Even though I’ve been making a lot of stuff and been involved in many projects during my stay in Japan, I’ve failed to keep this blog updated, so I’ll try to slowly and retroactively add everything. I’ll start with the latest: my graduation project.
I spent the last two years in the New Media program at the Tokyo University of the Arts (named the university thus as it may be, I actually lived and studied in Yokohama, where the Film and New Media school is located.) The second year is when most of one’s energy goes into the graduation project. I’m not going to get into details here, but it was a rough year for our generation, and I’m glad it’s over. I had a first start with my Nendo project, of the design of a programming language inspired by art and design thinking, but the last six months or so had me switch over to what I call in English the Come to think of language project, which I guess you could call a linguistic experiment. I’m of course not a linguist, but I am very interested in the field and inspired by some of its thinkers. The linguistic relativity principle, or so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, was one idea that drew me to the original programming language design, and that inspired the project that I ultimately completed. This is a very simple but powerful idea: the observation that language is deeply linked with thought, and that different languages would foster different ways of thinking. This has been highly debated in the linguistics field (Chomsky’s followers are very much against this idea, for, I dare say, mostly historical reasons,) but rather than attempt proving or refuting it, I assumed its truth and let it influence me.
What I ended up doing was first designing a language of my own. This is what I described in my previous post, A constructed language, although it was slightly modified after that point. The language is something entirely different from natural languages—in fact, it’s modelled after a programming language paradigm. With this language as material, I created three works using it. We held a graduation exhibition, and the corner occupied by my work I documented in the video at the top of this post.
The first and main work was a picture book, which I got printed in small numbers.
For this work, the linguistic grounding was achieved using pictures to explain vocabulary during the first half, and then using those within a short comic-like story in the second half.
The second work was a series of four postcards themed puzzle poetry. These had a visually composed poem written in the same language, but with a different writing system designed to flow from character to character as cursive handwriting. The reverse side had a vocabulary table in Japanese (I later translated it into English.) With a reduced vocabulary common to the four poems, I attempted to use my language expressively.
The third and final work is a video, for which I wanted to prove a point by using a novel medium. In this one, two people converse by placing wooden blocks in order, in nine different positions surrounding a starting block. Like in the other works, this format of expression for the language uses a one-dimensional array of words, but results in a three-dimensional structure that gives shape to a phrase. Using a vocabulary of only nine words, this one relies the most on context, requiring pointing at things around, without which the level of ambiguity makes communication impossible.
The three works are different to varying degrees, but they all use the same underlying language system I devised: once grokked thanks to one work, although the vocabulary changes, the other works should be very easy to understand. For each, I’ve custom-built a small vocabulary just for the purpose of understanding/decoding the work at hand. Although the underlying language can be expanded to be self-reflecting like any natural language and thus become flexible and self-dependent, since the language itself was not the focus, but rather its use in the works was, I did not use this ability. My focus was on the process of encoding/decoding this language (or language-alike, if you prefer) and the thought process that, both me as author and the viewer, incur in the understanding.
The language, although extremely simple, is very different from natural languages, so most people I’ve shown my work to have had a hard time grasping how it works—particularly people without mathematical inclinations, for whom the concept “predicate” or “function” is not readily understood. This means that I should have been much more gentle in its exposition, as the picture book format would hint. However, the actual decoding of the messages embedded in the three works takes considerable effort without any external help. This is a crucial point that, had I the required time, would have liked to address. Alas, I’m not one to look back too hard on stuff I’ve made, so what I present here I consider flawed but finished. The language itself, though, I want to expand upon and carry over to forthcoming works.
I’ve made available online all of these works, plus some related material that may be of interest. I translated into English what was pertinent.