My friendship with artist Jesse Chun is etched in experience between places and between languages. Our relationship is one of a curator with an artist whose work consistently challenges and compels you to new understanding as well as friends with a shared curiosity (and fascination) for the respective work of Édouard Glissant and Trinh T. Minh-ha. Our encounter led to ongoing exchanges informed by an ever-growing reading list and exhibition-hoping (in person or through archival discoveries). This excerpt, done while self-quarantining, felt like a felicitous contribution to this invitation and a creative outlet to our isolation.
Daisy Desrosiers (Rail): We met in NYC in 2018 when you were opening your show, Name Against the Same Sound, curated by Howie Chen at Baxter Street (Camera Club of New York). After taking a look at the show together, we talked about our mother tongues and the familiarity experienced through forgotten language, sounds, and translation, and its limitations. Your work takes that on using learning software and pedagogies as well as translating devices. What also strikes me, in your exhibit, is the role of memory. What do you recall from that first encounter?
Jesse Chun: I found your memories about the Untranslatable so resonant—the words that cannot be captured in English or French or vice versa—and for me, between English and Korean. I remember us discussing further into the untranslatable in regards to language and visual as well as sonic forms, and the abstract measures that we take in our individual practices to play with that space. In the exhibition we met at, I was employing various mechanisms of the English language pedagogy to decenter and re-interpret the power dynamics of the world’s most dominant language, and I felt that you immediately understood the violence and weight of translation that happens in those spaces… and the interior ramifications of that experience.
Rail: What is the role of translation in your work?
Chun: I’ve been thinking of translation as a position and intent, rather than a tool or process. In my work, I’ve been employing the role of the artist as translator to re-interpret found language, documents, and bureaucracies. I think that when you’re an artist working with pre-existing objects, systems, and symbols, you are absolutely playing the part of a translator to the world. Whether it is what you decide to leave out, keep, abstract, or redact—it’s the intention of the translator that determines new “languaging.”2 That desire for authoring new modes that reflect the diasporic, non-monolithic condition of language is what drives my interest in translatability. Who is being translated, and for whom? For this reason, I’ve been engaging with mistranslation as an active tool for poetics—translating language visually instead of semiotically, or abstracting language into the voiceless consonants of its sound, and re-imagining institutional mechanisms that render one legible as a subject into visual abstractions. By complicating the relationship to correct translation and legibility, I am interested in extending the space for interiority, complexity, and untranslatability.
Rail: Speaking of “languaging” and the work of Rey Chow, you and I share many reading lists which is one of the things I love the most about our ongoing correspondence. You introduced me to Chow’s Not Like a Native Speaker (2014). I’m interested in your thoughts on this quote from her book:
I am not adhering strictly to the common definition of the translator as a professional word worker who carries meanings from one language into another. Instead, I would like to explore translation and translator by way of something (ap)proximate—namely, the notion of an arbiter of values, as embedded in disparate cultural literacies or systems […] What narratives of development, loss, and innovation can account for the present range of local oppositional movements? And how do people define themselves with, over and in spite of others? What are the changing local and world-historical conditions determining these processes?
Chun: This quote really resonates with what I shared about borrowing the stance of a translator to recontextualize and re-interpret the things that exist—whether it be documents, history, or the world’s “common language,” English. I think that the postcolonial condition, the current efforts to decolonize language, is one of the “changing local and world-historical conditions determining these processes.” At least speaking for myself personally—I learned English as a second language as a Korean kid growing up in colonial Hong Kong under the British rule in the ’90s. So, my relationship to language was always linked to witnessing the relations between colonialism, bureaucracy, translatability, and power. My art practice gives me the space to re-author that. Chow also says something else incredibly poignant in this book which I’ve quoted in a recent work that puts into words what I’ve been exploring in my practice as well. She suggests that we situate the English language as a “point of departure rather than the final destination of a newly configured scene of languaging.”
Rail: Between me moving in and out of English through French forms and you being informed by a Korean-Chinese-Canadian-American diasporic experience, where do you think our shared space is?
Chun: I actually think we meet each other the most in moments of mutual, lived in absurdity and humor. I think we meet in our acceptance of NOT prioritizing clarity as a mode of communication. I keep thinking about the Western society’s focus on clarity of communication and writing, that we’re so thoroughly trained to speak, but not really taught on how to listen well, and listen better. What I admire about my communication with you is that you listen with the same rigor as when you speak. That’s something I am working on myself as I reflect on language.
- The title of this exchange is borrowed for our beloved, Édouard Glissant’s book, titled Poetic Intention (1969) which we both read extensively and talked endlessly about.
- “Languaging” found in Rey Chow’s book, Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (2014), which she borrows from A.L.Becker. “For Becker, the term language refers to a system of rules or structures, whereas the term “languaging” refers to an open-ended process that combines attunement to context, storing and retrieving memories, and communication.” Rey Chow, Not Like a Native Speaker, Columbia University Press, NYC, p. 125.