08 September 2017

Interview with Arlene Tucker and Susanne Palzer, working together on Translation Is Dialogue: Exploring Hypertext

The project, including two workshops one for children, one for kids and adults, and an installation, is present at High Room in Oranssi building 21 / 24 September.


How did Translation is Dialogue came about? What were the motivations behind it? What do you hope to achieve with Exploring Hypertext?

Arlene: I started Translation is Dialogue (TID) in 2010. At that time I was studying Semiotics at the University of Tartu in Estonia. Our minds were being happily bombarded with the workings of the communication process, semiosphere and Umwelt. I was inspired by those studies and concepts to create a space that allows us to communicate with each other and bring awareness of the translation process from the dialogue created between images, text, sounds, etc. This fit in with Roman Jakobson’s notion of Intersemiotic Translation, which I use as a backbone to make sense of how we translate between different mediums and non-verbal languages. TID started as an academic paper and grew quickly into a series of installations and art workshops. In the workshops, the aim is to use translation techniques as a means to understand what is being communicated and how to use translation techniques for art creation. It’s been extremely rewarding to see how people are so open and willing to share perspectives on how we perceive, communicate and make art! Exploring Hypertext came about from one of the activities I do in my workshops. We can all be in the same space but we will experience it and understand it differently. In essence, we translate the same text differently. I have to thank my friend, Madis Katz, for inviting me to write down what we saw in a dank bar somewhere in Tallinn years and years ago. Taking the time to verbalize what you see also allows one to just be there in the moment. Take a bit more time and you will see even more things and details. I always ask myself, “What do I see?” or “Where am I?” when I’m in a hurry as a way to ground myself. 

In this TID phase, we can share what we see and simultaneously create our imagined world from the descriptions.  The idea of a collaborative collage, whether it be physical or imaginary has been really interesting to me and I wanted to playfully develop that more. I hope people want to take the time- to listen, to see, to be. I invited Susanne to further develop Exploring Translation with me after we met at In Dialogue symposium in Nottingham in 2016. I am very excited to work with her!


Susanne: Thanks for inviting me! Working with Arlene on Exploring Hypertext is an exciting challenge and an experiment in collaboration. There are enough overlaps in our practices to explore the process of bringing together and unpicking two different but similar approaches. I think, what Arlene describes above is also embodied in our actual collaborative process so far, which has taken place via remote dialogue and hypertext over the past three months. To a certain extend I had to understand the project TID, on which Arlene has been working for a long time, in a very short time and interpret how it resonates with my work. I guess, on a personal level, the aim with Exploring Hypertext is to bring two practices together and enlarge and expand what we both do in our respective practices. With regards to the actual project the workshops and installation at Pixelache Festival will be a collaborate effort with everybody involved to get closer to the larger vision we described for Exploring Hypertext of putting the human, local and embodied experience at the centre of a global network.


I can imagine that language/s play a big role in your workshops, since they are the primary way to describe orally the local environment. Language does not come naturally, it is learnt, and practiced. If I don't understand Finnish or English how will I be able to perceive the recordings? Please elaborate on the role of language in your workshops.

Arlene: In most cases, I feel that people sincerely want to understand what is being communicated. Our minds are searching for familiar sounds, words and ways to group in order to try to make sense of what is being communicated. From that perspective, I thinks it’s really interesting and healthy to put ourselves in situations where our minds and language capabilities are put to work and challenged. From confusion comes clarity, and then the cycle continues. From that perspective, knowing the language which is used to describe the environment is irrelevant. You will just have a different relationship to the text or to that world.

I probably have spent about half of my life living in countries where I don’t speak the local language fluently. This has given me a lot of practice on how to “read” and use different signs. Hmm, I’ve probably misunderstood most of what has been communicated to me! I am ok with that : ).


Susanne: Yes, I have turned 'not knowing, not understanding' into a tool, a strategy for making art work, especially when translating computational processes into physical performance. Much of my practice operates at the intersection of language systems - specifically technical terminology (in art/performance and computing/programming), but also the everyday use and understanding of language, including speech, physical gestures and movements. This approach means randomly accessing, appropriating and playfully messing about in the overlapping areas where the same words and similar concepts may be used and read but with different meanings and interpretations depending on the user/reader (sender/receiver) or context. This is where the freedom of deconstruction and re- interpretation resides and if you offer this transferable strategy to other people, with a little guidance or explanation, it is often easily embraced and can be liberating and fun. My native language is German and I live in the UK. I do not speak Finnish, neither have I visited Helsinki before. So in the workshops I, too, will be a collaborator and (hopefully) an “experienced” translator in an unfamiliar environment.


For bringing attention to local environments you choose to conduct initial oral recordings and not other media such as video or photography? How would it differ from describing the environment by writing? Or, drawing and sketching? Please talk about the linkages between voice and the perception of space.

Arlene: I wanted the descriptions to be just sound recording so that the sources of transferred information or codes are lessened. Now we can just focus on the voice, words, intonation, the local background noise, etc. That is already so much information for one to grasp! Making a drawing from a sound recording is mechanically the same process as writing or talking about the environment. In the end, it comes down to the describer/translator and how they choose to translate/interpret their ideas.

In terms of hypertexting and understanding- the recording of one’s voice could remind you of somebody else or what that person is describing of another place. This is another example of how we make sense, of how our mind wanders, of how we naturally hypertext.


Why this descent from orality to hypertextuality? Is or isn't there a contradiction and disconnection between local sensorial exercises vs machine-based audio files and linked text? How do you think this migration to digital affects translation and interpretation of local environments?

Susanne: We also naturally hypertext when we communicate verbally. In our contemporary lives we could even unconsciously hypertext things we have seen or read on the world wide web - which uses hypertext concepts – while verbally describing our environment. The project sits within the context of our modern existence: hypertext as a resonance of human cross-referencing and association and hypertext as a software system in our daily global net-based life. I guess, we aim at creating a loop between local sensorial exercises and the digital, i.e. local human existence and global presence on the world wide web. We want to highlight this loop that already exists but put the focus back onto our human perception, presence and expression rather than just passively stare at screens with our attention elsewhere, online. After all we are physical human beings in a physical environment. We hope to create awareness of this loop through creative process.

Most digital technology is about communication and based on information exchange. Humans and modern digital technology are both about communicating and the idea of connecting: humans with humans, computers with each other, humans with computers and vice versa. If you have a digital recording of the human voice you already have a translation of the human voice into machine language. Arlene said, “we can all be in the same space but we will experience it and understand it differently. In essence, we translate the same text differently.” And this is different to the machine translating and interpreting text-based instructions or numeric machine code. Unless there is a glitch the machine will translate the text exactly as instructed every time. This is where the human factor and freedom of interpretation come in. We can freely choose how to translate or interpret the machine-based audio files in endless loops and variations.

Sharing our descriptions of local environments online also makes creating a global network possible.


Arlene: I wonder when something is not hypertextual? Is that possible anymore?


You talk about a self organizing system that would bring together words, images and associations. Will there be a program, will there be algorithms? Could you elaborate on this system?

Susanne: We are currently still mediators of the self-organizing system. Exploring Hypertext recordings are available on the TID website and responses can be emailed back to us. To fully realize our vision of an interactive open network that could evolve into a self-organizing system we would need a custom built website. The original idea could be realized via a force-directed graph animation drawing on a d3.js visualization library, which could create a sophisticated system of hypertext links allowing interactive uploading and linking of files. Each upload would create a new node in the network, creating a graph that would develop and morph over time, showing links between nodes, clusters of responses. Tim Dwyer's work on network visualization and Mike Bostock's work with force-directed graphs are fascinating.

We will need a programmer on board and funds to create such visual interfaces for the exploration and communication of the data to fully realize the vision of a self-organizing system. For Pixelache Festival we hope to create a local, analogue version of the idea with the Hypertext Installation built collaboratively with workshop participants and visitors to the festival.


Arlene: The nature of TID is flexible and allows for growth and evolution. Exploring Hypertext at Pixelache is an expansion of what we have done in the workshops. Let’s be here now and see how people react to this current model. Then we can develop it into a system that better depicts the transformations in a visual, auditory, and collaborative way. That’s the plan!


What is the typical format of the workshops? What are the various tools? How do you archive the recordings and derivative works and who has access and rights?

Arlene: Regardless of age, the workshops have a similar structure, but of course are developed accordingly to the group participants and theme. I have made TID workshops with 4-77 year olds. They have been at schools, universities, and for the general public. The amount of insight received about how we communicate and process information amazes me. Through dialogue we can learn so much about ourselves and each other.  At least for me, talking to myself can only get so far. I usually start the workshops with a sort of warm up to slowly bring attention to the idea that we are constantly translating- to think is to translate, to move is to translate, a reaction is a translation in itself. I take elements of improv, performance, visual arts, to develop the structure and activities of the workshop. I am very happy that Päivi Huhtinen and her 9th grade contemporary art students from The English School will come to Oranssi and initiate the building of the installation on Thursday the 21st. On Sunday the 24th, we will have an open TID workshop where we will explore the local surroundings, make sound recordings, and contribute art to the collaborative installation.

During the workshop, we will also translate a piece of art as a means to create a piece of art. We will analyze how we have made the translation and what kind of a translation it is. Is it a transposition, a calque, a literal translation?  What are the translator’s intentions for the translation? How can we translate the untranslatable?

The idea of Source Text and Target Text are really important because this is what determines what and how the translation will continue to exist. All TID artworks are then potential Source Texts for somebody to translate and in that sense, all artworks are also Target Texts. For example, David Wright Lagrone made his first translation of TID’s Source Text (Alejandra’s description) in 2010 and then re-translated it in 2011. He is currently, working on his third translation of his own artwork.

The cycle continues. The dialogue deepens.

Exploring Hypertext recordings are archived on the website and on Clyp. I am still working on uploading all TID artworks. At this point, there are hundreds so it will take some time for me to upload them all to the website. TID project is open for everybody to contribute.


Susanne: All works will be under a cc license so they can be shared, interpreted, translated and redistributed by everyone.


How does your work address the festival theme of Local and Decentralized Governance? In a global context, if at all, how do you see TID face the contemporary issues and conflicts of the world?

Arlene: Translation is Dialogue, at large, is about communicating and creating communication. I believe that if we are more aware and knowledgeable about how we communicate we can be more understanding and patient with each other. I say this for myself, because I also want to be a better communicator and listen to others in the way they would like me to understand. Exploring Hypertext hopefully will give people the possibility and space for people to realize all the different languages verbal and non-verbal, different kinds of ways we perceive and the different kinds of environments we inhabit. In the descriptions, people haven’t shared so much in which specific location they are, probably because it just doesn’t come to mind. Is it necessary? More importantly is the way we choose to approach our existence, understanding and co-habitate.


Susanne: I also see increasing awareness of our physical and digital interconnectedness, while putting the human back at the centre of the network, as something entirely positive. Along with active perception and creativity vs. online immersion and passivity, sharing and creating through discourse, a deflection and redirection of focus away from out there to being present in the moment. At the same time the Exploring Hyptertext website offers us a platform for developing this collaborative process globally. Forgive me if I paraphrase Michael Jackson but it always starts with the person in the mirror – and the person next to you. If we all did that, the world would be a better place. It’s an idealistic thought but not a new one.


Interviewer Bio

Samir Bhowmik is an architect, media artist and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Musicology and Media Studies (Humboldt University-Berlin) and Media Lab Helsinki (Aalto University) supported by the Finnish Cultural Foundation.



White Sea by Svitlana Biedarieva, Translation created for TID: NYC Makes it Translate, in 2011.