“I don’t think we can communicate with each other through language only. We invented language as a tool to communicate with, but it actually can’t help us truly explain what we feel.”
Artist Stine Marie Jacobsen has been visiting Tranås since March 2019. During her visits she worked with teachers and students at the SFI* language school to create a new method to overcome difficulties in learning new languages through an exercise which connects short term memory with long term memory.
Can you explain a little about your ongoing interest in languages?
Yes, it originally came through my performance activities. In performance, you use a lot of instructions to guide people or oneself and to communicate what kind of movements you want. I especially have an interest in that moment when you are describing a movement which hasn’t happened yet. Meaning, when asking a group of people to do something in the future, like for example simply asking someone to take your pen and put it somewhere. This moment is asking someone to take part in an action “with” you. Well in this case “for”you, because you just asked them to move the pen and not what they thought of the pen or to do something with the pen.
On a more basic yet complicated level, I don’t think we can communicate with each other through language only. We invented language as a tool to communicate with, but it actually can’t help us truly explain what we feel. Unless we would speak in poetry. There is always something hidden behind the everyday language; it’s the impossibility of translation; from mind to body and mind to language. What interests me in collaborations, is when you try calibrate your language to understand other people.
So you are interested in “body language” and not just the language we use in everyday life.
Yes, I don’t think you can take one without the other. Body language is poetry and a more free play with language than everyday language which is so heavily controlled by syntax and grammar.
I’m also interested in how different countries teach languages, because how a language is constructed reveals the culture behind it. In some countries it is more easy to just jump into a language and do mistakes. Whereas in other countries, the culture is more controlling in whether you speak the country’s language correctly or not.
Language learning is very psychological and it can be problematic how a language is taught.
What is the content of that language? Is it Swedish culture or Afghani culture? Is integration disguised as language lessons? Am I learning a way of behaving or am I learning a language? In Bayern Germany something quite problematic is happening: there are value courses for refugee children. They don’t need any extra value teaching that the children already living in Germany. It’s a counterproductive separation. We are not far from colonialism and we don’t pay attention to this. There are a lot of invisibilities unspoken and unnamed when it comes to language teaching.
In my work, I try to understand the way people speak, how they construct and present themselves through language. Some are more aware of language than others. You can sonetimes recognize which nationality a person has in the way they speak. And a perverse abuse of this tracking in language is happening in for example England, where experts listen to people’s accents and dialects in order to find out where a person with a missing passport is from, so they know where to deport them back to. And yes sometimes mistakes happen and a person is deported to a wrong country.
So you see, language is revealing.
In the beginning you said your interest with language started with performance. But when did you exactly started using it as a theme in your work?
I probably started using language more in the last year of my education, in 2009. I wrote a lot of performative texts, where someone is doing an act and the reader had to imagine the performance. Deleuze calls this “a speech act”. A speech act is very common in performance. For example you walk into a room and say “Right behind you there’s a huge monkey! And it looks like this and…” the better you describe that monkey, the more you influence the other person. The German’s have this great word for the mental images which imagine how events unfold: “Kopfkino”, which means “head cinema”. All our hopes and fears happen in a dramatic narrative in our minds,
In one of my ongoing language projects, “Direct Approach” which I started in 2012, I ask people to retell a violent film scene from memory. Their descriptions of film fiction merges through their language with their lifes. I started this project, because I was interested in having conversations about what violence means to people. I was interested in how people define violence. This project has developed and become a bigger mirror of different experiences around the world.
In 2009 or so, I started working with language psychologist Anne Uhrskov in 2009. I met her in 2005 when we both had a job as a study councilors and travelled to different high schools, informing students about what different (in my case creative) educations they could take. Anne told me about a memory and prejudices experiment she had created, where people read a news article of a foreign person being attacked by three Danish persons and when they’re asked to retell the article story three weeks after, many switch the roles around. So you can investigate the internal prejudices through this exercise.
Can you explain a bit about your research in Tranås?
During my research trip I went to schools and decided to work with one of the schools. The school is called SFI and the students there were a bit older. Some of them have never had the chance to learn to read and write. I spoke to a teacher at SFI, Anna Gkirmpa, who explained how difficult it is for the students to learn a different language. Imagine that you have never learned to read and write and suddenly you have to learn another language in order to stay in a country. The pressure must be unimaginably hard!
During my talks with the students and the teacher, I thought of when I was nineteen years old and went to music school and had to learn reading musical notes but it was very mathematical and hard for me, because I am literally number blind and had a lot of difficulties understanding it. Then a teacher recommended me this exercise: Imagine and visualize walking down your childhood street. Do this everyday. Take a break and sit-down and narrate to yourself what is on the street. What is on the left or right side? What was the street like? I did it for a month. In the beginning I could walk through the street maybe for five minutes in my imagination. Towards the end, I could be there for an hour or more. I realized that I had hidden information in my mind that I had just forgotten. The aim of this exercise is to combine your short term memory with your long term memory. Apparently it heightens your learning capacity. So I shared this thought with Anna, the teacher at SFI, thinking this exercise might be useful for them. I asked her to help me and guide the students to try out that exercise. They started doing the exercise a week or ten days before I arrived.
The students I worked with have had to flee from different wars, so I was aware that there could be potentially sad memories coming out or feelings of homesickness. And a lot of them said it is hard for them to remember because of the hard times they’ve lived and the violent experiences have erased some of their memories. But they reacted super positive to the exercise, because it was about their childhood streets memories and which most idyllize. They were happy to revisit and describe the lives they had then with the lives they have now. And now they’ve had some time to reflect on the exercise, we should ask them about their opinions on my project.
Lots of people are taking part in your work in Tranås. Teachers, students, translators, actors. You told me you have a specific term called “Creative equivalent”. Can you tell us what that is?
It’s a term I made for a person, whom I connect and collaborate with, who understands and can translate and mediate me to the non-art organization or institution they work in. In Tranås the creative equivalent is Anna, the teacher from SFI, who helps me in communicating with her organization. Sometimes a social organisation can’t relate to my ideas and the creative equivalent helps me mediate it and to make the idea work also in their organization. Another term and approach which has influenced me, is called the “incidental person”. This term was coined by British artist John Latham to describe an active listener who avoids “you and me” dichotomies. Latham was one of the founders of Artist Placement Group (APG), which was an art organization who since mid 1965 have brought art into society by placing artists in institutions to directly make art there. APG artists make contracts and write long insightful observational reports. So, the incidental person is me. I personally just don’t write down my observations in long reports, I rather minimise it to a concise core which I think more people will pay attention to read. I am incidental, because I visit a non-art institution like SFI, and observe and assume that the answer is already there. Whatever you need in order to make a good art work is already there, on site and in situation. The artist just needs to get rid of their ego and really listen to people.
* Swedish For Immigrants (normally known as SFI or Svenskundervisning för invandrare in Swedish) is the national free Swedish language course offered to most categories of immigrants. Immigrants who speak Danish or Norwegian are ineligible for free Swedish tuition through SFI. All other persons who have emigrated to Sweden are entitled by law to Swedish language education. Wikipedia”