Somewhere, softly, someone is speaking with a lilting accent (it’s not me)

In a time where global battles with recession are swiftly translated into job cuts and unemployment rates, the government’s news of funding cuts in higher education wasn’t exactly surprising. While science subjects are promoted and at times ring-fenced, the people and institutions involved with the arts and humanities are getting increasingly worried. In Sunday’s Observer, top academics and cultural leaders from these departments, raise concern about the preference for so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths. (A general plug for a report on application trends to these subjects)

A piece on the same subject goes on to say that “[t]he study of history, philosophy, languages and literature broadens horizons and animates minds that go on to enrich society in many ways. The advantages that flow from research into the creative output of humanity might not be obviously financial, but they are incalculable.”

The letter says arts and humanities enrich the country’s quality of life and help people to look at the world from different perspectives: “People’s complexity comes from their language, identities, histories, faiths and cultures.”

So what does it mean to ‘look at the world from different perspectives’? I visited an installation at the Arnolfini in January 2009 where the audience were asked to take a small sticky circle and place it somewhere in the room where it didn’t belong, and then take another one and place it on a map of the gallery to indicate where it was placed. ‘It’s making me look at things I’m not supposed to’ joked a fellow art gallery visitor and he was stating the obvious but it applies to all art.

I see art as a fragment of reality plucked out from behind someone else’s eyes or ears or heart (figuratively speaking). For a second you stand in front of someone’s creation and sometimes you fit comfortably in their shoes or you at least step away from your own little reality just for a moment. All of it involves integration, interaction, empathy, some type of understanding and a little willingness to share.

Bristol has art leaking out of most corners, walls and alleyways but there’s something special about the Arnolfini. It’s hard to oversell it because as they say themselves, it is one of Europe’s leading centres for the contemporary arts and is at a fantastic waterside location at the heart of Bristol’s harbourside. The space inside adds a solid silence that can be specific to room after room according to different art displays.

I visited an exhibition about immigration and the diaspora a couple of years previously and a film was shown in a small room that was all shadow apart from one screen that took up a wall. Something so magical about the Mediterranean seen from Algiers. The water so blue, the goodbyes just as painful but a different language entirely.

In the same edition of the Observer, emigration is noted as being sadly engrained in the Irish culture and it is an Irish composer’s work that has caught my eye in the listing of future art installations. As part of the Lingua Franca series,writer French-Norwegian Caroline Bergvall and Irish composer Ciaran Maher are presenting the exhibition ‘Say Parsley’.

This is a sparse sound and language installation organised across a number of spaces, which becomes a place for mishearings, recognition, assumptions, misattribution. You hear what you want to hear. You hear what you think you hear.

The background to Say Parsley is the biblical ‘shibboleth’, a violent event where language itself is gatekeeper, and a pretext to massacre. The pronunciation of a given word exposes the identity of the speaker. To speak becomes a give-away. Are you one of us, not one of us? How you speak will be used against you.
The most recent example of a large scale shibboleth was the massacre of tens of thousands of Creole Haitians on the border of the Dominican Republic in 1937, when the criteria for execution was the failure to pronounce ‘perejil’ (parsley) in the accepted Spanish manner, with a rolling ‘r’.

Installations such as this are not only about seeing the world in a different way but finding a way to experience, visit and understand it as well.

The exhibition takes place between Saturday 8 May to Sunday 4 July 2010 so it’s not for a little while but it’s nice to have something to anticipate.

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