Forget guns and missiles, language may be the most powerful weapon in the human repertoire. It can be found in music and art, in politics and prayer, and now as the focal point for an exciting exhibition in Dortmund.
Make a promise or murmur the name of a lover; incite someone to commit a crime or make a confession: Words are like actions. They never go without consequences.
The portrayal of language as a performative act is the main theme of the exhibition "His Master's Voice: On Voice and Language," says Inke Arns, artistic director of Hartware MedienKunstVereins (HMKV), a platform for the production and presentation of contemporary art in Dortmund.
"Language isn't just descriptive. Things happen because of our words," said Arns, giving examples: "'I now pronounce you husband and wife' in a wedding ceremony, for instance, or at the launch of a ship when one says 'I christen this ship Joseph Stalin.'"
Arns has brought together 30 works from 1972 to the present. These pieces, mainly performances or video installations, show that words are anything but fleeting.
'Language is a weapon'
"Interrogation" is a jarring video installation by Ignas Krunglevicius based on the written records of a police interrogation in the United States. During the interrogation, policeman Robert John tries to pry a confession out of Mary Kovic, who has allegedly shot her husband. John's questions and Kovic's short, hysterical answers appear line for line on two video screens.
The text is accompanied only by techno beats and bleeps, yet the viewer feels like they're caught in the middle of the conversation.
"Everything that has transpired up until this date from the time you were are born is history. We can't change a thing. All we can change is from this point on," says the police officer. But the accused knows that anything she says can be used against her, and when she puts what happened into words, these take on a reality of their own.
"Language is a weapon. Keep it sharp," German writer Kurt Tucholsky is quoted in the exhibition. His words seem almost thoughtless, however, when one sees the stage design for "Hate Radio," a performance that addresses the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Hate-filled propaganda broadcasts on the popular RTLM radio station incited the Hutu people to exterminate their Tutsi neighbors.
In the stage performance by Swiss director and author Milo Rau, actors perform the hate speeches in a detailed replica of the original RTLM studios.
Lost in repetition
In Jewish folklore, it was the shem - the name of God written on a piece of paper - that awakened the mystical Golem of Prague. Saying the name of God was forbidden in order to avoid misusing it, since names can develop special power when they are articulated.
In this picture, Kosovan artist Jakup Ferri is listening to "Three Virgins," a performance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono where they relentlessly call out each other's names. The world around them ceases to exist and the lovers merge progressively deeper into each other.
Ferri interrupts the "Johns" and "Onos" by calling out his own name, sometimes in a bored tone, other times very loudly. After a while, the repetition voids the names of their meaning, and their impact.
Words, power and responsibility
"The exhibition also asks the question: Who is actually speaking when we speak?" says Inke Arns. "Are we really speaking or is it someone else who is speaking through us? Or the language itself that is speaking through us?"
When language becomes independent of the speaker, an ethical dilemma arises: "Who then takes responsibility for the power that the spoken word develops?"
In the video installation "Seven to 10 Million" by German artist Stefan Panhans, a young man delivers a monologue like a machine gun pumping bullets. He describes the mundane act of purchasing an electrical appliance. Inke Arns admits she is "absolutely appalled" by the video. "You ask yourself, what is actually speaking through this young man? He's just a medium used to convey advertising slogans."
If language is power, then being speechless makes you powerless. In 1985, the Turkish government banned 205 words, including "memory," "movement," "dream" and "theory." Aslı Çavuşoğlu used 191 of these words in a draft rap song. One of the hundred records with this song can be viewed - and heard - in the exhibition.
The exhibition "His Master's Voice: On Voice and Language" at the Dortmunder U is open to the public until July 7, 2013, including a series of live performances.