Head Dust



Marduk spoke the word, and the garment was destroyed. Again he spoke the word, and the garment was re-made. When the gods beheld the power of his word, they all rejoiced.
(Enuma Elish)

There is a game I like to play, which I call Doublebabelfish. If you would like to try it, take a piece of text (any author will do) and paste it into the originating box at the automated translation site babelfish.altavista.com. Choose a language (any language will do; you don’t need to understand it), and instruct the site to translate the text. Copy the resultant and paste it into the originating box. Then instruct the site to translate the text into its original language and compare this final text with the original text. The texts will not be the same. They may be similar or wildly different. You will be amused (this is better than Facebook; you don’t even need any friends). You may be impressed by some of the ‘innovations’ in the new text. Just where, however, did the differences come from? Do they reveal something intrinsic about the conceptual topography of the intermediary language you chose (the medium through which the text passed)? Or about the interfaces between these two languages (their refractory indices, if you like)? Or merely about the limitations of automated translation, or of the dictionaries it uses, or of the compilers of the dictionaries it uses? Just what is revealed? Try another language. Compare the results.

LIKE: An experiment in interpretation* plays a very similar game. Curator Stella Chrysostomou has somehow persuaded one writer and nine makers to translate an original object not only between languages but between media: from object to words (by Bill Manhire); and from these words back into objects (by Fran Allison, Andrea Daly, Peter Deckers, Caroline Gore, Gavin Hitchings, Karl Fritsch, Erik Kuiper, Sean O’Connor and Lisa Walker). We can compare the nine resultants with the original and with each other. They are not the same. They are similar or wildly different. You will be amused. You may be impressed by some of the ‘innovations’ in the new objects. Just where, however, did the differences come from?

Chrysostomou’s version of the game is more dangerous than mine: the translators are not dispassionate machines (though they were instructed to attempt objectivity), but a writer and nine object makers whose professional identity is marked by distinctive personal innovation. How accurate can a translation be? What positive or negative value do we place on innovation? Is all innovation nothing but a willed or unwilled replicative error? As our continued organic and cultural persistence on this earth becomes increasingly uncertain, do artists become more and more desperately innovative (not an attribute positively valued in art until the modern era), attempting mutation after mutation of the cultural genome in the hopes of triggering the evolutionary quantum necessary for our survival? The percentage of genetic mutations that may be considered beneficial to an organism is infinitesimally small.

All art, and every act of memory and of communication, is a translation. Something is lost: the original, the experience, the past; and across the cultural synapse something is created: the replica, the replacement, the memory, the simulacrum simultaneously obliterating and recreating the original in the present. Actuality is translated into virtuality and, if rephysicalised, back into actuality. We expect the resultant to be an ‘accurate’ translation (even – particularly? – if we have no access to the original); but also, paradoxically, to be ‘innovative’. What is going on?

All art, from cave paintings to watercolour landscapes to minimalist abstraction, is an effacement of actual experience. The actual, the other, the unmediated threatens us, threatens our fragile identities, threatens the fragile illusory world of identities we think of ourselves as inhabiting, so we translate the other into our own language, into the nebulous system of conceptual resonances which is both as personal and as communal as we are ourselves. We create a replacement for the other, an ersatz entity or pseudo-entity which bears the indelible trace of the translator and manifests the cultural processes by which they attempted to translate unassimilable experience into assimilable pseudo-experience. Of course the so-called pseudo-experience is itself an experience of a kind, and we respond to it just as our bodies respond to pseudo-disease in the form of a vaccine. Art inoculates us against the threat inherent in the experience it replaces.

Of course, if the replacement is the result of translation into a system of cultural resonances (a ‘language’) foreign to us, or if willed or unwilled ‘innovations’ taint the objective perfection of the simulacrum, the replacement stimulates experience rather than pseudo-experience to the extent that the otherness or innovation is manifest. We experience unease because we experience. If what we call culture is largely a mechanism to efface experience and provide release from awareness of the actual, art which stimulates experience is a failure (in terms of the tradition) if the innovations are unwilled, or is subversive (hurrah!(?)) if the innovations are willed. Aesthetics assail us when our anaesthetics fail.

In these uneasy simulacra tainted by innovation, where do the innovations come from? We don’t know what the unconscious is. It is an unknowable unknown about which, by definition, nothing can be said. We cannot say either that it is personal or that it is universal. We cannot even say that it exists in the way we usually understand existence. We posit it as the source of ‘creative’ innovation, as a tohu-bohu of dissolved psychic elements oscillating between post-conscious and pre-conscious poles, as a sea of endless mutation which periodically throws forth a golden fish (or monster). The conscious mind of an artist is a translating valve, or a filter, which allows into the cultural genome only those mutations which are useful and viable, and suppresses the infinitude of the rest. Art fails when it allows useless and nonviable innovation, and also when it suppresses the useful and viable mutations necessary for cultural evolution.

So, what about the willed or unwilled ‘innovations’ evident in the work of this one writer and these nine makers? LIKE, like Doublebabelfish, asked its subjects to attempt ‘uncreative’ objective translations (as if such a thing were possible), but this is an experiment rather than a test. How ‘successful’ were the participants? What value do we place on ‘failure’ to conform, on ‘failure’ to translate experience into its replica? What value do we place on distinctive personal innovation, and how suppressible is it? What trace of ourselves do we leave in everything we do?

Look at LIKE. The resultant objects are not the same. Just where, however, did the differences come from?

13 March 2008

*(This essay was first published as the introduction for the catalogue LIKE, an experiment in interpretation (Icebox, 2008). Visit the webpages for this exhibition at www.icebox.org.nz)

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