Supple Language: Jesse Chun Interviewed by Hannah Stamler

Disfiguring the hegemony of standard English.

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Jesse Chun, no on ou no, 2018. Pigment on linen decal. 11 x 8.5 inches. Photo courtesy Baxter Street at CCNY and the artist.

English as a Second Language feels like a misnomer. Few today can afford to make English anything but a first language. It is the lingua franca of international business, including the business of contemporary art. To have a secondary grasp of English is, in a sense, to be classed secondary: a speaker of a secondary language, a member of a secondary culture, or a citizen of a second or third world, to put it in dated diplomacy-speak. Could English ever become secondary; or, at least, could it change hands from its native speakers to the legions of “secondary” ones who far outnumber them?

South Korean-born Jesse Chun uses ESL materials to ask these questions. In Name Against the Same Sound, workbooks are photographed and manipulated to make creative and enigmatic phrases from their rote texts. Some words are emphasized to take on new valences; others are flipped until they become unrecognizable. Chun makes English slippery and strange, a process she calls “othering,” but which might, to use a non-English word, be equally described as ostranenie, Viktor Shklovsky’s term for art’s capacity to de-familiarize the commonplace. In its strangeness, Chun also makes English beautiful—its plasticity likely brought out because she can confront the language from a place of slight remove. English as a Supple Language. 

—Hannah Stamler

Hannah Stamler Your last solo exhibition, On Paper, looked at the language of immigration. How does the topic of ESL relate to this earlier body of work? Is English a prerequisite for navigating the world?

Jesse Chun My work has always been concerned with the conditions of language generated by bureaucracy, migration, and systems of communication. English is the standardized language for immigration documents globally, and proving English proficiency is a requirement for immigration in some places—in that way, the two topics are directly related.

More broadly, I think both bodies of work relate in that they investigate how language is used to validate or categorize people. I’ve been thinking about English as agency and currency. Being able to speak English affects the quality of jobs you get, the kind of pay you get, etc. I read years ago that the internet is eighty percent in English, though I’m not sure if that’s still the case. I also heard that Google Translate translates everything into English first.

English is used as a mediator or translator for all cultures. And yet, there’s no way that one language can possibly substitute for or fully translate everything.

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Jesse Chun, Name Against the Same Sound, 2018. Installation view. From left: Sound Natural, surround sound on airport speaker; no on ou no, linen decal on wall, 11 x 8.5 inches; Armo(u)r, sublimation dye on aluminum, 40 x 30 inches; Neither Nor, concrete, 16 x 16 inches; WORKBOOK, wall paint, text vinyl, single-channel video, 7m 24s. Photo courtesy Baxter Street at CCNY and the artist.

But do you think of English as completely international and standard? Your video Workbook (2017) seems to question this by pairing found text from American and British ESL workbooks. In one moment, “globalization” flashes on screen next to the British variant, “globalisation,” which I found particularly striking. 

English is international in that it is the dominant language of the world. At the same time, I wanted to show how, even in English-speaking countries, language is institutionalized in specific ways. I’ve heard British people tease Americans by saying, “You’re not speaking English; you’re speaking American.” I’m interested in that relationship between place and language. Depending on what country you’re in, English has different rules. It’s differently taught and, also, policed. 

For an audio piece in the show, I broke English down into just vowels and sounds. At the end of the day, language is only a bunch of sounds. We attach a lot of meaning to them and give them structures. But who decides upon these structures? Who sets these rules, and who teaches them?

In my new work, I’m trying to “other” English by fragmenting it or repositioning it. For one print, I took the word “no” and kept positioning it differently until it almost didn’t look like English writing. The strict rules determining how languages are supposed to be read or written mean that moving things around a little bit can fuck the whole system up. I want to present it as something foreign, and to find that line between the foreign and the familiar. 

HS Talking about policing English, and English that is both foreign and familiar, I can’t help but think of “International Art English,” the Triple Canopy project from 2013. Not that this was your intent, but I see your new work as something of a response to it, in that you intentionally disfigure English text and speech.

JC I think that project is hilarious for highlighting the absurdities of “artspeak.” It also reveals how insular groups of educated people can cultivate speech that can cross borders—as long as it’s spoken within the same elite headspace. I guess you could say both projects critique the institutionalization of language, but my work takes a very different position: What is it like when you actually can’t speak English? I am interested in talking about the moments when language cannot easily cross borders and enter certain spaces. Incidentally, I’m doing a digital publication with Triple Canopy this year titled WORKBOOK; I hope to unpack some of the emotional, linguistic, and geopolitical baggage that comes with English hegemony. 

I went through ESL as a kid, and when I talk to friends who went through it too, we all agree that you go into a kind of survival mode. You’ve got to pass ESL because otherwise you can’t go into the regular school program, and you can’t have a regular life, you know? In doing research for the video Workbook, I looked not only at ESL books but also books about translation. One of the translation books had a quote I really liked. It said that when you try to enter another language, it’s like trying to enter another world.

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Jesse Chun, Name Against the Same Sound, 2018. Installation view. From left: no on ou no (II), pigment on linen decal, 11 x 8.5 inches; Name Against the Same Sound, pigment print with frame, 50 x 30 inches. Photo courtesy Baxter Street at CCNY and the artist.

Translation seems to appear in your work in several ways. Workbook has a section on Google Translate, which you mentioned earlier, showing pretty literal text-to-text translation. In your prints, you reconfigure found text, which could be seen as a translation of sorts. And finally, you do what I’ll call medium-to-medium translation: photographing pages from workbooks, making prints of them, then making new prints from those first prints, and so on.

I definitely play with various meanings of translation. I do literal translations and also translate through methods of editing—fragmenting texts and re-editing them, or doing erasures. I’m interested in the textuality and physicality of language, and in seeing how texts and images transform from one format to another. My current exhibition has audio, video, prints, and sculpture; plus, I hand-drew text on the wall. I wanted to experience text in multiple forms. HS Your work draws on the physical materials of ESL, but these sources may soon be obsolete. People don’t teach English with paper books as much as they once did. You’re critical of the ESL programs you went through, but it also seems like you relished their materials, as well as the act of writing and translating by hand. 

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Jesse Chun, Name Against the Same Sound, 2018. Installation view. From left: Glossary, pigment print and graphite, framed, 11 x 8.5 inches; Sound Natural, surround sound audio piece, airport speaker, 1m 10s on loop; Drawing (i write well), graphite on wall. Photo courtesy Baxter Street at CCNY and the artist.

It’s true. People still produce physical workbooks, but a lot of ESL learning now happens online. And a lot of sources I used for my prints and video were actually from the internet: I used about half-printed, half-digital material. 

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with ESL and its objects. I love the act of learning, writing, and reading. My criticism with ESL has less to do with how it’s taught; I’m criticizing that English is dominant over every other language. I’ve heard that people in Seoul send their children to learn English before they learn Korean! 

Going back to the translation idea I mentioned earlier: When you enter another language, you enter another world. You’re not just teaching English with ESL; you’re teaching a worldview and a culture. One of the American ESL books I bought for this project, which is a bestseller, has so many references to “enemies” and a whole chapter on insulting your enemies. It was startling. Why do you need to know about “enemies” while learning American English? I’ve been thinking about America and the condition of our communication in the media, on Facebook, and with each other. There’s a particular violence to American English—to English, in general—right now.  

In the end, I’m mostly using the ESL materials to question how we can be so globalized yet still promote one language, and certain cultures, above all others. My exhibition press release ends with questions that I’ll repeat now: Could English ever become secondary? Could visual language come first? Could poetry or hangul? And in the release, I wrote hangul in the Korean alphabet.

HS What does hangul mean?

JC It just means “Korean.” To be clear, I’m not proposing that Korean should replace English as the global language. I’m using it as a metaphor. I wanted English speakers to have the experience of seeing language that they can’t understand—to have them feel the visual confusion that non-English speakers feel so often. And to experience what it’s like to not always understand, or be understood.

Jesse Chun: Name Against the Same Sound, organized by Howie Chen, is on view at Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York through April 14.

Hannah Stamler is a writer and PhD student at Princeton University.

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