by Nick CurrieJanuary 31, 2019
“The New Alphabet — Opening Days”
A city with an institution like the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW)—Berlin’s House of World Cultures, a cantilevered cockle shell sitting on the Spree River beside the chancellery buildings that fund it—is a happy city indeed, for it can boast a progressive intellectual hub, a cultural engine spitting with vigor and restless curiosity. HKW is a bulwark against commercial logic, the surging tides of populism, and the threat of Western “endarkenment.” Massive subsidy is required, of course. Offered here by Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media as well as by the Federal Foreign Office, that subsidy is neutral enough to allow the institution’s directors to strike the right balance between affirmation and contestation, observation and critique.
Events like “The New Alphabet — Opening Days,” a four-day launch for a program of events that will run for the next two years, exploring cultural, political, and critical approaches to alphabets and code, do not play to empty rooms. Berlin supplies an audience of culturally active people filled with enthusiasm for questions that might strike the citizens of more pragmatic, phlegmatic towns as heavy and pretentious. The blurb for “The New Alphabet” begins with three such questions: “Is it possible to imagine an overabundance of multifarious fields of languages, knowledge production, and learning practices beyond one universal matrix? Can common reference points and collective action be enabled without monopolistic force? How can knowledge be both situated and globally relevant?” HKW director Bernd Scherer’s opening address in the circus-like central chamber multiplied these inquiries, expanding them to machine learning, the growing power of algorithms to determine subjectivity, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s attempts to imagine a new universal language for science.
In panel discussions running concurrently in different corners of the building, artists and academics tried to square their own interests with these enormous themes, to varying effect. I was particularly impressed by a presentation by the art collective Slavs and Tatars about changing Soviet attitudes toward languages and scripts in its empire, and by Armin Linke and Giulia Bruno’s calm, Brechtian project Court of Justice of the European Union (2018), observing multilingualism at work in the titular court. Comprising shelves of EU publications, videos of judicial pronouncements, and an accompanying artists’ talk, the work took on a deep poignancy when contrasted with the chaos unfolding at that very moment in the British parliament. On the installation screen, one could observe a judgment being read about fines on Poland for cutting down too many trees, while on one’s iPhone screen desperate lines popped up about ending freedom of movement and escaping the decrees of this very court.
More visceral and playful approaches were also on offer. In Alexander Kluge’s video The Robot Whisperer (2019), a bearded man called Helge Schneider suggests that animals habitually use their dung as a language. This seemed a perfectly sound, post-anthropocentric theme: shit as a subversive alphabet indecipherable to humans. Later, upstairs in the auditorium, I found Schneider in person, reducing an audience of several hundred people to hysterics with this same thesis, accompanied by avant-garde music: he turns out to be a famous musical comedian, a sort of German Viv Stanshall.
More politically engaged themes came from Hito Steyerl (on the banality of facial recognition and AI speech technology) and Kader Attia (on dispossession in the virtual world). There was an interesting talk from Odete Semedo about the origins and semiology of embroidered panu di pinti fabrics in Guinea-Bissau, emphasizing both the links between the matrices of textile production and computer code, and the subversive, anti-colonial messages some weavers hid in apparently innocuous motifs. After the talk, robes featuring these designs were displayed by models in a kind of fashion show.
When the weight of words got too heavy, there was eclectic music to escape to: demonstrations of how the European saraband changed when it reached Bolivia, played by Karin Harrasser and Eva Reiter on viola da gamba, or “The Miyagi Haikus” (2011), Indian composer Sandeep Bhagwati’s expressionistic meditations in response to the 2011 tsunami in Japan. It was as if a design center had been fused with an anthropological museum and merged with a concert hall and an art gallery, and the government had waived the entrance fees.
All this worked so well—a “Babylon without the tower collapsing,” in the words of one of the posters pasted to HKW’s sturdy pillars—because the themes, somewhat incoherent and over-reaching though they were, flourished and multiplied in a buzz of sociability and joy under HKW’s arched roof. Here was great graphic design, countless installations, a pop-up bookstall, and actors in eighteenth-century costume strolling through the building in a witty nod to the Encyclopédistes. In the lobby were vibrantly colored book trucks and stools in the style of the Memphis Group—architecture practice Raumlabor Berlin’s homage to Ettore Sottsass—and playgrounds designed by Aldo van Eyck. If the “Opening Days” sometimes resembled an academic conference with better visuals, a crowded semantic airport humming with art students and their teachers, or even a new Bauhaus, it also provided a space in which to feel strangely positive about a future in which intelligence isn’t necessarily in the service of malevolence, and a global human conversation carries on—although probably more in the spirit of Alfred Jarry than of Leibniz, and with algorithms interrupting with increasing clamor.
- 1Slavs and Tatars, The Three Tongues You Speak in Your Sleep, 2019. Performance lecture. Courtesy of the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo by Aya Schamoni.
- 2Performance of Sandeep Bhagwati's LISTEN [Miyagi Haikus] at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019. Courtesy of the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo by Stephanie Pilick.
- 3View of Giulia Bruno & Armin Linke's Court of Justice of the European Union, 2018. Image © and courtesy the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019. Photo by the artists.
- 4Performance of Alexander Kluge and Helge Schneider's The Robot Whisperer at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019. Performance lecture. Courtesy of the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo by Stephanie Pilick.
- 5Alexander Kluge and Richard Sennett among the audience at "The New Alphabet - Opening Days," Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019. Courtesy of the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo by Aya Schamoni.
- 6Filipa César, Odete Semedo talks about a panu di pinti called “obra”, 2019. Performance, talks, video, installation. Image © Filipa César and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019.
- 7Performance of Andrea Moses's Minute Operas at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019. Performance lecture. Courtesy of the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo by Aya Schamoni.
- 8Performance of Filipa César's Looming Creole at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019. Performance lecture. Courtesy of the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo by Aya Schamoni.
- 9Performance of Hannelore Hoger and Sir Henry's In Omega’s Labyrinth at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2019. Courtesy of the artists and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo by Stephanie Pilick.
- 10Still from Alexander Kluge and Helge Schneider's Wenn ich Roboter wär ..., 2018. Films and artistic program, 60:00 minutes. © Kairos Film.
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