. . . and set ajar

- a language game -

by Tjebbe van Tijen

The five great elements have vibrations;
Each of the ten worlds has its language;
The six kinds of objects are expressive symbols;
The Dharmakakaya Buddha is the Reality.
[Kukai/Shoji jisso gi/The meaning of sound, word and reality: 817]
.. all things  havebeen harmoniously arranged by God in such a manner that the higher in the scale of existence can be represented by the lower, the absent by the present, and the invisible by the visible.
[Comenius/DidacticaMagna/The Great Didactic:  1657]

I shall also call the whole [of language], consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the 'language-game.'

[Wittgenstein/Philosophical Investigations: 1953]

language = a life long game

The following text summarises the observations, associations and ideas that form the basis of the proposal for an interactive installation "Janua linguarum resarata/The gate of language unlocked", as a part of the opening manifestation of the new Media Center of Sendai, Japan. It can not yet be a definite proposal as I only know the working title of the basic concept 'Door of Words', and have no information on space, facilities, budget and the way in which this new media center will function in the local community.

I understood that the reason to ask me was an installations I worked on: the 'Orbis Sensualium Pictus/The World Explained In Pictures' based on the book with the same title by Comenius (a project together with Milos Vojtechovsky). Principles, content and techniques developed in that project will be part of my new proposal. The 17th century Latin title of the proposed installation for Sendai has also been borrowed from Comenius, it belongs to one of his famous books on language learning.

The idea of having hand size objects as an interface to trigger image and sound sequences (as in the table interface in the Orbis Pictus project), will come back in a different form. I used the same technical principle of object sensing in a more recent installation on shamanism (with different stones and fossils as an entry to narrated creation myths; a project together with Fred Gales). A study, last year, for an essay related to the work of Agnes Hegedus on personal memorabilia (Artintact no.5) has stimulated my interest in, and deepened my understanding of the use of man made objects as memory and language devices. Earlier ideas to use sound imitating words, onomatopoeia, in an interactive installation (the speaking and listening interface of the first Orbis Pictus project in 1994), can be part of this new proposal. It might also be possible to integrate some of the Orbis Pictus material where the change in definitions of 'things' over three centuries, from Comenius to modern times, is made audible and visible. Adding material from the Japanese perspective seems to me essential. Last, there is a possibility to include an association of ideas from two ongoing studies, one on pictograms in the context of the history of visual language, and the other on shadow plays in different times and cultures. Recycling and recombining older ideas, for me, is not a repetition because of a lack of inspiration, but a possibility to extend and deepen what I have learned.

Instead of making a definite design I choose to describe the basic principles and the process that will lead to a functioning public work. Rather than working in my studio in the Netherlands with regular collaborators, construct a finished work, export it to an other country, and exhibit it, I like to propose a participatory process involving also local people, local talent and local facilities,  that will result in a 'non-finite installation', with the possibility to make variations and add more content, over the years.

The proposed 'installation' intends to make it possible to playfully learn what language is about. The concepts are based on the never ending debate on origin and function of human language with such now famous participants as Plato, Kukai, Augustinus, Bacon, Comenius, Locke, Leibniz, Swift, Humboldt, Sausure, Neurath, Wittgenstein, Piaget, Foucault, Eco and lesser known, equally important people that where gripped by questions of language as John Wilkins, Lancelot Hogben, Kees Boeke, Francis Yates, Roger Brown, Krzysztof Pomian, Yukio Ota, Robin Allott. I have no intention to impress the reader by 'dropping all those names', the list of names is of course incomplete and from some points of view inconsistent, I only use these names to illustrate the variety of opinions and the multiple perspectives that I want to use as starting points for the process that will lead to the making of the 'installation'.

The essay in which the basic principles are described is still in production, it has three interconnected parts:

BABIES -how new-borns develop language by the use of all their senses and how nobody knows the real answer on the question of a child: "where are words coming from?"

GULLIVER -how he witnesses on his travels experiments with new languages at the academy of Lagado and how this relates to Japan.

SEMIOPHORES -how objects can change from things to signs and can be invested with different meaning.

Reading all this, it might sound somewhat vague, but I think that form and structure of the actual installation can be visually simple and its use intuitive.

Flowchart of the functioning of the installation

Description of the 4 elements of the installation:

1 Hand-size (three dimensional) objects

objects as words for things

... a quantity of fifty or more objects depicting things from the real and imagined world like animals, plants, human body parts, vehicles, tools, mythical and cartoon figures, symbolic representations. These objects have originally been made for different kind of use: toy, souvenir, decoration, instruction... They are all somewhat similar in size and their original colours have been covered with a grey layer, emphasising their tactile character. The objects can be either directly on the floor or on low plates or carpets. They are not in any special order, the public can pick them up at will and put them back where ever they like. Each of these objects has a chip (a passive transponder) imbedded with an unique number that will be transmitted when the object is held at a close distance in the center of the Sensor/Display (4). When this is done sound and image sequences linked to the specific object will be displayed.

2 Shadow schablones

words as shadows of things

... a quantity of fifty or so pictogram like cut outs/schablones of a sturdy thin greyish material, with a diameter of approximate 30 centimetre and fastened to a thin long stick are placed in flat wooden holders with holes for the sticks. The schablone images can be of different origin: silhouettes of real things, heraldics, emblems, family crests (kamon), modern pictograms and other elements of the historical vocabulary of visual language. In the middle of each schablone a very thin flat transponder coil (with a diameter of 2,5 cm) is attached. Also this transponder coil will, when activated, transmit an unique number. By holding the schablone in front of the Sensor/Display sound and images will be triggered in a similar way as described under 1.

3 Question trigger cards

questions giving meaning to words

... small hard cards are set in boxes at both sides of the Sensor/Display (4). These cards can have words, pictures, symbols that link to the Objects (1) or Schablones (2). They can be picked out at will at held at the center of the Sensor/Display. These cards also have transponders with unique codes embedded. Once sensed they will trigger sound or image events that will prompt the public for giving the right answer by picking up either an Object (1) or Schablone (2) and hold it in front of the Sensor/Display (4). Questions, or better said cues can be real sounds of beings or things, onomatopoeia, words spoken in different languages or symbols. These audio or pictorial cues are limited to the Objects (1) and Schablones (2). A wide scala of such 'questions' can be imagined with both simple and more complicated ways of answering (finding and sensing single Objects and Schablones, or searching for groups that match). These questions will be pre-configured but one can easily imagine an extension of the installation whereby the public, on the spot, can formulate questions themselves and instantly store them in a 'Question trigger card' (using a console with a card reader/writer or another kind of interface).

4 Sensor/Display for hand-size objects and Shadow schablones

... a circular or rounded glass plate with a diameter of approximate 50 centimetres, suspended from the ceiling, on the outside a thin coil of copper wire embedded in the glass and the inner part of the glass plate made opal (sandblasted) to function as a back-projection surface. The glass plate is also used as a vibrating sound emitting surface using a special kind of small contact-loudspeaker. When a hand size object is held in the center of the glass plate, the embedded code of that object will be sensed by the antenna and its unique code transmitted to a computer that will activate related sound and image events. Except for the glass plate, its suspending wires (that can be also be used for the necessary data transfer) and the small size contact loudspeaker, no equipment will be visible. Projection on the center of the glass plate will come from a LCD projector positioned on the ceiling (or floor) using a special mirror that is positioned at some distance at the heart of the circular glass plate.

The computer will have a database with all the unique transponder codes of the Objects, Schablones and Question-cards. It will link instantly the specific image and sound sequences. Without going in much detail now, a short list of possible sequence elements can be given:

-real sounds of a thing or being
-sound symbols/onomatopoeia
-name or other brief description
-definitions from different times, cultures, sources
-symbol for group of things/genera
-series of images of members of such genera (dog/dogs, chair/chairs, tree/trees, ear/ears)
-taxonomies in which single things/being are classified (tableau's/diagrams)
-different allegoric representation of things/beings in heraldics, emblem art, comics

The installation needs to be database driven, so material can be changed or added when needed. Design norms can be fixed in style sheets, production procedures formalised, to make it possible for several people (even at different places) to work at it and still retain a unified style.

Some 'sequences' can only consist of image or only of sound, other can have a combination of the two. Many variations are possible, it all depends on time, money, availability of source materials, inspiration...

In conclusion I want to say that such an installation, with such a variety of (databased) material, will need a clear and transparent design. Although the objects and schablones will come from all kind of  different places and sources they should be chosen  and prepared in such a way that to the public it will seem to be a kind of spatial dictionary with sculptural and graphic entries. The right detailing of the Sensor/Display device is also of extreme importance. It should be as elegant and transparent as possible and still show its embedded functions (transmitter/receiver antenna, sound reproduction, projection surface). The computer and projector need not to be hidden and the hanging/standing of these pieces of equipment and the connecting cables can be part of the overall architecture of the space.

The space itself need not to be very dark, the luminosity of the new generation of small LCD projectors is sufficiently strong to allow for ambient light. Also the use of high quality mirrors and the relative small projection surface will give a strong and brilliant projection that can even withstand (filtered) daylight.

The acoustics properties of the proposed contact speaker in combination with a glass plate needs to be tested, but might work in such a way that the sound will be audible only in a restricted area, close to the glass plate. This is an important design aspect as multi-media centers tend to be overflowed by mall adjusted sound sources.

At this stage I will refrain from further detailing. What I wanted to sketch is a realistic frame work that can be filled in as circumstance will allow.

(c) Tjebbe van Tijen

Imaginary Museum Projects

Amsterdam, octobre 1999

* Kukai quote ->
-five great elements and their syllables: Earth/A, Water/Va, Fire/Ra, Wind/Ha, Space/Kha.
-ten worlds: of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, sravakas, heavenly beings, men, asura, beasts, hungry ghosts, inhabitants of hell.
-six kind of objects: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, thought.