Linguini, Languages and Cultures
ZEIGAM AZIZOV: Why did you decide to work with foreignlanguages?
RAINER GANAHL: From very early on I was interested inforeign languages that always played a big role in my life. To learn them wasthe best way to escape, to obliterate my mother tongue and to get rid of where I came from. But only late, during mystudies of Edward Said's "Orientalism" critique I became more awareof the interdependency of culture and power, pedagogy and history, narrativesand the Other, languages and control. That was the point when I started tolearn Japanese as an art practice for critical reasons. I wanted to becomecomplicit in a history of "Orientalism".
ZEIGAM AZIZOV: What made you want "to escape, toobliterate your mother tongue"?
RAINER GANAHL: In terms of "escaping" it would bemore accurate to talk of obliterating my "father and teacherstongues" - themselves victims of Nazi education - though there wasn't muchtalk. But I guess, this would become too autobiographical since I want to seemy work more as an instrument to stimulate a discourse that is touching onbroader issues then only personal ones.
ZEIGAM AZIZOV: What kind of discourse your work is stimulating?
RAINER GANAHL: Speaking of my body of work that consists ofstudying and teaching languages I would suggest to look more closely towardspolitics and micro-politics of languages, something that has been mostlyignored in spite of the "linguistic turn" during the 60s and 70s: Whowants or is forced to learn what kind of language for what kind of reasons? Whyis there a linguistic map established that erases other languages or looks downon others? What are the advantages and privileges if one speaks a "masterlanguage" and the disadvantages if one doesn't? ("bread lines"often run along "linguistic lines" in the so-called Third and SecondWorld; most European school systems select and measure success according to linguisticperformance). What is it not to be able to express and think in one's properlanguage? Isn't language not just an instrument to think, develop concepts andsubjectivity but also a source of collective memory? Isn't it interesting tosee economic and political power and arrogance reflected and reinforced vialinguistic impositions and codes?
ZEIGAM AZIZOV: When we met in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg)in Summer 1991 you were studying Russian. Later on in London I was receivingfrom you postcards with impressive messages: "Please, teach meJapanese", "Please, teach me German". Are there more languagesthat you are studying and what is the reason for studying these particularlanguages?
RAINER GANAHL: Please, teach me Japanese; ...Swedish; ... Spanish; etc... is a postcard project that I startedsome years ago. I have been sending to about 100 people stamped postcardsasking the receiver whether s/he could teach me the local language I findmyself in when traveling. This endless project depends on geo-linguisticcrossings but doesn't imply that I already know or learn the languagesencountered. I don't speak any Swedish for example. But independent of thesesent–out solicitations - so far nobody has replied with an offer to teachme - I have studied Japanese for art making. As I pointed out earlier, I didthis in order to engage in some kind of Orientalism and in order to contributeto the trade and cultural (in)balance between Japan and the West. The fact thatI was as much afraid and prejudiced towards the Japanese language as everybodyelse with a similar racially biased eurocentric background added to my decisionto learn this language and its writing systems. As I say in my file, basicjapanese: "studying japanese envelops one with an intriguing
The next language I studied in a laboratory rat likesituation was modern Greek producing two pieces: 3 months, 3 days a week, 3hours a day - basic modern greek 1994/95 in New York and 6 days, 6 hoursa day - basic modern greek 1995 (Athens). Greek interested me as Greece wasthe German Orient of the 19th century with Otto from Bavaria - Ludwig's brother- becoming the first king of Greece in the first half of the past century.Greek immigrant workers in Germany in the 60s and 70s, speaking all a brokenGerman for which they were discriminated, and German tourists in Greeceaccomplished the context in which I wanted to place my studies of modern Greek:But anyway: "try to keep all your linguistic, psychological, and historic-mythologicalinterferences in check by quantifying precisely your study investment." (file,basic greek)
Russian I had studied already earlier but was added later tomy language projects like I am doing it now with Italian. Russian is awonderful language that is right now still spoken on half of the globe.Unfortunately, today, nobody really wants to know or use Russian outside Russiasince there is no strong economy behind it. Russian also has a mythologicalquality with a Czar system, a passionate literature and 75 years of Communism.Try to "lift your linguistic curtain".(file, basic russian)
A year ago, for a show in Hiroshima I started to studyKorean, a language I keep learning on a regular basis. Studying Korean isinsofar interesting as I apprehend now with this language as many prejudicesagainst Japan as I interiorised against Korea when I learned Japanese if oneallows me to exaggerate. Also, I'm still too afraid to start with Mandarin andkeep trying myself for some more years with languages that are peripheral toChina. "try to deal with your incomprehensive realities through basiclinguisitic efforts no matter how far you finally go." (file, basickorean)
After all, it goes without saying that there is a profoundlove for all these languages and its people and cultures without which I couldnever engage in these endless efforts of spending so much time in learning.
ZEIGAM AZIZOV: How do you present your studies as works ofart?
RAINER GANAHL: This differs from show to show. In thebeginning, in Tokyo at Person's Weekend Museum, I just used my study sheets asmaterials and the platform of the museum for studying as performance andhelpful act: Please, teach me Japanese. I also have developed a filesystem -- file, basic japanese; file, basic korean, file,basic linguistic services (keep moving away from your mother tongue")etc. -- as a device forconceptualizing and presenting my work. With Basic Japanese
ZEIGAM AZIZOV: How are your studies as art stressing theready made?
RAINER GANAHL: My studies are basically a trying hard
Zeigam Azizov: You wrote about the ready made to be theparadigm of the age of shopping and about languages as belonging to an age oftraveling. Could you please talk more about it?
Rainer Ganahl: If one reads Walter Benjamin and visits theBazar de l'Hôtel de Ville (now just named: BHV, in banal green coloredletters) where Duchamps did some of his shopping one is tempted today toattribute shopping the character of the past as did Hegel to fine arts 150years earlier. In these days, we don't get that excited about shopping anymore.It has lost a lot of its magical and ideological power, though not itseconomical one. Equivalent to the banality of the merchandise but bound to astronger attraction factor traveling has turned since the 60s into a massactivity and mass medium. I guess that traveling has become as much availablefor the consumption oriented masses as industrial and colonial goods about a100 years earlier. Travels and languages belong somehow together thoughcontemporary travel packages may exempt you from any contact with locals andtheir languages. Here I might add that I am not talking of the specialized andprofessional traveling, exploring, discovering, and colonizing experience ofthe times of let's say the former Belgian Congo (today's Zaire) where languageacquisition, linguistic impositions (French, English, Flemish, German),linguistic appropriations and transformations through selection and codification(Swahili) exercised a tremendous power and influence. Coming back to yourquestion , today it is less commodity purchasing power that makes you"contemporary" but more the mobility in moving and communicating that"connects" you with the world as it is already stated in the famousAT&T ad: "We are all connected."
ZEIGAM AZIZOV: How do your studies constitute a critical artpractice?
RAINER GANAHL: What is a critical art practice in aconstantly changing field? I try to find a modest answer for myself through theprocess of studying and reading itself as a particular production of criticalknowledge and experience. Entering into a new language and cultural sphereeffects me in a remarkable way that always has personal consequences. Itcreates a complicity that bears all the problems of inter-cultural exchange onefinds everywhere else in life that is penetrated by racism, cultural arrogancecreated by centers, sexism, class differences, and struggles of all kinds.Studying is for me not so much seen as a neutral interestless nerdy activitybut as an active and uncanny involvement in all kinds of problematic histories.From a purely art historical point of view this kind of mixing of institutions- pedagogy and education - does also have a particular edge and forms a ratherunusual framework for legitimating a set of objects that then circulate as artworks. But in the end it is up to the reception to accept, engage and extractcriticality from my rather dilettante academia in mobile