Touching space, video installation, Canberra ContemporaryArt Space 2008 photos: Brenton McGeachie
Touching space explores the intersections between sign language and English, between codified sign systems and the half unconscious gestures we all make, between intelligible images and abstraction.
I first began to study AUSLAN, (Australian Sign Language) after reading Oliver Sacks’ book Seeing Voices which investigates the history of ASL (American Sign Language) and discusses cultural, physiological and neurological factors informing the development of signed languages and the ways in which people who use those languages perceive and communicate. I began seeking out this material as I was curious about working with a language that uses space and time as key elements. Grammatical structure and the meanings created in the acts of signing are contingent upon location of the ‘speaker’s’ gestures in space, direction of their movements and the pace of those gestures.
Sign languages; languages that incorporate the use of codified hand gestures, facial expressions and body language to communicate complex abstract and concrete concepts exist across cultures and in many different communities around the world. Just as spoken languages develop over generations and incorporate grammar, syntax and semantics, sign languages develop in action across generations of signers/speakers. They form into regionally specific dialects, incorporate slang and jargon, and grow and shift in response to cultural change.
AUSLAN, like the American, British and Irish sign languages, is a complete language in itself. It is not English. It has a different structure, word order, grammar and syntax.
Touching space uses a particular kind of signed communication called finger-spelling. Finger-spelling is not AUSLAN per se. It is a method for spelling out individual letters of the English alphabet to effectively ‘write’ words in space. It is a kind of add-on to sign language, a way of introducing specialised terms or names for which no sign exists. As the Deaf and hearing impaired communities in Australia operate within a wider hearing culture and community where the dominant language is English, Australian Sign Language often incorporates the use of individual English words for the sake of clarity and convenience. Finger-spelling performs this gap-bridging function. I like to think of finger-spelling as a way of writing in the air.
Touching space uses finger-spelling to spell out a poem ‘The secret’ by Emily Dickinson. I chose an Emily Dickinson poem because I am fascinated by the way she uses metaphor and visual imagery, and the slippage that occurs in her poems between representation and abstraction. Dickinson so effectively evokes the spaces between the physical and abstract, real and imagined, life and death.
The moving hands in Touching space have been abstracted to a point where they begin to evoke other imagery, medical imagery, strange skeletal creatures, trees and landscapes according to different viewers. I am interested in the way people’s brains can get caught in a kind of feedback loop, that experience of having a word on the tip of your tongue but not being able to access it. This has inspired the construction of images that move between being recognisable and being somehow abstract so the viewer has the imaginative space to respond and construct their own imagery.
The spelling hands create meaning if you have learnt to interpret the signs. Viewers’ brains make connections and construct meanings even if they cannot ‘read’ the writing in space.