is both deliberate and well-executed.

The fully-furnished, 300-square-metre multi-storey house was built as part of the Upside Down Wonderland Exhibition organised by the National Taiwan Science Education Centre. Construction took a mere two months to complete; and, since the house’s opening on the 6th of February 2016, tourists have flocked in their thousands to walk on its ceilings every day. 

It’s not hard to spot the appeal. Aside from this potentially being one’s only chance to ever walk safely underneath an upside-down toilet, a heavily-loaded dining table, and various other flipped household features, there is also a car nailed to the ceiling – or floor, as it is technically supposed to be. How it got there remains a mystery; however, nothing untoward (or weighing two tonnes) has befallen any visitor just yet, so it appears to have staying power. 

Hello from the inside of Taipei’s upside-down house.

The house has proved popular, and visitors on weekends can expect to wait for over two hours before being allowed to enter. Nevertheless, this is the only real down-side: tickets, which can be bought on site, are inexpensive – 199 NTD is a mere AUD$8 – and visitors can explore the house’s ten rooms at their leisure, generally receiving about 40 minutes to make their way through the whole building. Furthermore, aside from staff members being posted in every few rooms to usher along anybody who looks too confused, the exhibit is a remarkably un-regulated experience: guests are welcome to touch the furniture (for the record, the fridge opens), and creative posing for cameras is not merely tolerated, but shamelessly embraced by everybody.  

Some popular poses: 

  • Plucking a pen from an upside-down jar
  • Placing ones’ hands on a table, flipping the photo, and pretending to do a handstand
  • Leaping in the air for a gravity-defying, Alice-in-Wonderland-esque shot
  • Looking horrified while faking imminent death by a) falling, or b) falling furniture
  • Wearing an aghast expression whenever in the vicinity of the gravity-challenged toilet

‘The author poses with a towel’ – not a phrase one typically expects to publish online.

The exhibition’s success is undeniably owed to its interactive nature, at least in part. It also stands out – and is rendered more fun – by the fact that visitors are granted autonomy in their exploration of the house. There’s a certain level of trust here: staff members smile at visitors instead of eyeing them suspiciously, and nobody snaps at you not to mess about with the IKEA furnishings. 

Exhibits like this can cause one to wonder what art exhibitions in the future may hold. To be able to walk around inside of the artwork and physically interact with it is fun in its novelty, and arguably more memorable than solemn admiration from a one metre distance delineated on the floor. What’s more, even though more traditional forms of art are very different to interactive exhibitions based around construction, it is possible that attractions like Taipei’s Upside-Down House could generate more interest in the use of space in art galleries. Should art exhibitions be spatially neutral, in order to focus attention on the artworks themselves as opposed to their surroundings? Or should galleries be embracing a more modern and creative approach, in which designing a visitor’s path through a gallery could be perceived as the opportunity to provide an experience? 

Of course, some people – such as curators – would likely argue that most art exhibitions already do this; that even if the ordinary visitor cannot perceive the effort that has gone into positioning the artworks, that effort is still there. Indeed, the use of space, boundaries, and deliberate grouping of works may well affect individuals and their perceptions more than one might realise – and this power of influence to be found in curatorship is not to be underestimated. Not everything needs to be turned on its head in order to be interesting. 

Regardless of one’s standpoint on contemporary forms of art and exhibition, however, modern constructions such as the Upside-Down House – based around design – do achieve in several keys ways: they intrigue, they delight, and they prompt further thoughts and questions. Granted, one might argue that they merely reinforce stereotypes of self-conscious modern artworks, in which something relatively normal – such as a house practically doubling as an IKEA catalogue – is positioned as extraordinary and fresh. Yet whether or not the house subverts our expectations for art… at least it’s fun. 

Fun?’ you may be thinking. What does ‘fun’ have to do with art?  

Considering how labour-intensive the creation of art often is, ‘fun’ may not be the first adjective one attributes to the craft. Art is serious; art has deeper meaning; and, as a result, art critics have a propensity to take it all very seriously. That is understandable, and I have no wish to dilute the quality of their discourse. 

Nevertheless, perhaps we should give fun more weight when judging art. Just because an exhibition is downright enjoyable shouldn’t automatically render it purely commercial – or, by default, ‘of lesser value’.

In conclusion, therefore, why not take a glass, place it upside down, and balance a piece of bread on top of it; such a toast might just be worthy of Taipei’s best-loved Americana home... And even if it isn’t, at least you can glean some idea of what it might be like to live in an upside-down home. Where’s your sense of ever-curiouser curiosity?