Curated by Xinyi Ren
Artists: Luis Camnitzer, Jesse Chun, Furen Dai, Stine Marie Jacobsen, Taole Zhu
April 18 - May 8, 2019
Opening Reception: Thursday, April 18, 6:30 - 9:30 pm
Pfizer Building, 630 Flushing Ave, 2nd floor, Brooklyn, NY
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Argot presents artworks examining secretive communication and insider/private languages used for expression when freedom to speak openly is not guaranteed. Where the nineteenth-century French term argot originally denoted the jargon or slang of criminals, many minority groups today use language to creatively bypass or combat specific problems, from homophobia and racism to censorship and algorithmic control.
Argot opens the question of insider language as both safe space and walled city with Luis Camnitzer’s Insults (2009), a wall of statements in six different languages, each insulting those who cannot read the respective language. At once antagonistic and comic, Insults plays with the subtle tension between cultural superiority and the anxiety/shame of having a small advantage over its viewers. Furen Dai’s installation and interactive project #Silverwords (2018) takes keyword-based online censorship and users’ reactions to it to create a physical floating dictionary of sensitive terms. This interactive project, which could be read as an observation of the use of argot as spontaneous grassroots resistance, is then contradicted in Dai’s other project, Language Factory (2017). This video installation is the result of the artist’s expedition to Jiangyong county in Hunan, China, to explore the usage of Nüshu—a secret language invented and used by local women—and its transformation by cultural tourism and consumerism.
From here, the exhibition takes the argument to the broader scale of public languages, starting with a series of works by Jesse Chun critiquing the assumed publicness of English as today’s global lingua franca. Through multimedia collages using pedagogical text, image, and sound, Chun exposes the institutionalization of a language and questions whether we could imagine a world where the current domination of English is substituted by images, poetics, or play. This query is picked up by Stine Marie Jacobsen’s project Pidgin Tongue (2018 - ongoing), an educational project designed to encourage children to devise their own, fluid languages without regard for the rules of existing or established languages. Finally, Taole Zhu’s installation We decided to let them say, "we are capable", twice (2019) activates the site of the Pfizer building by tapping into the factory’s own history, and probes the relationship between secrecy in language, prophecy, and social change.
Argot attempts to expand our understanding of insider languages beyond a merely anthropological or linguistic interpretation by probing the reasons behind a need for secrecy, the joy in identification through style and coded words, the mechanisms at work in the play of camouflage, and the implied outcomes of decoding.
Image: Furen Dai, #Silverwords, 2018, mylar reflective balloons, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.