Recently I re-connected with a friend on Facebook and got distracted by her photo albums. As I looked through the images I discovered something thought-provoking. Dorka Kheen collaborated with well-known artist Brian Goggin to create an art installation in San Francisco’s historic literary district of North Beach. It is the first permanent solar-powered public art piece in the United States, and it’s an interesting take on the role and form of literature and language in our digital culture.
The Language of the Birds (postulated as a mystical, perfect or divine language used by birds to communicate with the initiated) is a flock of twenty-three sculpted books suspended above a noted landmark. The books are arranged open and grouped like a flock of birds flying high into the sky. At night, they illuminate to create visual patterns and spectacular zoetropic effects.
The sculpture is a powerful statement for the influence of digital technologies on literature and language. Are these books and their combined wisdom flying away from us — from a culture too easily distracted by micro-blogging and status updates? Or are they simply finding new form — joining the stream of data that surrounds us, more useful and valuable in their ability to be instantly accessed and reconstituted from thin air?
Under the fluttering books, words and phrases taken from over 90 local authors are sandblasted into the concrete, as if they have fallen from the pages above.
The words, appearing in multiple languages, intersect and overlap in no perceivable order. This mirrors the notion that information is all around us and poses a challenging question — what is the role of context in the creation of meaning? Bound in books, an author’s words are presented in context. But here, the viewers must create stories of their own, as the randomness allows for different levels of thought, consciousness, interpretation and meaning. The words and phrases are written in Chinese and Italian, ranging from the Beats to San Francisco Renaissance poets, which provide additional layers of culture, history and consciousness.
The Language of the Birds reflects the evolution of the written word in the digital age, and the thoughts, history and culture to which these words give form. The piece is silent — it does not speak any ‘language’ at all. And in doing so, it speaks all languages and provides viewers a space to interpret and create their own meaning.
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