Accented expression
Uit de keuken van de curator

Accented expression

12/10/2009

The following is a role-play I just delivered here in Gothenburg at Art Monitor’s ‘The Art Text’ conference, organised by the Faculty of Fine Art, University of Gothenburg, Sweden with Johan Oberg, Mika Hannula, Henk Slager and Emma Corkhill. It was a real melange of contributions from artists, artist-researchers, art writers, fiction writers, performances etc. Really reinvigorating what the Art Text could and should be, while uncovering all manner of grey zones concerning what research is and how much autonomy we have within pedagogic models in terms of the expression and materialisation of that research. *One interesting example of this, the Future Reflections Research Group from Chelsea.
My contribution was a little more discursive in terms of the murky waters my writing is wading at this point. It’s a dialogue between myself and my many voices that picks up on a number of similar polyglot projects. Perhaps this speaks to the wadings of others…

A Role-play (X and Y)

For, “The Art Text”, October 9 2009. Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, University of Gothenburg, Sweden – Dickson Palace.

X: there’s a bad joke they used to tell on South African radio

Y: you know you’re never supposed to try tell jokes when they’re only funny to the context they come from, and won’t be understood elsewhere, or will have to be explained so much that the explanation kills the humour.

X: ya, but I’m going to, it’s more illustrative than funny anyway.
Okay, so you know that white South Africans have a very particular accent. Supposedly. And there’s a kind that even South Africans make fun of themselves, because of its class and education connotations. So here we go. A guy with one of these accents calls into the radio and on the other end is someone who sounds like he got straight off the boat from Cambridge, Cambridge United Kingdom we’re talking here.
“Right,” says the English scholar, “Mr Van der Merwe, if you could spell the word “air” for me.”

“Eerh?” says the caller

“Yes, air.”

“Ay-eiy-aaarrrr.”

“Very good. Now spell, “hair”.”

“Haich-ay-eiy-aaaarrrr.”

“Well, yes. Now one last word. Could you spell, “lair” Mr Van der Merwe?”

“Yes, I think it is, “el-ay…uh…ay-eiy-aaaarr?” he says, unsure of himself.
“Excellent. Now if you could put those words all together for me and say them aloud.”

“Eerh, heerh, leerh…erh, herh, lerh, eh, heh, leh, air hair laaaaair.” [final words produced in perfect Queen’s English, "Oh, hellooo"]

Y: Okay, okay, I get the idea. Now you’re going to do the this-is-what-happens-when-centres-impose-cultural-codes-on-the-periphery shtick, I suppose.

X: What gave you that idea? I was merely using this as an example of accented speech. The way we are understood and misunderstood because of the specificity of our language – not the vocabulary itself, though there is often a very specific lexicon that develops to meet certain needs under particular conditions – but how the same words are pronounced, which often makes for completely different impressions. There are so many assumptions about where someone comes from, their status in that place, how well-travelled they are, and how much they actually know based on if they spell “colour” with or without a “u” or whether they say “aftermath” or “aftermath”.

Y: You can’t hear if someone is spelling “colour” with or without a “u” in regular dialogue.

X: Exactly. Thank you for pre-empting my punchline.

Y:….and….you don’t know anything about linguistics or the study of accents, the politics of language. What makes you an authority in this case? Just because you’re the token African in the room doesn’t mean you have the right to speak for a continent. Particularly you with your strange mix of International school education, your American childhood confusions. You’re white which means you’ve always had one foot out of Africa and don’t forget you have ‘Alien’ stamped on the ID card from the country of your birth.

X: I’m not here to be an authentic African. Whatever that means. I’m here to be an Afropolitan: speaking more broadly about the worldliness possible when people are mobile, when they can traverse cultural territories, visual vocabularies and make themselves understood in how they relate all these things.

Y: Ah, you’re talking about this new label African intellectuals living away from the continent are giving themselves, trying to feel better for leaving.

X: Yes, and no. I think there’s something much broader to this idea that by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu first wrote about in 2005.
He said, ‘What distinguishes [the Afropolitan] and its like (in the West and at home) is a willingness to complicate Africa – namely, to engage with, critique, and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them. Perhaps what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa alongside the desire to honor what is wonderful, unique. Rather than essentialising the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy; and to sustain our parents’ cultures.’ (2005)
This doesn’t only count for Africans, or Afropolitans, but any group in a context grappling with a mess of histories and chaotic presents…which is, everyone. The idea of producing creative thought around this now, as it happens, in its tense and changeable ways, means that we don’t rely completely on old ways of speaking or wait for a knowledge to be produced about the times we live in. Instead, we find ways of articulating what Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall call the ‘indeterminacy, provisionality and the contingent’ which I would argue constitute daily experience in many contexts and, as Mbembe and Nuttall agree, are ‘hardly the object of documentation, archiving, or empirical description—and even less so of satisfactory narrative or interpretive understanding.’ (2004)

Y: But I think you’re underestimating the power of known narratives, of understandings we think we possess. Whether in South Africa or Serbia, we’ve theorized about Modernism. We know the effects of cultural imperialism from the supposed “centre” of art and literature.

X: A centre which was in fact different for Serbia and South Africa.

Y: Whatever. Even the joke you opened with alludes to all the linguistic stereotyping and access to ‘culture’ brought about by what Huckleberry Finn would have called ‘sivilisation’ (spelt with an ‘s’).

X: And Huck Finn is an excellent example of how, even in the new hallowed spaces of contemporary culture, there is space for chance, misunderstanding, accented freedom of expression. As Mbembe and Nuttall also remind us, ‘Africa like, everywhere else, has its heres, its elsewheres, and its interstices (emplacement and displacement).’ And these thresholds, like Huck Finn’s Mississippi, represent ‘a space of flows, of flux, of translocation, with multiple nexuses of entry and exit points.’ (2004)

Y: Well, if we’re going for the Mississippi as a metaphor here then we should talk about New Orleans. That place has been and still remains a cacophony of intertexts, references, appropriations from a gumbo of cultures and colonisers.

X: The city held its first biennial there last year, Prospect 1. Sans Gold Rush connotations, the show was of course overshadowed by the city’s recent trauma, but also by the tension accompanying most new biennials: that lying between “civilized” contemporary artistic presentation and the sprawling vernacular culture surrounding it. How do you tell or translate the one to the other? In dialogue with the curator Dan Cameron, a once-local artist, Willie Birch stated that ‘the challenge lies with writers to use a different vocabulary, to find ways of speaking about art from this city.’

Y: Perhaps the only hopeful example of that was Lolis Eric Elie’s text in the biennial’s catalogue, ‘Still Live, with Voices’.

X: Here Elie contsructs a beautiful montage of interruptions by the spirits of slaves, authoritive, colonial interjections and the confused thoughts of the contemporary journalist searching for clarity, as he calls for “more voices”!

Y: Rather than paraphrasing read some of it already…

X: Elie and his many voices begin: ‘I would like to tell the story of my city.
I would like to do so in simple, declarative sentences. I
 would like my narrative to be neat and linear, like I learned in
school and on television. Do not think me unequal to the task. In
fact, I have already started a draft: 

“We were founded by the Europeans. They taught us to cook
and to speak French and to look down on the Americans. We were built
by the Africans. They had tremendous talent for dancing and singing
and following European instruction. We were saved by the non-Native
Americans. They taught us to work hard and to honor the dollar and to
cherish the word freedom even more than the condition itself.
Then the gods of misfortune stirred the winds of disaster and left us
clinging Noah-like for dear life in the flooding of three years ago.”
 As you can see, my city has three parents, not counting the
gods and the winds who have shaped us as surely as any DNA. I myself
have two parents–a kind, sweet mother and a most unruly father. The
neatness of every draft I compose is ruined by these five voices,
voices that suddenly pop out like the wild hairs that have escaped the
barber’s scissors unclipped.
 So we Africans, the Africans in you, are nothing more than
dancing beasts with wild hair? No one is anything yet, father. It is a draft and we are all
in a state of becoming.
 In a state of becoming sold down the river again.
 Excuse me, Kemo Sabe, but when the Europeans were doing
their founding, they founded us already here. Put that in your story.
More voices, you must have more voices. I will have more voices, I’m sure, invited or not.

-2-

”For much of the 19th century, New Orleans was the economic
powerhouse of the southern United States. The city has spent millions
to recapture that greatness. The investment may one day pay off. But,
in the meantime, we are known principally for two things: our food and
our music. They grow so naturally here as to be deemed by our city
fathers as hardly worthy of investment.
”In the matter of food we were instructed by the French,
whose reputation for culinary genius is time-tested and well earned.
Subsequent Europeans–the Spanish, the Sicilians, the Germans–have
all left their culinary mark. Black cooks, with their innate sense of
seasoning, have also lent their peculiar je ne sais quoi to our
culinary heritage.”
Do not blame us for your food, monsieur. Your poisson
meuniere is deep fried; your remoulade is red and has no anchovies;
your “French” bread has a crust like phyllo dough, not like a proper
baguette, and you put that slimy okra in your bouillabaisse. Your food
is good, peut-etre. Peut-etre. But Francais? Jamais! Okay, it’s Creole. It’s our version of French. It’s France
in America plus 300 years plus black cooks.
 Why do you insist on crediting the French with everything?
That bouillabaisse is neither bouillabaisse nor French. It’s okra
soup. It’s soupa konja. It’s west African; just like jambalaya. And
can you imagine Creole food without rice? We were growing rice in
Senegal before the French knew how to plant it. And these vague
”Africans” you refer to had countries—Senegal, Benin, Cameroun, etc.
It’s been documented. Have either of you read the books about our food? They all
say the same thing. Genius French chefs. Talented black cooks. Don’t
blame me.
 I hate to darken your narrative again, Kemo Sabe, but the
filé in your gumbo is the sassafras leaf powder we introduced to your
people. If I might please continue. . .
 You might, but you will be the only one pleased. ’ (2008)

Y: So through mimicry we come to a better understanding of the complexity of individual and collective expression? We’re talking about food not art here.

X: Well, both. These traditions, like ways of speaking, cooking, dressing, constructing cities, are not clearly the property of any one society. The contingency as spoken of by Mbembe and Nuttall returns here where we begin to see what might have been, what could still be and the danger of presenting any text or comment as finished because of the ongoing creolisation of every aspect of daily life.

Y: But we can’t be all things to all people. What you’re proposing is a kind of ultra reflexive Lingua Franca artspeak – a romantic and dangerous notion if you ask me – where we attempt to cover an issue from all possible sides, incorporate every layer of history and generally drive ourselves mad.

X: But there are limits. Elie’s text only includes the voices in his own head. He’s not speaking for Dan Cameron or Willie Birch. He’s not incorporating the thoughts of the jaded international art viewer. If anything, he’s circumscribing his text more to the location not less. By situating his language, its references and specifying the lines of flight from countless origins to where he is, now, we hear his accent more clearly than ever before.

We see the beauty and possibility of these language limitations in the work of Katarina Zdjeldar.

In her work more generally, she seeks to amplify the simultaneous power and also the disempowerment of accented speech. As we try and imitate the language of others, what are the effects and affects of this mimesis, to our own identity and the space of comprehension around us? In her piece A Girl, the Sun and an Airplane Airplane (2007) she films a number of Albanians who remember living under a communist government and she gets them to recall and repeat certain fragments of Russian songs, expressions and greetings that they once learned. They say ‘Good morning’ and ‘My mother works at the textile factory’. The juxtaposition of these phrases, the way the game is portrayed – for indeed, it’s a game: one of those memory ones, like a brain twister – constructs an incredibly nuanced background for the somewhat lonely or awkward actors on screen. In another piece with a bit more of a Scandinavian relevance, Everything is Gonna Be (2009) she takes a group of amateur singers learning or at least sort of singing the words to the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’. These middle aged people, in pastel colours, sitting in their pine and book-lined setting mouth the words uncertainly, adapting their voices and tones to each other as they go. Waiting for the revolution was never so pretty.

Y: But that’s not really a fair interpretation. Zdjelar is being ironic but not about the actors and their social situation…it’s more the frustration of collectivity. The finding of one voice. It’s quite Utopian in its ambition.

X: exactly! But you can’t miss the perhaps sardonic undertones. This idea of singing or speaking in unison is taken to the extreme in one of the same artist’s most recent works where she sits with an immigrant student in Oxbridge in the UK, with a speech coach. In the video piece, The Perfect Sound (2009), the coach takes on a Henry Higgins-esque position, using strange, almost dance-like gestures as he conducts the phonetics of his student, who obviously thinks he’ll be employed after gaining some kind of social camouflage via the attaining of flawless Queen’s English. They carry on in this strange ritual of student following the teacher, copying and placing vowel sounds and vocal techniques. It’s the perfect enactment of the transforming power of voice. And yet, as you say, there are limits. What happens to the traces? There will always be traces.

Y: Traces of what?

X: Well, like Elie, and the Albanians in Zdjelar’s film, the other voices can still be heard. In the seminal text The Restless Supermarket by South African author, Ivan Vladislavic, he creates this character, Aubrey Turle who is a self-described ‘incorrigible ‘European’, living in one of the shabbiest areas of the new Johannesburg (the story takes place in the era just proceeding the end of apartheid). Turle spends his days in the Café Europa, originally opened by a Greek woman who’s since left the expatriated and is currently occupied by has-beens and down-and-outs, left-overs of the new “rainbow nation”. There’s a wall in the café painted with a kitsch mural which Aubrey calls, Alibia. Alibia, which literally means, elsewhere, is a hodge-podge composite of what seem idyllic postcard scenes which the painter blurred together to form a panorama. The French Riviera, the Dickensian cobbled alleyways of London, ‘while in the east,’ writes Vladislavic, ‘a clutch of onion domes had been harrowed from the black furrow of the horizon. A Slav would feel just at home there as a Dutchman. It was the perfect alibi, a generous elsewhere in which the immigrant might find the landmarks he had left behind.’ (Vladislavic, 2001:19)

This character, Aubrey Turle, with his assumed sensibilities and almost forced sense of cultivation regards the world around him in an obsessive linguistic sense, trawling the telephone guide, looking for types of surnames, where they’re living – all of this to gauge in his compulsive way the dramatic socio-political shifts of the South African interregnum period. He knows Alibia is not his home, and he has no illusions about the real language of Café Europa.

Y: Yet, there is a yearning for some space of emulation, such as that provided by the idea of Alibia, or New Orleans, or the civilization on the banks of the Mississippi, a kind of continuity with the time of inhabitation by Europe, when there was an obvious line of progress and a clear voice one could adopt in order to be heard.

X: Like Foucault writes in his Archeology of Knowledge (1972) in his chapter “The Unities of Discourse” – it’s the semi-silence that precedes the articulation of knowledge, that underwritten traces where truths are always already formed. It’s this same silence that gradually overtakes Vladislavic’s protagonist, where, he holds a spelling competition as a last ode to the Café Europa before it closes down and the Alibian wall is erased. The grammatical structure of the text itself begins to break down and we are left, uncertain of anything. As one character states, ‘I can’t believe you’re so upset this joint is closing down. It’s not the end of civilization, you know’ (p.300). Huck Finn would be pleased.

It’s this idea of breakdown which is completely embodied when Elisa Dolittle in My Fair Lady, having gained the education of Henry Higgins, is declared ready to be a lady with her flawless pronunciation of English and fancy getup and taken out on her first test run at the horse races. In the heat of a heated race she lets slip one of her voices and yells above the crowd in working class drawl, ‘Cam on Dowver! Moove ya bloomin arse!’

Y: But these class distinctions you keep referring to and standards of “civilization” are so passé. What of the Modernist idea of the nation state, the working middle class, and then the exploding of all these as Coca Cola was brought to the masses? There is now less limited access to information, to some kind of discursive platform regardless of location or education (particularly, virtually), there is mobility in the cultural world both physically and in status.

X: And yet following 2001, the imposition of national identity through a unified accent gains volume. It’s what builds cohesion, conviviality, it makes us the same because we can understand each other. At least we think we can. In a moment of supposed “post-globalisation” there’s actually a shrinking back and a tuning out of Amero-phylic or “centred” sounding speech. We’re anxious to align ourselves in how we say something, even more than what is said. We are after the perfect euphony, like Zdjelar’s linguistic student.

Y: Though even Zdjelar’s student doesn’t always get it. We don’t know if he ever gets the job, the fancy car, the life he always wanted in Oxbridge. He’s still an immigrant. Like Aubrey Turle will never be a European.

X: It’s these impossibility or truncation of that narrative of a single accented voice which brings us here, to this point. Foucault reminds us that the seemingly natural progressions and ‘universal unities’ (1972) presented by the immediate framing of gestures or expressions – be they artistic, political, both – are anything but sensical. When we listen to the convergence of the references, the texts and voices that have informed our conversation today and the strangeness of this conversation itself, we see the absolute necessity of regrouping and reassociation when speaking and writing about the contemporary practices of everyday. Foucault would call this the forming of a ‘locus of assignable exchanges’ (1972): a comment, an outburst, a moment of slippage that disrupts supposedly natural orbits of discourse and triggers all kinds of polyphonic collisions between cultures, traditions, methods, lexicons.

Y: This is all very easy to achieve in the dramatics of this kind of role-play between you and yourself. But what is the method when writing to a multiplicity of audiences, when not all of them are going to sigh and say, ‘Ah well, only in the art world’? You need to formulate an entirely new set of parameters, categories, canons by which you judge and represent the artist, the speaker, their expression and the discussion it generates. How do you intend to incorporate all this in a single text without sacrificing rigor for this relationality? Or comprehension for some altermodern schizophrenia?

X: But we’re on the Mississippi right? We’re on the self-made raft. The drift away from ‘sivilisin’ has already begun. I can’t masque my own accent and I don’t wish to. I can’t tell you when we’ve reached the destination because there is no X and Y route to finding linguistic or textual liberation. It’s never a simple journey. Huck Finn wasn’t the only soul on the homemade raft. There was also the figure of Jim, a black slave who’d escaped at the same moment as Huck. They find themselves haunting each other’s steps, and must negotiate a loyalty to one another that’s born not only out of necessity but could also bring them to a deeper understanding of the circumstances that brought them together.
These surprising groupings and forays into uncertain but connected waters are what the adventure of our texts is about. While the narrative behind us sets up material markers for the passage of history, the flow of the river thus far; what Jyoti Misty calls, the Vocabularies of the Visceral (2009) and to return to Mbembe and Nuttall’s, the provisional and contingent (2004), guide our traces up and down the tributaries which ‘irrupt’ in front of us, to quote Foucault once more. Like the antics of Huck and Jim, these coincidences and “wrong” turns force us to masquerade as those we are not, take on the voices of others – creating, what Jan Verwourdt, when looking at Katarina Zdjelar’s singing Scandinavians, called a ‘conspiratorial mode of mimicry that modulates the identity of the speaker; or finally [results in] a mode of tentatively attuning oneself to one another’ (2009). This attuning opens the floodgates of ways of speaking and writing which can stay afloat amongst the rapids of worldliness and situatedness.

Y: And through this, our voices become empathetic to each other.

X: And through this our voices become empathetic to each other.

Works cited:
Lolis Eric Elie, “Still Live with Voices”, in catalogue Prospect 1. 2008.
Michel Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge, 1972.
Achille Mbembe & Sarah Nuttall, “Writing the World from an African Metropolis”, Public Culture Journal, 2004.
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, first published 1884.
Jan Verwoert, “Move Your Lips to This (in Praise of Accents)”, But If You Take My Voice What Will be Left to Me?, Serbian Pavillion, Venice Biennale, 2009.
Ivan Vladislavic, The Restless Supermarket, 2001.
Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, “The Afropolitan”, 2005.
Katarina Zdjelar, A Girl, the Sun and an Airplane Airplane (2007), Everything is Gonna Be (2009), The Perfect Sound (2009)