The eminent linguistic and literature theoretician Roman Jakobson wrote around 1933: “Without contradiction (between the sign and the object) there is no mobility of concepts and signs, and the relationship between the concept and the sign is automatized. Activity reaches its end and conscience of reality extinguishes.” Before Jakobson, other two founders of Russian formalism, Lev Iakubinski and Viktor Shklovsky,1 in the theoretical attempt to establish the differences between the “practical” and the “poetic” languages –as first methodological need to shape the study object of the new literary science they were creating–, coincide in the following basic and essential distinction: the dynamics of everyday life and ordinary communication automatize our perception of the world around us, as well as the words (signs) we use to refer to it (because, as we would say today, the perception of this world is also a function of language); while art behaves at that space in which the world recovers itself, and language becomes as material and alive as life itself. In the horizon of this theoretical tradition that begins with Russian formalism and is deepened in Czech structuralism, art’s space is that one in which mobility, instability, distance, sliding, between sign and referent, between significant and meaning, tends to become a basic procedure, a condition inherent to language use with aesthetic intention. Because, for the reception effect of a message with artistic intentions to provoke a lack of familiarization with perception, both with reality and language, one should attack, subvert, the established communicative schemes, those that have become conventional as a result of the use, or structured in rhetorical systems that respond to concrete ideological interests. Artistic communication is that one in which text’s structural ambiguity, which generates the metaphorical and metonymical use of language, puts the receiver in a situation of interpretative excitement, a dialogical and hermeneutical situation where a knowledge, emancipatedly born from automation, is produced: a kind of knowledge that ensures reality conscience not to extinguish.
Fonemas y Morfemas (Phonemes and morphemes), bi-personal exhibition of the brothers Iván and Yoan Capote, occupying the space of Galería Habana from late November 2011 until March of the present year, seems to be an artistic exercise inspired in –or determined to show– these theses on the specificity of the phenomenon of art, with which Russian formalism opened modern art theory in the early 20th Century. As explicated in the title of the work, on this occasion, the Capote brothers have language itself as object of their aesthetic reflections. In structural linguistics, as it is well known, phoneme and morpheme are terms that designate the material nature of language, both acoustically and graphically. And the intrinsic materiality to all kinds of languages is the basic condition for all sign system to work as a representation system, that is, a system of signification of reality. Hence, having language materiality as object of reflection means to potentiate to the maximum the self-reflexive ability of art –which is what the diverse isms of historical pioneers made in their moments, especially cubism, to radically break with mimesis’s illusionism that made invisible the values of visual language.
Iván Capote works with the graphic matter of the linguistic sign, making it become visual matter, as the manipulation of the graphic representation of a word (morpheme) becomes a visual form that subverts the conventional meaning of the sign in question. For example, in Exergo (Exergue), the artifice of scratching, from the cardboard, a letter or part of it, of any of the three words that make up the group, produces a duality of meanings, since each morpheme can be read in two different ways given the variation in one of the letters that form the word. Therefore, “arma” (arm), becomes “alma” (soul); “we’re” becomes “we’ve;” and “wake” becomes “make.” As it can be seen and read, in each transformation, mostly in the second and third ones, the change in sense that moves from one sign to the other, is loaded with objective of subliminal appellation: we are many, many more, and we have motives, dreams, hopes to wake and make, maybe a little more, for our common future. Of course, what I just wrote is my personal reading of the work. Out of closeness, every term sends me to a referential universe (other significances and meanings) that exceeds, at the time it potentiates, the stable (conventional) sense of each one of these words; and from the relationship, the articulation, that I, as a receiver, establish among the referential expansions, the sense the fills my interpretation is generated. The careful reader might have perceived that this work functions explicitly and intentionally, as a miniature language: just like in the system of language, each one of the signs of this group is defined for what it is not, it is enough for the receiver to perceive the variation of a letter in the word so that the difference in meaning is produced. As the father of structural linguistics put it: “in language there are only differences.” Given the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign (there is no natural, essential link between sign and referent, or between significant and meaning, it is merely about a conventional link, a cultural norm), we relate each word with a meaning of its own, because it was taught to us, but words do not have the power of signifying anything on their own, in an essentialist way, they do it due to the fact that their materiality (phoneme or morpheme) is different from that of the rest of the signs that form the system of language. It is the game of differences that makes possible the sense mobility inside the system. Iván Capote exploits these basic concepts of linguistics to produce metaphors, changes in sense generated by manipulating the rule of the game of differences, which, once activated by the receiver, is expanded outside, towards the reference context in which everyone develops his/her existence. Like any artist committed to not allowing reality conscience to be extinguished –by the hand of automation–, Iván fights against stable, definitive, interested relationship between significances and meanings.
On his side, Yoan Capote uses the phonic matter as an essential component of the artifacts and installations he constructs. He works with the acoustic element, both as sound or absence of it –an absence that can be determined as evocation, or made corporeal by means of the substitution of sound by other physical element. This last variant is the one attempted in a work like Demagogia (Demagogy), which consists in a bronze washbasin, with the form of a human ear, installed in the gallery with current water service and the corresponding accessories –like the soap–, so that the attending audience are able to wash their hands and freshen up their faces with some fresh water. Here, the sound element that is the one we automatically associate with the auricular pavilion, is substituted by the element of water, while the iconic symbol of the ear it changed to another sign (washbasin), through the change in function the artist subjects it to –a function that is made concrete in the practical use the audience gives to the piece. Therefore, when the symbol of the ear starts to develop the practical function of the sign of the washbasin, it is also loaded with its reference, so we start to perceive the ear as an artifact through which residual, contaminated water runs. It is in this point where the title of the piece starts to play a decisive role in the crystallization of sense. The substitution of a sign for another one results here in an inevitable metaphor: the same way dirty water runs by the washbasin, the phonic matter contaminated by demagogy –in any of its variants– runs by our ears. If we prolong the metaphor due to metonymic closeness, then we can associate the sewerage systems to which washbasins drain water with our psychic systems: reception place of all lexical dirtiness produced by society as a whole, etc.
An example of how sound is used as an essential component of an installation is Feedback. This is a piece with a great visual strength that draws all eyes towards it, like a sticky spider net. That is precisely what Yoan constructs, a spider net, a network, a rhyzomatic tissue made with stethoscopes. It goes from the network out towards a rhizome that ends up in the earphone of this kind of medical artifact. This earphone, the only one in the group, crowns the foot of a microphone located on a small platform. The public has to go up the platform and put the apparatus to the ear, then we are literally connected to a network that pumps a sound: the opaque, soar, rhythmical sound of life. This work provokes a visceral aesthetic experience; the beat that bangs in our ears is fused with the beat that bangs in our chest. It is almost an insolent sin to argue an interpretative hypothesis that intends to monopolize the vastness of senses with which an artistic fact of a similar visual and conceptual lyricism can be filled. I only want to point out something that is essential for me: the gesture of sign substitution also implemented here –sound amplifying device (microphone) by device to better listen to the sound (earphone)– insinuates a metaphor, that is, a subversion, an inversion from which the future hangs in the historical present. It is time to go up to the podium to listen to ourselves in a horizontal way…
Of course, many other pieces of this exhibition, that also had to consecutive editions, deserve to be commented… the Capote brothers continue consolidating their artistic career successfully, both in the context of Cuban contemporary art and in the international one, mostly because they do not neglect concepts’ mobility, which is the mobility that starts inside the sign itself: threshold from which all new conscience possibility on the experience of “reality” begins to open up.
Text published in La Gaceta de Cuba, May-June, 2012, 62-63.
1. Lev Lakubinski writes: “…other linguistic systems can be imagined (and exist), those in which practical end goes back to a second plane (without disappearing completely though) and linguistic formers acquire a value of their own (samotsennost)” (About the sounds of poetic language, 1916), Apud Boris Eijenbaum: “The Theory of the Formal Method,” in Nara Araújo and Teresa Delgado (comp.): Texts of Literary Theories and Critiques (From Formalism to Postcolonial Studies). University of Havana, Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico, 2003, 57.
On his side, Viktor Shklovsky, in his famous essay “Art as artifice” (1917) expressed it this way: “Automatization devours objects, habits, furniture, women and fear of war. ‘If the complex life of so many people develops unconsciously, it is like if it had never existed.’ In order to provide a sensation of life, to feel objects, to perceive that the stone is a stone, art exists.” op. cit., 33.