In his recent essay, ‘Google: Words Beyond Grammar’ (2012), Boris Groys states that Google has ‘codified the radical dissolution of language.’ Syntax has dissolved into word clouds and phrases float free of signification. If grammar provides context and creates hierarchies between words, then search engines treat ‘milkshake’ with the same importance as ‘democracy.’ Essentially, it may have taken us thousands of years to learn how to read and write properly, but it has taken us under 10 years to dismantle that skill – thanks Google!
Jennifer Bornstein’s new exhibition at Greengrassi is full of words. It brings together a new 27 minute imageless video, ‘New Waves’ (which also lends the show its title) and a series of screen prints, collectively titled, ‘Collections of Words’ (all work 2012). Originally a photographer, Bornstein’s new body of work inverts the usual procedure of the photograph as documentation; recently she has begun to use her own images as starting points for descriptive and textual analysis.
Bornstein has established a career as a singularly itinerant artist, and ‘New Waves’ offers a typical detour from her recent figurative intaglio prints and 16 mm films. ‘Collections of Words’ includes a series of unframed prints pinned to the wall. The artist has collated terms such as ‘small,’ ‘colloquial’ and ‘feminist’ amongst many others. Although formally inconsistent with her earlier output, there is an anecdotal quality that provides a neat conceptual synthesis with her previous work.
Arranged in single rows, and soberly presented in black Helvetica type, the terms are intermittently printed onto muted silver or light gray backgrounds. ‘Cell-phone Words’ is typical – starting with ‘connectivity’ and ending with ‘garnet’ (a type of crystal – Google does have its uses) via ‘multi task,’ ‘embedded’ and ‘productivity.’ It creates a portrait of a 21st century cultural worker – a place where the home and the office has long become enmeshed. How many of these terms will be understood in the future? Will smartphones seem so smart in 20 years time?
The formal economy (Helvetica often seems like the default typeface of capitalism) recalls the blank tone of most contemporary communication. Texting and tweeting provide content, but little context. Unformatted words can often fail to convey tone and nuance, hence the pervasiveness of the emoticon.
‘New Waves’ presents a live broadcast on national Polish radio of the artist and two Yiddish speaking Polish women. Translated via English subtitles, the artist’s faltering attempts at the language (Bornstein had never spoken Yiddish before this project) is further amplified by the assured delivery of her interlocutors. A language that is native to Bornstein’s own familial heritage is clearly alien to the artist’s own tongue.
The broadcast starts with descriptions of photographs that the artist had taken in Berlin (dogs are a particular motif). The artist then reads out a poem she has written about the American swimmer Michael Phelps. The poem is written in Iambic pentameter, a rhythmical structure popularized by Shakespeare, which is now close to extinction. The artist elaborates that it is particularly unsuitable to Yiddish and the rhythm shifts dramatically in translation. Finally Bornstein reads from her collections of words (also translated into Yiddish).
There is a sense that to fix the meaning of words only exacerbates their promiscuity. Translation is never pure and it is always political; there is often something left behind, an intention led astray. Words in ‘New Waves’ are things we fall over rather than understand – more sonorous than semiotic. We can parallel Bornstein’s interest in radio and her faltering attempts at Yiddish with her previous engagement in antiquated mediums such as intaglio. There is a similar attempt to inscribe a bodily presence into the message. The voice, much like a drawing, can add accent and gesture – something more physical.
We shouldn’t forget of course that a tablet hasn’t always been a type of touch screen computer. The first written words were chiseled into stone; they had both a semiotic purpose and a physical weight. At a moment where language mutates at increasing speed and the hyperlink has replaced the footnote, the exhibition en-masse feels like an epitaph. The screen prints recall upturned Macbooks – inscribed headstones to a new type of digital literacy.