ORIT GAT INTRODUCES THE WORK OF JESSE CHUN.
Jesse Chun, an artist working between New York and Seoul, invented the term ‘unlanguaging’. It’s an extension of ‘languaging’, which is an existing idea in linguistics – if ‘language’ is a fixed state of meaning, ‘languaging’ shifts it to an ongoing production of meaning. The term was first invented by A.L. Becker and later used and contextualised within a postcolonial framework by Rey Chow in her book, Not like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
For Chun, unlanguaging is an alternate location that is not in opposition to this term, but rather, puts forth another way of languaging. It is the act of unfixing language itself. What lies underneath the production of meaning? Unlanguaging offers other ways of navigating language. The drawings in her ongoing series, score for unlanguaging, are made by (mis)using stencils for the English alphabet. Chun uses a Roman alphabet stencil, not to make English, but to make new abstractions that escape its semiotic structures; that map new cosmologies of language.
What Chun liked about these stencils, these found objects, is that they break up the characters to make up their shapes. “A lot of what I’m doing,” Chun explains, “is taking English apart to see what’s beneath all these structures. For me, rather than trying to produce meaning, I try to unfix meaning itself and to propose other semiotic trajectories.”
Chun, who was born in Korea and grew up in Hong Kong during the British colonial period, where she learned English, says she made up the word ‘unlanguaging’ to find other ways of navigating language. However, the ‘un’ prefix does not set the term in opposition; language is not a binary.
The stencils, like living across cultures, are about undoing and making up again. And all I can think about by way of a comparison is how Arabic speakers send text messages transliterating Arabic characters into numbers. It’s called ‘Arabizi’, a confluence of Arabic words and English characters, with Latin numbers used as stand-ins for characters that don’t have an English equivalent. I’ve seen it everywhere, but I can’t read it. I have to use Google to understand it. Even words I know – good morning – become 9ba7 el 5air. There’s something so cool about it: the way it makes language alive, the flexibility of the solution to a problem with a new digital technology like texting, and a new way of communicating being introduced through the use of this unique ‘chat alphabet’.
Chun and I talked over video about this work. I recorded our conversation on my phone, and then never even transcribed it. Instead, I sat at my kitchen table in London and listened to the audio file, to the two of us non-native English speakers coming together to speak about speaking. I listen to it to be reminded of small details of our conversation. A book, an idea, a terminology. “I was thinking about the untranslatable space, and how you visualise that,” Chun explains. I look at these drawings and think of them as language not broken up, but as a form of connection. “When I was thinking about language”, Chun says, “I wanted to have new words.”
Orit Gat is a writer and the guest editor of this issue.