Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice (2010), video still from Act VI: Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa (performed by Francisco Martínez), courtesy of the artist.

Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice (2010), video still from Act VI: Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa (performed by Francisco Martínez), courtesy of the artist.

NEW YORK, October 18, 2010—The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons The New School for Design presents How To Do Things With Words, an exhibition of radical speech acts organized by Melanie Crean, an artist and assistant professor at Parsons. On view October 30 through November 9, Parsons will host an opening reception on November 1, 6:00-8:00 pm.

The exhibition presents the work of fifteen artists and collectives who through gallery works, talks, workshops and performances explore the relationship between language and power, media, action, and socio-political context in a variety of innovative ways.

“In a time when economic, environmental and geopolitical contexts are in a state of dramatic upheaval, and international populaces demand change in the face of seemingly vacant political rhetoric, the need to explore the political qualities of language and the meaning of radical speech is absolutely crucial,” said Crean.

The exhibition takes its name from the title of a groundbreaking treatise by British philosopher J.L. Austin, who eloquently presented the concept of “speech acts.”  He disavowed the notion of language as something “passive” that simply describes reality, but rather described it as a set of practices that can be used to “affect and create realities.”  Austin’s premise is that speaking itself contains the power of doing.

Participating artists include Melanie Crean; Azin Feizabadi and Kaya Behkalam; Andrea Geyer and Sharon Hayes; Yael Kanarek; Carlos Motta; Martha Rosler; the Iraqi/U.S. Cross Wire Collective; Mark Tribe; and The Yes Men.  Artists presenting talks and performances include Wafaa Bilal; Azin Feizabadi; Yael Kanarek; Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong; Mark Tribe; and Mary Walling Blackburn.

Several pieces in the show deal with the concept of reenactments, questioning what occurs when speech is translocated across time, space and geopolitical context. Carlos Motta’s Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice (2010) reenacts a series of speeches concerning the concept of peace, originally delivered by six liberal and left-wing Colombian presidential candidates from the last century who were assassinated because of their ideology.  Performed by actors in public squares in Bogota during a presidential campaign, the work emphasizes the transformative potential of fiction as a tool of reparative collective memory. Mark Tribe’s Chinoise A  (2009) is a remake of a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise” (1967) in which a student discusses the possibility of bombing a university with a professor.  Reframed to take place in New York in 2004 over online video chat, the piece blurs anachronistic elements with concepts like terrorism, which take on new, unexpected meanings. Azin Feizabadi and Kaya Behkalam’s The Negotiation (2010, produced by Haus der Kulturen der Welt), stages a conversation about a potential revolution. Working from a script containing disembodied quotes from unnamed famous revolutionaries the actors blur the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Melanie Crean presents a series of three works entitled The Shape of Change, exploring the relationship between language, cognition, and change in times of great flux.  Music for Shiloh (2010) displays a grid of images and sound files depicting a child learning to walk and speak, which are slowly abstracted into a music and dance score, questioning the nature of documenting and reconstructing language. How My Son Learns to Speak of War (ongoing) is an ongoing video piece, documenting the artist’s five-year-old son, as his idea of conflict transitions from fantastical super hero to a hybrid of fiction and facts heard on the news. The Anonymous Archives (2010) is an interactive online archive of texts written by Iraqi and American citizens, expressing their desire for change, freedom and their evolving definitions of utopia during the U.S. military divestment from Iraq.

Three projects investigate unstable relationships between speech, action and text. Conversations on the Line (2010) is a series of text posters created by Crean and Huong Ngo in collaboration with students from The New School and the University of Baghdad, based on a sequence of online conversations concerning language, power and speech acts. Andrea Geyer and Sharon Hayes’s In Times Like These, Only Criminals Remain Silent (2005) is a wall-mounted series of newspapers, presenting anonymous outlines of protesters containing empty placards on one side, and a list of questions on the other concerning belief systems, public opinion and identity formation. Yael Kanarek’s Not Yet No. 1 (2010) references Reem Fadda’s concept of “notyetness” as an agent of creativity and regeneration in the Palestinean-Israeli conflict. The composition tightly knits the term, translated into Hebrew and Arabic and cast into silicone letters, into a single Modernist square.

Other work explores the concept of disinformation, in both positive and negative light.  In If Its Too Bad To Be True, It Could be DISINFORMATION (1985), Martha Rosler re-presents the NBC Nightly News and other broadcast reports to analyze their deceptive syntax and question the fallibility of electronic transmission. The Yes Men take a different tact by presenting a set of instructional videos from The Yes Lab (2010), a series of workshops that train activists in methods such as “identity correction” to facilitate their political actions.

The gallery space itself is intended as a space for speech and action, designed by Jordan Parnass as a contemporary interpretation of U.N. Security Council chamber through laser-cut plywood furniture.

A series of performances and presentations include Trigger Words by Yael Kanarek (November 2), which investigates the impact of words used to categorize, separate and wound; a screening and discussion by Azin Feizabadi of The Negotiation by (November 4); AND, AND, AND by Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong (November 5), which explores the process of becoming a citizen; Mary Walling Blackburn’s The Order of the Joke (also November 5th), which parses the raw materials of contemporary war jokes; Performance, Mediation and the Public Sphere, a lecture by Mark Tribe (November 8); and a lecture by Wafaa Bilal about artists’ responses during time of war (November 9).  All events will begin at 6:30 pm in the galleries.

The exhibition was supported by funds from Parsons The New School for Design and The Jerome Foundation.