The 24-Hour Language Experiment: Timothy Maxymenko’s US2

What would happen if two people who do not have a common language tried to communicate with each other for twenty-four hours?

On an evening in March this year, the door of an empty shop in Shoreditch, east London, opened for the first time in twenty-four hours. Inside, the white walls were covered with a jumble of apparently random words in different languages. This was not the work of kids practising their graffiti skills, nor a ritual summoning of dark forces by local satanists, but the culmination of a twenty-four-hour performance by two artists: Timothy Maxymenko and Iris Colomb, who had spent the time learning to communicate with each other through a simple set of rules before inviting the public to join a wider conversation about the work.

Maxymenko, who devised US2 and first staged a version of it in Kraków, is a Ukrainian artist based between London and Kiev; Colomb is a French artist, poet, curator, and translator. Between them, they speak several languages, with French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian forming parts of their word-by-word dialogue, although English predominated.

The initial idea for US2 came from Maxymenko’s experience while on an artist’s residency in Montenegro in 2016, when he was trying to talk to local people, who speak a variant of Serbo-Croatian. Having a knowledge of Slavic languages made things easier—Ukrainian is his mother tongue and he is also fluent in Russian and Polish: “Sometimes I had to choose the same word in different languages and adjust it, until the person I was talking to noticed the similarity in the root of the word. The more you know languages from one group, the easier it is to understand the others by collecting them like a puzzle.” This made him wonder what would happen if two people who do not have a common language tried to communicate with each other for twenty-four hours and how many words they would need. “Then I began to think about how to create all the necessary conditions for the experiment.”

The result was a piece performed in four venues in Kraków—the city’s Museum of Modern Art got on board the project first, which helped enormously—with each venue containing two people who did not share a language. “The main thing was to discover how many words two strangers with different languages would need for twenty-four hours to communicate non-stop with each other,” he says. He himself was paired with an Italian musician who knew no Ukrainian, while he spoke no Italian. “English was two-thirds of our toolkit, unlike in London, where Iris and I used English for about ninety-five per cent of the time and most of the remaining five per cent of words were French, Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian.”

He and Colomb did not know each other before they plunged into the “really intense experience” of spending a day locked in a room without any contact with the outside world and with nothing more than the task at hand to engage them. Besides not leaving the space, the rules dictated that they communicate all the time, with a break of no more than five minutes, and that only a word or phrase could be written on each wall at a time—no complete sentences. “We would have to make sure to change walls for every new word, shuffling them around the space, so that the result was more like a cluster of words than a linear transcription of our conversations,” says Colomb.

She was convinced to take part in this experimental encounter with a stranger, she says, because it combined many elements of her own practice as a poet and language artist. “The durational aspect of US2 was particularly exciting to me as I had been tempted to experiment with durational work for a while but hadn’t yet found an opportunity to do so.”

The challenge of this duration and the requirement for a constant stream of communication made English the language they used the most because “it was the language we shared the largest number of words in,” Colomb says.

She goes on to describe how their use of languages evolved over the day. “I also speak a bit of Russian, so I made a few attempts at communicating in Russian too. Then we ended up talking about Russian and I think our discussions of my Russian spelling mistakes led us to talk about the different ways in which Cyrillic is used in Ukrainian.

“So then Timothy started to attempt to teach me some Ukrainian, which was really interesting and also really confusing for me as it involved replacing a number of sounds with Cyrillic letters which, in Russian, corresponded to other sounds. At the very start of our performance, Timothy started transcribing onomatopoeias using Cyrillic, while we were mostly speaking in English. I really enjoyed that, and felt like it worked much better than it would have in the Latin alphabet, so I tried doing it too. French sometimes surfaced when Timothy was trying to find certain words, I was sometimes able to guess what he meant through similar-sounding French words. Some Italian also came out of pronunciation coincidences we joked about.

“Timothy’s favourite word was a Spanish one, and he told me about a recent trip to Spain, so perhaps some Spanish words came out of that, but I can’t quite remember. We also talked about Timothy’s time in Poland, so perhaps that’s how some Polish appeared. At some point I made an attempt at writing the only Chinese words I knew phonetically. So English was our main means to communicate and other languages came up through sound, through context, and in conversation.”

Maxymenko points out that Colomb, a Frenchwoman who lives and works in London, uses English as her main working language. “There was a feeling that it is her native language,” he says. His English is less fluent than hers, though it is improving.

Although the two found themselves using the exercise to talk about language and translation, there were other things going on. The environment they were working in—the room itself—was constantly changing as the walls filled up with words. Sticking to the rules meant the pair were forced to slow down the way they spoke and found themselves seeking the simplest ways to say things. “At first, writing each new word on the room’s walls really affected the rhythm of our conversations, especially because we were to change walls for each new word,” Colomb says. “This meant our initial attempts at communicating were quite fragmented as we ran from one wall to the other between most words.”

Although their conversation was forced to move constantly, they could only speak using words that were written on the walls, so early on they were forced to keep up this deliberately unnatural way of writing before speaking. Quite quickly, though, says Colomb, most of the basic words they needed were on the walls: “Soon we only needed to record one word per sentence, then we were increasingly led to rely on our memory of the space and what had happened in previous conversations in order to guess and check if certain words had already been recorded.”

The shifting nature of the space—a former retail unit now run by artists Rut Blees Luxembourg and Uta Kögelsberger for just this sort of free experimentation—meant its transformation became a feature of their conversations. “After a couple of hours the walls were already starting to fill up, and from then on we gradually watched the composition’s density and texture evolve, while our writing became smaller and smaller in order to fit new words in,” Colomb says. “In some ways, the room’s progressive evolution displayed a different kind of time.”

Then came another phase in the experiment. “As we became increasingly free to express ourselves, the room changed less and less, and as it grew more stable we started to get both more tired and more restless,” she says. “As the writing part of our task grew less present, it became more of an obligation than a focus, which allowed our use of language to become more natural.”

But as the hours wore on, the conversation developed in unexpected ways. If the pair did not know each other before, the exercise was a way of forcing a relationship, and what began with standard discussions about their lives, travels and projects grew into what Colomb calls a “completely different mode” brought on by growing exhaustion. They slowly started to develop a far more playful kind of interaction which eventually stretched beyond language, just at the point when they were struggling most with focusing on the task at hand. This was different from Maxymenko’s previous experience in Poland. “In Krakow, we almost only talked all the time,” he says. “In London there was a greater sense of survival, we invented something not to go crazy.”

Colomb explains: “The first game we played involved choosing five super powers each and comparing every choice along the way, discussing their implications, and deciding on whose decisions were the best. We took this game very seriously and became very engaged in our debate.”

In retrospect, she says, this was the part of the experience she remembered most vividly. She realised this game had coincided with a moment at which they had both started to feel trapped in the performance. “Inventing these powers allowed us to immerse ourselves in other potential realities, and, through this, to escape our current conditions, which had led us to feel quite powerless. Meanwhile, the competitive aspect of the game pushed us to stay alert and to really engage with each other’s ideas and arguments.

“After this game we invented several more. They gradually became more gestural and physical, and the playfully competitive aspect stuck for a while, making sure we both had a stake in what was happening, which kept us sharp. Although the games were less and less reliant on language they still allowed us to encounter new words in stages where they had become rare.”

Maxymenko says: “At some point we even started spinning around and shouting words that we were reading randomly. The result was a very cool and crazy rap battle.”

“At some point we became children,” Colomb adds, describing a euphoric, childlike state they reached at the point of exhaustion when they began playing with the acoustics of the space and the sounds of the words. This playful aspect was unexpected, says Colomb, but it was important for her. The experience was quite different to other collaborations she has been involved in, as its inherent constraints forced them both to drop any element of self-performance—what she describes as “the enthusiastic, stable, sensitive and accommodating attitude” she would normally seek to adopt when working with another artist—and instead be more “raw and impulsive,” becoming comfortable “being silly” with someone she’d met a day earlier.

The sort of private performance that Colomb describes—intense but ephemeral, constrained yet playful, somewhere between speed dating and endurance test—is only part of US2; the work also resides in the traces of this experiment which were opened up to the public at the end of twenty-four hours, and in the conversations it provoked among those visitors. If the trajectory from dialogue to games and noises has echoes of Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who wrote in French, the urgent scrawl of words on walls has something of the intensity of the marks on Joseph Beuys’s blackboards, a remnant of his efforts to communicate his thinking to an audience in his “social sculpture” lecture tours in the 1970s.

Rather than the pedagogical and activist aims of Beuys, though, US2 takes on a more personal engagement with language and communication itself. Its politics are implicit and its meaning open to interpretation, though it certainly has something to say about the joys and the generative possibilities of communicating across linguistic and cultural borders, and also about the intangible, often transient nature of such communications. Even the traces of US2 have since been painted over; what is left of the work now lies in documentation and memories—but also a blueprint for further exploration.

Timothy Maxymenko is a Ukrainian intermedia artist who also works as half of Mutro Art group and atom art group. His experimental audio performances and media installations include Aophone, an analog synthesiser made of living people. He is currently based between Kiev and London. Website: www.timothymaxymenko.com

Iris Colomb is a French poet, artist, curator, and translator based in London. She has given individual, collaborative, and interactive performances across the UK, as well as in Austria, Romania, and France. Website: iriscolomb.com

 

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