Books, Languages Dead ; Art Lives (in its dotage)

Bomb Magazine, IMH and corny O, is the bomb. Its typical format is to assign an artist to interview another artist (or writer/musician/etc), which makes for epic participation frameworks that differ significantly from the typical journalist/informant vibe (see also the Paris Review). Questions themselves tend to do a lot more speech-actorial work, since the interviewer has a lot more skin in the game of performing her/his own artistic identity.

That said, I am posting today about an interview by someone whose primary job is art critic, so the above distinction doesn’t apply quite as strongly (this is possibly because it is “just” a post on their blog instead of an article in the print edition, so less cat-herding of non-journalists). However, Bomb‘s practice of printing the whole interview, questions included, allows us to see a bit more of how ideas (especially metalinguistic knowledge, i.e. language ideologies) get constructed.  Here’s the article. The critic is Katherine McQueen and the artist is a very interesting fellow named Pablo Helguera.

The gallery show they are primarily discussing, Librería Donceles, strikes me as awesome, a place I would love to spend eons inhabiting. It’s basically a bookstore-esque installation of used Spanish-language books, mostly collected by bartering Helguera’s smaller artworks for boxes of books from vendors in Mexico where used books are profuse and cheap. (Dr. Nelson Flores once brought my attention to how much the value of an object can change when it moves between commercial settings–a T-shirt made by kids in an after-school art workshop in North Philly has trouble selling at $20 at that very workshop, but downtown in a Northern Liberties boutique it would probably fly off the shelves). While the idea of snatching up cheap books from Donceles for up-selling in Manhattan struck me as questionable at first, the outpouring of support from book vendors concerned about the vacuum of literary options faced by immigrants makes for a more interesting scenario.

In Helguera’s tinkered-with “pop-up shop,” people can buy books as long as the artist agrees to sell them. So it’s an intimate, affect-mediated financial exchange where profit-seeking is not only unnecessary but futile.  It’s also a big funeral shrine for a business model that is basically my favorite thing: the independent, linguistically varied used book store, nerdfully maintained by an eccentric, possessive bibliophile.  I also respect the complexity of thought Helguera demonstrates in the interview behind the death/life of books, the idea of an art installation that is both a fake and real version of a marketplace, the encouragement of interpersonal transactions as ongoing performance art.

Also, it goes without saying that it does important work in terms of language politics, bringing attention to the disappearance of Spanish-language bookstores in NYC, and of independent bookstores generally–two separate processes connected by the force of skyrocketing overhead. This $$$ juggernaut is most obviously class-biased but also  linguistically and ethnically/racially biased.

Side note: the drying-up of a certain breed of Spanish-language bookstores in New York affected me personally in college, studying comparative literature while being acutely broke; sometimes I had to send for books from Madrid or Buenos Aires, even titles considered canonical by The Man.

Now that I said the nice stuff about places where the interview seems to engage head-on with complex issues of language economics, I’ll also point to some weird stuff going on, mainly the fetishization of “endangered” languages (see Moore et al, 2010) that serves as the centerpiece of Helguera’s parallel project, Conservatory of Dead Languages. I have to say, there is a lovely aesthetic symmetry in Helguera’s choice of using an Alaskan and and Tierra del Fuegan language as the two geographic antipodes of the Americas in that piece. But given the nostalgic, elegiac quality of the bookstore installation, one cannot but insert those two last speakers of those two respective languages into the slot of non-existence, being preserved in the proverbial formaldehyde of an art installation speech event.


The use of an old-fashioned wax scroll phonograph (King’s Speech much?) to embody the spirit of rescue documentation just hammers it home; even the tools of modernity must be appropriately dated, to emphasize the extent to which this ish is so beyond dead.

To be fair, on the other hand, it could be read as an astute statement about how old-fashioned the project of language documentation (absent revitalization) is. But would we, dear reader, be who we are if we actually gave the benefit of the doubt to our detractees?

Because while I’m at it, those photographs were clearly designed to drown the human subjects in a vision of vast desolation. There are also no legible words, no semantic effort in a project on linguistic codes.

The truth is, ruminating on language extinction is a sexy thing to do sometimes from the orchestra pit overlooking the end of the world, especially if one isn’t among the people experiencing language shift. But from Helguera’s perspective, New York City is experiencing a kind of language extinction in the public sphere and specifically the literary domain; to take from Moore et al’s (2010) final argument about negotiating actual domains of actual communicative resources, bookstores are one such actual domain where some actual resources are no longer available, and therefore must be re-couped in the weird pseudo-reality of art galleries. Likewise, wax cylinders are the domain to which the artist relegates the more “exotic” languages he attends to; if only there were as much nuance and richness in that installation as in the librería.



Moore, R., Pietikäinen, S., & Blommaert, J. (2010). Counting the losses: Numbers as the language of language endangerment. Sociolinguistic Studies4(1), 1-26.

3 thoughts on “Books, Languages Dead ; Art Lives (in its dotage)

  1. Enjoyed to post, Joanna! I honed in on the interview itself a bit more. It’s interesting the way that he specifically downplays the place of language as a cultural practice in favor of a language ecology view. I just read Pennycook’s critique of the language ecology metaphor and its ramifications in general perceptions of language shift. I can’t help but see some parallels between it and your take on the art piece itself. As you suggest the wax cylinders imply that the endangered languages are akin to curious outdated machines or ecologically speaking to out-evolved and dying out creatures.

  2. Nice post! This totally reminds me of the post I’m planning – about Tan Dun’s new harp concerto (premiered by the Philly Orchestra last weekend) which is not only about a “secret language” but also used images & recordings of people speaking and singing in the language. It seems that there is a fair bit of art that uses the idea of endangered language, or at least I run across poems occasionally. I wonder where artists are getting their ideas about what language endangerment is, and if in turn they can reframe the ways others see them.

    The wax cylinder image is interesting – reminds me of the cover of Bauman & Briggs’s Voices of Modernity ( and of the apparent ability to disconnect language entirely from context!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s