Language and Politics
  Basic Linguistics

Das Wort "Sprachspiel" soll hier hervorheben,
daß das Sprechen der Sprache ein Teil ist einer Tätigkeit,
oder einer Lebensform.
(Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen 23)


Searching in Wittgenstein's books for a definition for, let's say, "game" is like opening a dictionary of a language you don't understand: every word sends you to the next word entry. With the dictionary you eventually will be able to find a meaning, but with Wittgenstein, you "only" find new questions that suggest finally, that there is no other meaning than the one you know already when asking "what is a game". So Sprachspiel - language game - is therefore everything one does with and in language. There are many Sprachspiele, in fact there are as many language games as there are sentences, or actions or forms of living (see philosophical investigations 23). And I might add: as many language games as there are intellectual, cultural or art games.


Art definitely has game structure. I don't want to dismiss by using the word game what usually is referred to as "political and social dimension of art". A game - the way we understand it when we say to some child "let's play a game" - is role oriented interactive behavior that usually is intelligible, reflects upon and plays with reality. Today, one speaks of games in many ways, for example when speaking about capitalism or high finance. Money and games always belonged together as well as language and games in the form of jokes, poetry or cynicism. Language and money are social products and produce rules and values in the exchange of goods, services or words. Language and money make up a measure, a middle term, a comparative third thing. The more money and language circulate, interplay, exchange, bump back and force like balls, the more it is valued or understood, the more you can buy or say.

Buying everything and speaking any language is promised by credit cards: "It's Fluent in Every Language" (Visa); "Any Time, Anywhere, Any Language" (MasterCard). Today, the language games of copywriters do their jobs of redefining seduction and object relationships almost as well as Wittgenstein did his job of redefining philosophy and linguistics. In the domain of fine art it was the ready made that disconnected itself from previous art games. Duchamps' signature on an object he purchased in the sanitation section of the "Bazaar de l'hôtel de ville" opened up another language and object game that informed me as an artist. Opposite to the quick cash and carry logic of the shopping and displaying strategies of a ready made, I am slowly studying foreign languages over many years as my art practice, since it is not possible to acquire a new language as fast as buying a product. So my "ready made" is a Sprachspiel that requires "trying hard". It decontextualizes not so much an object but a practice: Studying. Learning, listening, speaking and reading are not usually reserved for fine art activities. I engage in them as a simple person but also in my practice as an artist. As Wittgenstein says, language games are part of an activity as well as of a form of living.


But before I want to say something about "studying as art work" I want to briefly note the historical and political context of learning languages. The development of the university and the development of what has become contemporary art have parallel histories. They both reflect the politics in the area of nation state building in the 19th century. Education and art where weapons in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against aristocracy and feudalism which had to be overcome politically and socially. But education and cultural production also helped to cope with the industrial revolution, imperialism and colonialism. Intellectuals and skilled workers, researchers and engineers were needed. An advanced communication system with sophisticated and effective visual codes were developed. A specific type of academic system was required to provide reliable information in all domains. National languages were created out of political reasons. An academic and juridical terminology that reflected and justified the activities and interests of these new competing nation states was created in universities.

National languages were imposed on terrain where mostly other languages or dialects had been spoken. Foreign languages were also studied in order to gain expertise and authority over the cultural heritage of these places that were often subjected to colonial regimes. The history of colonialism is also the history of European languages - Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, Russian etc. - that were exported and imposed around the globe. But the fight over territories, nations and languages has not stopped with colonialism. There is still much of blood lost even within Europe. It is beyond games. Just open a news paper on Yugoslavia, Spain or Belgium. It is important to note that foreign language acquisition is a powerful and influential tool in the process of intellectual socialization. It creates not just individual multilingualism but also a criteria for selection processes as well.


Eurocentrism, representation, knowledge, power, politics and its institutions have so been playing key roles in maintaining the dominance of European languages around the globe, particularly the linguistic imperialism of English. This analytical background of a critique of ideology inspired and framed my learning Japanese as an artistic practice. At the end of the 80s and in the beginning of the 90s the United States and Europe (based on fear) criticized Japan for its technological and economic hegemony. These obstacles still account for the discrepancies in the trade balance and cultural exchange between Japan and Europe/United States. Learning an Asian language is still considered —impossible," a preconception that I too shared and that hampered my studies. Nonetheless, I began in 1992, and have been studying and speaking Japanese since.

In 1993 I dedicated an entire museum show in Tokyo to the study of Japanese. After that the work 3 Months, 3 Days A Week, 3 Hours A Day - Basic Modern Greek followed and made me learn modern Greek, for the purposes of an exhibition and of theory in 1994. Greece with its languages was the —Imaginary Other", the —Imaginary East" primarily for the Germans who eagerly embarked on learning Greek for the ideological and political appropriation of Greece. In the 19th century the Germans viewed Greece in the same way Napoleon considered Egypt - he claimed —nous sommes les vrais musulmans" (—We are the real Muslims") The Germans too portrayed themselves as the —Real Greeks" even calling into question their origins. The waning interest in Ancient Greece and the respect for its ancient culture (that still persists in schools) did little in altering the relationship with the so-called "Gastarbeiter" (guest worker) in Germany, Switzerland and Austria , i.e. Greek foreign laborers with language difficulties that had been exposed to relative inhospitality over the last 20 to 30 years. The language games used in the relationships with the "Gastarbeiter" were and are often very nasty.

The next language I began to learn was Korean, however, within the context of a Japanese exhibition. Korea had for many years been the victim of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century, something that still taints their political and social relations. The learning of Basic Korean in the context of a Japanese exhibition allowed me to draw a series of historical, tragic and ironic relationships. In learning Korean, I myself was also appropriating the prejudices of the Koreans towards the Japanese, as I did in reverse, from the Japanese while studying their language.


It is obvious that this mobile one-man university remains limited and dilettantish. In no way is it my purpose to reach linguistic excellence per se. However, over the years I have attempted to work on different languages in order to attain functional conversational and reading levels. The languages I previously had learned have been and will be also included into the context of my art and I will continue to study them. (i.e. Basic Russian, Basic Italian etc.) My linguistic efforts have also resulted in interesting social relationships and have occupied me for years, far beyond the parameters of the exhibitions. One's view of the world is altered by learning outside educational or professional institutions - an exercise that is "interest-free" (Kant) or "use-less" and has no apparent urgency. However this requires social legitimacy. In the context of art this question of legitimacy can be reformulated in a new and more complex manner that art is one of the last critical institutions which attempts to question the social order with symbolic, non-violent and non-criminal methods. The learning of languages as a an art practice is a minimal, symbolic intervention into a socio-cultural game that is overdetermined by both socio-economic as well as politico- ideological problems. It is comparable to the exemplary relationship psychoanalytic relationships offer through observation and discussion. In this comparison I react with a battle against forgetting and lethargy which construing myself as a symbolic test object that measures the scope and depth of cultural prejudice and its effects. Keep moving away from your mother tongue is one of my favorite phrases. It should be understood more hyperbolically rather than verbatim and should stand for a more tolerant, polyphonic and mutual understanding between peoples and cultures. It also refers to my multilingual living situation, as I have not lived in a German speaking context since 1987.

The tower of video tapes with 450 recorded hours of my Basic Korean studies can be understood as a sculpture in both a traditional and non-traditional sense, and simultaneously refers to the discipline of the very study of language, where the camera functions both as motivator and controlling observer. This set up also makes the work quantifiable. Ironically, I am not the only, that over time, forgets the languages I learn; by losing their magnetic properties over time the video tapes do so as well. This —loss of information" parallels my attempt to refuse representation. I try to turn my documentary and visual attention to the impossible and absurd visualization of the never-ending process of learning in order to avoid pictorial relationships that fall into the tradition of traveling and colonial pictures that are mostly defined by appropriation and the exotic. I am more interested in the context and the Sprachspiel of learning languages than in the mastery of another tongue.

Rainer Ganahl, New York October 1998