Published in "Translation in a Global Market," special issue of Public Culture, guest edited by Emily Apter (vol. 13, no. 1, Winter 2001)
"It's Fluent in Every Language" (Visa)
"Any time, Anywhere, Any Language"(MasterCard)
"Sell your language at any price"(Rainer Ganahl)
Inour times, when basically anything can be commodified—including humanlivers and tongues—we are confronted with the question: Are languagescommodities or do they resist commodification?
Commodification is a process in which something enters freely oris coerced into a relationship of exchange, a transaction enabled by aninstrument of payment within a relatively short period of time. Parties in thisexchange identify themselves as owners. Assuming that language is primarily amode of verbal exchange and interaction, I would like to ask the followingquestions. Can an author, a linguist, a state, a nation, or even atransnational company own an entire single language or even groups oflanguages? Can spoken languages be copyrighted as computer languages arecopyrighted? Clearly the answer to both these questions is no. As with cloudformations, languages cannot be owned. In spite of the fact that clouds developin specific areas that are geographically and legally defined by ownership,they cannot be owned, purchased, sold, or stocked. One can commodify oxygen andstabilize or destabilize climate conditions within a confined space—thinkof climate and cloud machines—but one cannot turn cloud formations into acommodity as such. It is thesame with language: words, sentences, texts, and books are endlessly produced,copyrighted, bought, and sold, but you cannot own a language as such, sincelanguage is a sort of "atmosphere" in which words are produced. Ofcourse, to push this reasoning even further, according to Ludwig Wittgensteinthere are only language “games” and not language as such.
In spite of being impossible to own, many people try to claim,influence, control, and appropriate languages. States and state-fundedorganizations that use or are otherwise connected to a language are typicallyeager to instrumentalize it as well. But no single language can be reduced to anation's property. So-called national languages are rarely, if ever, confinedto state borders. At the end of the eighteenth century, the creation ofnational languages became integral to the process of political and ideologicalformation—and of modernization—in Europe.
Although people cannot own languages, they may know, use, andlearn them. Everybody knows at least one language but nobody can know alllanguages. In order to know, speak, or write a language, exchange is necessary.One directly acquires languages from other speakers or indirectly acquires themwith the help of tapes, computers, and books. But what distinguishes this exchange(this language acquisition) from most other forms of commodified exchange isthe time factor. Neither money, authority, influence, nor love can help youlearn a new language immediately. Weeks, months, and even years in the processof learning are like pennies, dimes, and dollar bills in a commodity exchange.Accents are wonderful reminders of this difficult acquisition process.Comparable to the social function of products and other possessions, a personlearning in a given social context picks up many of the linguisticcharacteristics and idiosyncrasies of this particular group. Acquired local orsocial accents and speech patterns can permanently identify people as beingsupposedly good or bad, and therefore accepted or disrespected in a society. Itis as difficult to learn languages and specific ways of speaking as it is tounlearn them. Spoken languages are like open passports with stamps and dates,and the forgery of them is an art.
What determines the price of a product? At least in part this is determinedby the costs of materials, labor, manufacturing, transportation, distribution,advertising, and demand. What is the price for the acquisition of a language? Alife, a college education, travels and conversations, love, war, and the lossof a country through emigration? Language acquisition cannot be solely measuredby time or by any monetary symbol. Nonetheless there actually exists a marketfor language schools, universities, and training centers. There exists as wella translation industry. States and corporations pay immense amounts of money toorganizations that promote national languages and cultures. For instance,states fund organizations such as Goethe Institut, the InstitutFrançais, and Casa Italiana, and the many other national language organizationsaround the world, who then market and disseminate languages abroad. But themost widely orchestrated attempt to promote a language globally occurs withEnglish as a Second Language (ESL) and the attempt to make English a linguafranca (so to speak).
With the advance of the Internet's promotion of global English,and with increased demographic mobility and migration, we are beginning to seehow English is losing its immediate nationalistic or colonial/postcolonialcontext. English will soon also become a stripped-down tool of electroniccommunication, deprived of the shared experiences that generally go along withthe learning of language in a "natural" context (as opposed to in the“unnatural” context of learning languages online, from audio tapes,and so forth). The notion of collective memory, of an identity that is somehowconstituted through a common language and a shared history, now exists on theInternet, turning English into a new sort of transit language, a mobilelanguage (in the sense associated with mobile phones) becoming lost orradically altered. From a conservative point of view one could even say thatEnglish is selling out.
The World Trade Organization’s free market doctrine and theversion of globalization that the WTO helps constitute also affects languagepolitics in that technology, telecommunications, labor, capital, goods,intellectual property, pollution, poverty, and people interchange in andpenetrate all language zones. A search of the 5474 documents posted on theWTO’s web site doesn't find any documents on "languagepolitics." It finds,however, the word language in 103 different documents. In the WTO’s main texts on freetrade and intellectual property, “language” can be found only inrelationship to language problems within their own administration. English,French, and Spanish are the official WTO languages, although the organizationacknowledges the existence of national languages of the member states. Thislack of an interest in language politics by the WTO makes me repeat my initialquestion and add some new ones: Are languages commodities, that is, somethingto exchange, to market, to buy, to sell, to invest in, and to compete for? Arethey raw materials that can be exploited or that need to be protected? Arelanguages rare species or are they available in excess, for instantaneous useand disposal? Are languages technologies to be standardized, improved,reinvented, or copyrighted? Are languages to be privatized, internationallytraded, and globalized? Do language policies allow for mergers and hostiletakeovers? Barely a decade ago Serbo-Croatian was classified as a singlelanguage but now it is violently divided into several languages. In an erawhere the Internet could substitute for education all over the planet andguarantee the dominance of only a few standardized languages—think of theparallel with megacorporations in today's global economy—this set ofseemingly absurd questions is intended to provoke thought about theconsequences of the hidden and/or ignored language policies in this"golden age" of globalization.
If Ibuy a dictionary or a translation machine I assume that it comes with alanguage currently being spoken somewhere. But where can I find native speakersof a given language? In New York, for most languages, I wouldn't have much of aproblem. I could easily find someone in a taxi, in a sweatshop below CanalStreet, on the subway, in a 24-hour deli, at my neighbor's apartment, or atColumbia University. But what language and what version of a language I find isdependent on where I look: a different kind of Chinese can be found insweatshops than at Columbia, and Chinese might be more easily located in one ofthose spots than at a taxi stand, where I might be more likely to come acrossUrdu, Marathi, or one of many African languages. I have the privilege oflearning languages without being forced to do so in a legal or illegal alienenvironment. Language learning has a market value. It opens additionalcommunication possibilities. In the corporate world, if someone speaks, writes,and understands one or more of the so-called useful foreign languages, theywill certainly be able to obtain more attractive and higher paying jobs.
The context in which I have been studying languages over the lastdecade is that of the fine arts, a domain of visual pleasure and contestedreflection where nobody expects a language degree or any other kind ofparticular linguistic competence. As I see it, art constitutes a complex orderof things that exists because of its ambivalent and discourse-related nature.Art is the subject of permanent and endless negotiations and cultural conflictsand enters only through complex (institutional) selections into the domain ofvalue production and commodification. Throughout most of my life, which startedin a quasi-monolingual area in Austria, I have pursued foreign languages as astrategy for "personal survival": first (with unsatisfying results)in order to stay in school, then (with better results) to get away from school,and finally to leave Austria altogether for Paris and New York in 1987. Since1990 when I settled in New York and left school behind, I decided to continuelearning languages as part of my art practice. This decision emerged frompostcolonial studies, in particular, the questioning of Eurocentrism andWestern language histories, and the implication of this questioning on culturalinstitutions and their literary and artistic products.
That changed in 1993 when I began to study Japanese. My intensedaily studies over many months turned into the work "Basic Japanese,"which includes works on paper (study sheets), photographs, performances, and aseries of objects. Taking the lessons of representational politics veryseriously, I tried not to play the role of the informer, the traveler, or anyother kind of agent dealing with the depiction of others. My focus became the processof studying, language books (with their illustrations), and myself in anendless and helplessly frustrating enterprise of language learning. In 1993 asix-month stay in Tokyo helped me intensify my Japanese studies, develop workbased on a critique of Orientalism (influenced by the work of Edward Said),and, for the first time, present my language learning as part of my artwork inthe confines of a larger museum show.
After Tokyo I was invited in 1994 to do an exhibition at the IceBox in Athens. During my preparation I started thinking differently aboutEurope's obsession with ancient Greek history, institutions, and language. Ibegan to understand how German philologists and archeologists produced ahistorico-linguistic universe that reflected the contemporary aspirations indomestic politics and nation building. In the nineteenth century, Greekstudies, university activities, excavations, and cultural expropriations servedthe yet-to-be-built German nation as a kind of imaginary ersatz colony in thecompetition with the French, British, and Belgians for colonies andcolonization. In the 1830s, Ottofrom Bavaria, a brother of the romantic king Ludwig, became the first Greekking (and this royal dynasty is still in place, though without any politicalinfluence). This history is relevant to the present:in the 1990s, so-called guest workers (Gastarbeiter
Later on that year I was invited again to exhibit in Japan. Givenmy interest in the historically problematic relationship between Japan andKorea, one of my works in that show consisted of studying Korean. As with myinsufficient study of Greek, I decided to record my efforts on video. I titledthis work "Basic Korean." Thus far I have accumulated approximatelysix hundred hours of Korean and I continue learning this language fromtime-to-time, or more precisely from exhibition-to-exhibition and fromtutor-to-tutor. In 1997, an invitation to exhibit at the Kwangju Biennialresulted in a work I entitled "4 Weeks, 5 Days A Week, 6 Hours ADay—Basic Korean," which involved working with paid tutors inKwangju. I usually study a language by myself, using commonly found languagelearning material. But depending on the exhibition's budget and the generosityof friends, I sometimes enjoy the help of native speakers. One of myencouraging thoughts on this work goes as follows: I may not sell this work, butat least I learn something.
In January 1999, after nearly 4 years of learning Korean, Istarted working on my next language project entitled "Basic Chinese."Advancements in Chinese–United States trade relations, the decline in myfear of this language and its nonphonetic writing system, and my buildingcuriosity about Chinese culture encouraged me to give this work a title thatwould assure its rapid development. In July 2000 I completed a work called"My First 500 Hours Basic Chinese" (500 hours video, 250 tapes) andas of August 2000, I have just started "My Second 500 Hours BasicChinese." Learning languages is both a dream and a nightmare for manypeople, myself included. Therefore, the self-imposed "nominalism" ofthis work's title forces me to learn Chinese rigorously over a long period oftime. It helps me to sustain these studies in the absence of any direct social,professional, institutional, or monetary gratification. It is mainly thestretchable but uncertain context of art and its social and critical impetusthat provides a justification for such a commitment. Additionally, as thecamera watches over me, taking on the role of a driving and regulatingsuperego, an inner voice seems to tell me "Keep moving away from yourmother tongue!"
The production of these recorded tapes marks the production ofknowledge, experience, language, and somehow also of subjectivity. It isinteresting to observe the impact my language experiments have on variouspeople. They tend to label me as talented and use even more clichéadjectives, but they seldom take an interest in the simple fact that my workinvolves almost daily hours of committed study for years on end. Thischallenges not just common ideas about knowledge and art, but also traditionalnotions of subjectivity. Subject formation, knowledge, and art are shown by meand through my practice to be accumulative, repetitive production. For whenpeople really see me uttering sentences in a foreign language they typicallyoverlook the actual "work"—the production and process behind mylanguage ability.
I consider the piled up videocassettes of my studies to be asculpture. However "My First 500 Hours Basic Chinese" alsoillustrates the impossibility of representing the learning process, evenalluding to the problematic aspects of representation itself. It would betorture to have to sit and watch five hundred hours of these tapes. Also, thefragility of the magnetic tape references the even greater fragility of thehuman mind and its quality of forgetting and fatigue. To a certain degree thesepiles of tapes also remind me of failure because my semiprofessionaldilettantism could never uphold the criteria for an advanced university degreein language. Standing in front of these piles of industrially produced and designedvideotapes, I am flooded with a fading feeling of all the hours I have spentover my studies and papers. I oftentimes ask myself where have my efforts gone.As with reading, what do we really remember, what do we really learn? What doesit really do to us?
Learning a language doesn't mean that you just study a language.Already my textbooks speak about "traveling in China," "meetingChinese friends," and "eating Chinese food." In spite of the newsocial interactions and opportunities that result from my language ability, Itry to keep anecdotal aspects out of my art since I want my work to function asan index for a larger discourse on language politics and less about my sociallife and me. However, Idon't want to deny that these studies create social opportunities and insightsthat frequently take me by surprise. It is with a certain irony that Isubscribe to the impossible Kantian tradition of defining art as an interessenlosesWohlgefallen(interest-less pleasure), a pleasure that tries to refrain from (social)interests. Whenfrustrated at my lack of learning progress I compare myself to a Skinner ratand I wonder what these studies are really doing to my head and my life. I tryto minimize the spectacular aspects of this work, foregrounding the tapes, thepapers, the screen, and the photographs, and avoiding the public while I study.But there is an undeniably uncanny aspect to my work as I switch across elevenlanguages throughout the course of a performance.
Apartfrom learning languages as a continuous enterprise, I have also conceived otherartworks that address the realities of language in a different way. I presenteda work entitled "Please, teach me . . ." for the 1999 VeniceBiennial, a one hundred-year-old international exhibition organized like aworld's fair around a system of national pavilions. Contrary to what one wouldexpect of such an exhibition, its selection of pavilions does not include allcountries. "Please, teach me . . ." consisted of T-shirts bearingthis very phrase in fifty different languages from countries not participatingin the exhibition. With this request to be taught these unrepresentedlanguages, "Please, teach me . . ." was my attempt to point out notonly the enormous diversity of languages in the world but also thenationalistic pavilion system that excludes many parts of the world. Since eachT-shirt had this single sentence printed in a particular language in its properwriting system, it also showed traces of colonization and Europeanization thatare often manifest in the free or coerced adoptions of the Latin alphabet. Ichose T-shirts (as opposed to, say, a wall) for this work because T-shirtsallowed the work to be brought on the streets and to the people: T-shirts are amedium for direct street communication, and any printed request could provokereactions depending on where it is worn and by whom.
For the Venice Biennial I also produced a series of videosentitled "Basic Conflicts . . ." in which I played with sentencesthat are at the heart of major conflicts. I translated these sentences into theeleven languages I have been learning since I was born. In "BasicConflicts: Currencies" the sentences included the English "I onlybelieve in dollars;" the German "Ich glaube nur an die Mark;"and the same for the ruble, yen, renminbi, etcetera. Some of these currenciesare about to disappear, are perceived as embarrassments, or are treated asobjects of national pride. Other works in this series were "BasicConflicts: Justice" (English: "I am always right," French:"J'ai toujours raison," and so forth); "Basic Conflicts:Language" (English: "I need to only know English," and the samefor Deutsch, russkyii, etcetera); "Basic Conflicts: The Nation"(English: "My country is the greatest," German: "Mein Landüber alles"); "Basic Conflicts: Religion" (Spanish:"Solo un dios"). I never translated these sentences literally buttried to use phrases that are common, exclusive, and, as such, conducive toconflict. The precursors of these works were videos that functioned accordingto the same principle of translation: "Basic Feelings, Not GoodToday" (German: "Heute fuehle ich mich scheiße") or"Basic Feelings, Confused Today."
The issue of a regional dialect turning slowly into a socialmarker was the main subject of "Reda—The dialect ofVorarlberg," which I presented at a 1998exhibition at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Vorarlberg.Vorarlberg is the most western alpine province of Austria where most of thepopulation speaks a Germanic dialect called Vorarlberger Dialekt. I produced avariety of works around that subject, including a series of forty interviewsabout the linguistic self-understanding of people from this region. Thepressure for standardization and linguistic "neutrality" is felt bymany, producing a formula that might be paraphrased in Freudian terms as"discontent in dialect." Local language pressure and politics take onmany forms, open and hidden, so that simple acts of utterance becomesignificant and informative with regards to the speaker's social andeducational standing. Since I left that region twenty years ago much has changedin terms of the use of local language. I grew up in the 1960s speaking only theVorarlberg dialect. I rarely encountered anyone who spoke Ganahl-Dütsch(the name of a language that coincidentally contains my surname) or Bö
I like to draw a parallel between this local language behavior inVorarlberg (where native speakers can sometimes feel "old fashioned"and uncomfortable using their dialect) and the way people treat products,objects, and other goods. When I was growing up in Vorarlberg it was onlynecessary to have shoes, socks, and pants that were made well. We were not yetcompletely absorbed by corporate identities and the pressure to wear brand nameclothing. Today, small children in Vorarlberg know the entire spectrum of thecorporate hierarchy and they want it. Isn't it somehow similar with languages?There are no dialects on German and Austrian television other than standardGerman. So doesn't this also influence linguistic self-understanding of localpeople? I tend to exaggerate and say that standard German appears in the alpineregion of Austria as some kind of BMW or Mercedes language whereas theVorarlbergian dialects—different in every village—come off as somekind of homemade pushcart in contrast. Commodification on that level seems tohave become such a norm that it appears desirable and contradicts GeorgLukács, whose analysis of the commodification process foregroundedalienation.
It is the nature of spoken languages to continuously change,mutate, and adapt to new situations and developments. Distance from the placeone grew up in deprives the speaker of the experience of these changes. Thissimple acknowledgment serves as the formal context, if not pretext, for a workI call "Sprache der Emigration—Language of Emigration." In thespring of 1999 I met a German emigrant who had been victimized by the Nazis andcame to New York in the 1930s. I was impressed by this person since I had nevercome in contact with members of this social group, many of whom, I have sincediscovered, live in my neighborhood.
Please, Teach Me Albanian
Please, write down the Russian words the artist shouldlearn,1994. Wall drawing, Contemporary Art Center, Moscow.
Basic Korean, English is . . .
My First 500 Hours Basic Chinese
Basic Chinese, 1999. Photograph, 20 x 24 inches.
Basic Vorarlbergian, Son of a Bitch . . . , 1997–98. Photograph, 20 x 24 inches.