“Words are worldly; not just in the sense that they proliferate and float up into the sky and become cloud-like. Words world too.” Billy-Ray Belcourt
“All language can register is the slow return to the oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape and habit blurs perception and language takes up its routine flourishes.” Anne Carson
After the last living speaker of a language dies, that world is extinguished. Those who might’ve lived in it become displaced and must find home elsewhere. And out of the scavenged material of other, borrowed words, perhaps they rekindle a dead vernacular. What is a revived language? A reconstructed world, once a living thing, now a specimen revived from fossil DNA: not lesser than, but undeniably different from, its source. Alive, anew: a changed artifact, covered in the slick fingerprints of anthropology and appropriation. Joyful resurrection notwithstanding, the history of a language’s death should not be erased in the celebration of its return.
Against a black background, a green wave tracks a voice’s vibrations – one of a stream of vignettes, mainly monologues in response to questions we don’t need to hear to understand. Part of a group exhibition at Nanaimo Art Gallery on Vancouver Island, Susan Hiller’s Lost and Found (2016) summons a hypnotic procession of languages under duress: endangered, extinct, revived. Short recordings of a variety of speakers play across two-dozen languages. English subtitles convey everything from weather reports to childhood memories, alphabets, mnemonic songs, and recollections of natural disaster – a broad range of language’s day-to-day machination. The visual equivalence connecting the recordings’ fleeting resonances holds me in place: the filaments intersect casually but inevitably around themes of cultural mortality. Colonialism, assimilation, and the homogenization of culture bleed through the everyday accounting that words do. Further imbued with the unexpected melancholy of Hiller’s recent death, Lost and Found, a word-ful, world-ing tapestry, weaves in this appropriately elegiac thread – inadvertently but seamlessly – much to the enduring credit of its maker.
What can we reasonably expect of our words? When we settlers actively break a world, or starve it unto withering, can better words bring it back? My intuition, beneath a green wave tracking the unsteady pulse of worlds, dying and undead, is that language doesn’t save anything, and won’t be saved. Language is both colonizer and colonized. It is the subtle matter underwriting our good, our naiveté, and our violence.
The exhibition in Nanaimo, athut / Words Bounce, marshals the work of three artists, Joi T. Arcand, Patrick Cruz, and Hiller, towards a celebration of language’s resiliency in the abstract. If I’m apprehensive at the apparent hopefulness of curator Jesse Birch, I’m impressed by the gallery’s earnest efforts to make concrete good out of its intangible themes. The programming for athut / Words Bounce included a language workshop in the local Indigenous dialect of Hul’qui’minum (also endangered and undergoing revitalization) as well as weekly poetry readings. The show is the final installment in the gallery’s solid yearlong “How to Speak Differently” theme, which also inspired a strong summer show from Canadian filmmaker Arvo Leo.
The English half of the exhibition’s title comes from a line in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (1998): “’Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do.” The show’s accompanying text, by way of Carson’s line, attributes an autonomy to words: they move of their own accord. The thematic principle seems to be that each of the works share a regard for language’s ability to “bounce” in unexpected ways – and especially to bounce back from the brink of extinction. The scant narrative stops there, though, and we’re left to intuit the nature of words’ agency, as well as the forces that have delivered us to this critical moment. The short, bashful text shrinks from providing greater nuance.
What, for instance, of the finer distinction between words and language? Words are not identical to language: they are loose cases of it. They might carom free of their broad confines now and then, but their freedom is a structured one: confined by the limits of their legibility. Language, perhaps, is the rough map of the roiling, shifting terrain of words. The former might be the Apollonian province of laws, theories and the academy, while the latter reflects the more Dionysian sprawl of creative process. In both instances though, they are steered not by inherent motion, but by the same engines of human intention and desire that manifest hierarchy and dominion. The bouncing of words off the walls of language sounds out the size and shape of the structures that pen us in.
Autobiography of Red’s winged protagonist, Geryon (himself elegantly word-like, not quite tethered, but bounded in his self-determination), has a favorite question: “What is time made of?” In spite of its own shyness, athut / Words Bounce seems to offer a reply: time is made of words. There’s much more than a shared bounce here. Rather than resilience, where these works most meaningfully converge is a careful thinking-through of dense temporality, as well as the colonial structures to which they subtly, but firmly, respond.
Arcane symbols in precisely messy India ink spider across several of the gallery’s walls. This work, Cruz’s contribution entitled Step Mother Tongue, would have appeared merely decorative but for its entanglement with a collection of pottery (Cruz and the gallery commissioned the clay works in pre-colonial Filipino designs by local Nanaimo artists Bronwyn Arundel, Marcelle Glock, Joe Lyons, Bari Precious, and Graham Sheehan). Without the pottery, the painting is a scaled-back version of work he’s exhibited several times. The addition of the sculptures lends a much-needed texture to the installation. The pots are utterances, words spoken in the precarious language of a form often ignored by contemporary art, translated out of their cultural specificity across a great distance. Cruz’s quasi-symbolic scrawl, inspired by an ancient Filipino dialect, casts a fantasy-dialect futurity against old designs crafted by unlikely hands: the soft slipping of multiple temporalities over each other, as speech does. In 2015, Cruz won the RBC painting prize for Time Allergy, a work whose title references the discomfort in adapting to post-colonial hybrid identities. The extent of Step Mother Tongue’s depth also lives in its relationship to disjointed time. But given the potential depth of the references, the sense of repetition and slim ambition feels somewhat deflating.
Joi T. Arcand has, for some time, measured the inherent weight of language’s visibility. She is best known for Here on Future Earth (2009), a series of photographs which imagine dusty urban scenes: familiar, insofar as they could seemingly be from anywhere. In them, the ubiquitous English script of North American street signs has been replaced with the syllabics of Plains Cree. She imagines an almost-present in which her language has been restored so successfully from its colonial erasure, its visibility made so routine, that it can, ironically, disappear into the everyday banality of life.
Kiya itako (be you) (2018), Arcand’s work for athut / Words Bounce, feels decidedly more introspective. Four large prints on fabric overwritten with vivid Cree text “focus on the past and present, drawing from family photographs and other collected images along with comments referring to the acquisition of language received from Arcand’s mentors.” These notes from her teachers title the works. They string an atmospheric sadness through the vulnerability of learning Cree, reclaiming her language as an adult: “You’re not Cree if you can’t speak Cree.”
Billy-Ray Belcourt, a Cree Nation poet, has sharply emphasized Arcand’s play with time. Arcand orients to multiple temporalities: present and imagined future, yes, but the heaviness filters out from the past. It embeds a nostalgia for a former self that wasn’t able to unfold: a potential present canceled by colonial policy years before her birth. In a neon-colored futurist Cree Comic Sans of her own design, Arcand’s fantastic would-be near-future overwrites the faded family photos that mark a childhood in a colonizer’s language. School photos against a homogenizing blue curtain: “You’re Cree but you can’t speak Cree.”
From Arcand’s 2009 photographs, Belcourt wrote his way through to “the grammar of settler horror.” Though it feels a longer range from this more esoteric presentation to the mirror Arcand holds aloft to the ongoing violence of colonialism, the scope of the reflection is wider, and its impression more lasting. Arcand’s is smart, multivalent work very much deserving of the deeper attention her 2018 Sobey Art Award shortlisting should command.
The history of written language is unsurprisingly wound through with the history of colonialism. The Cree writing system has long been spuriously attributed to a British missionary; in fact, Indigenous oral traditions confirm that it was the Cree who taught their existing syllabics to the missionaries, and not the other way around. The missionary myth persists in equal measure to the ongoing colonial erasure of Indigenous language and history.
I’m nervous, then, of the expectation that language should shepherd us anywhere of its own accord. There’s a troubling metaphysics to the notion that words could “bounce” irrespective of human inertia. Doesn’t Hiller’s piece show us that the very motion and directionality of language are conditioned by the things – banal, seismic, climatic, quotidian – that should not be allowed to go unspoken? Words don’t do things independently of speakers. That their meaning should ricochet and contort is an index of language’s stretching to meet certain intentions: the result of actual decisions, not the supernatural operation of an independent force. The sense of ideology at work troubles any optimism that words will bounce us out of the very holes we fell down in fetching them. The hushed conversation in Nanaimo rings profoundly and disquietly: powerful words at odds with the assuredness and simplicity of their phrasing.