Brian Dailey. Words.

Peace. War. Freedom. Love. Environment. Religion. Democracy. Government. United States. Happiness. Socialism. Capitalism. Future.

We sat down with Brian Dailey six years into his journey with the WORDS project (2012-2018), capturing single-word reactions to thirteen nouns from over 1,500 participants in more than ninety countries around the world. 

WORDS is a complex work that, in its form as a multiscreen video tower, evokes both the biblical Tower of Babel as well as the digital billboards in New York City’s Time Square. The cacophony created by the sound of thirteen spoken words on thirteen monitors echoes the Babelian confusion of the tongues. Yet WORDS does not linger on this multiplicity of tongues; the confusion functions on a purely auditory level, since each word is accompanied by a subtitled translation. Instead, WORDS functions on multiple semiotic levels: the words spoken by the participants in their native tongue; the image of a flag behind each participants paired with the display of each country’s name; and finally the noun to which each participant is responding. These three semiotic levels bring to mind the three levels of translation proposed by the eminent Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson in 1959:

1– Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.

2– Interlignual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language.

3– Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of nonverbal sign systems.

In Dailey’s work, the first level of translation takes place when each participant, after having been prompted with one of the thirteen nouns translated by a local facilitator into his or her native tongue, utters a one-word response in the same language. The second level of translation proper occurs twice: first, when the local facilitator translates the English noun into the native language of the participant; and again, when the response given is translated in postproduction into an English-language subtitle. The third level is added when the green screen behind each filmed participant is replaced in postproduction with an image of the flag of the participant’s choice.

According to Charles Sanders Peirce, pioneering American philosopher, logician, and mathematician, a symbol is a “Representamen [a sign involving a plural relation] whose Representative character consists precisely in its being a rule that will determine its Interpretant”. Words and images of flags are such semiotic symbols. Dailey’s WORDS, however, despite its title and the aforementioned semiotic complexity, also functions as a filmed portrait of the World at a particularly critical time, marked by the rise of nationalism and calls for national independence that have led to a crisis of the European Union and the United Nations.

The sheer diversity of faces in WORDS taking turns on the thirteen displays is mesmerizing. Were it not for the brief pensive moments or emotional expressions that draw us back each time to the words themselves, the dynamic participants almost make you forget the original word prompt to which they were responding. In WORDS, Dailey presents language as a “thought-signs,” to use Peirce’s expression for the fact that “man is a sign” because we think in signs.

Six years in, WORDS is still an evolving artwork. As Dailey reflects upon the experiences and lessons gleaned from his global immersion into the matrix of concerns with which this project engages, he continues to prove new questions that can further illuminate different facets of this endeavor.

WORDS is a powerful visual expression of the challenges faced in communication across linguistic boundaries and national borders in today’s world. The picture that emerges when taking in the totality of the project is the tenuous nature of words in conveying any universal meaning, further underscoring the inextricably interwoven relationship between language, culture, and environment in our global age.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein


Text adapted from: Klaus Ottmann, “The Life of Words” and Wendy A. Grossman, “The Power of Babel: The Poetics and Politics of Language.” Exhibition brochure, 2018.

Contributors / Celeste Chen / Karena Halvoressen / Patrick Emad / Ashley Le

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