Nina Katchadourian is an American artist who demonstrates, in her artwork, a serious interest in language and in the translation and interpretation of different voices. The artist, born in California to multilingual parents, is best known for her conceptual works exploring the themes of mapping, translation and public space. Her projects have been widely exhibited, including a solo show of video installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in July 2008. Last week the Guardian also dedicated its ‘In Praise of…’ column to Katchadourian, describing the artist as “funny, provocative, and often unsettling” and her art work as “a whole new way of seeing.”
In 2006, Katchadourian was commissioned by Wave Hill (a 28-acre park/garden in the Bronx) to create a public piece of work as part of their program ‘Generated@WaveHill’. Katchadourian came up with Please, Please, Pleased to Meet’cha, a fascinating outdoor installation inspired by the artist’s attraction to birdsong. The impossibility of satisfactorily describing the sound of bird song led her ponder the way in which attempts to do so, stretch, in her words “both our linguistic and visual descriptive systems, and pos[e] a very unique translation problem.”
The installation Please, Please, Pleased… consisted of recordings of UN interpreters and translators mimicking bird calls which were then played from sound-systems hidden in six trees in the park. A ‘birding guide’ was also available at each tree to reproduce the materials that the voices had worked from, in order for listeners to be able to compare interpretations. In speaking about the production of her art work (arguably a part of the work itself), Katchadourian has emphasised the importance of the interpreters that she worked with not having previously heard the sounds of the particular birds they were vocalizing. As she has written, “Their performances were interpretive, generative acts: spot translations that were performed without previous familiarity with the materials.” Explaining her decision to collaborate with professional interpreters and translators of the highest level, Katchadourian also writes that she wanted the ‘voices’ she worked with to “have a deep engagement with translation”.
Please, Please, Pleased…is not the only of Katchadourian’s works to evolve from her interest in language and translation. Talking Popcorn is a sound sculpture which was exhibited at the Catharine Clarke Gallery in San Francisco and Debs & Co. in New York in 2001. The sculpture features a popcorn machine in which a microphone picks up the sounds of the popping corn. These sounds are then translated by a program, following the rules of Morse Code. At the same time, the translated words are spoken by a computer-generated voice. Throughout the exhibition periods, Katchadourian kept a diary of the popcorn’s words, in a language one visitor called “Popcornese”.
In Accent Elimination, Katchadourian was motivated by the numerous adverts in New York for courses in ‘accent elimination’. Both her parents have very distinct accents, her father being a Lebanese born, French educated, Armenian man, and her mother a Finnish woman who speaks many languages. For this piece, Katchadourian worked closely with a professional speech improvement coach to ‘neutralise’ her parents’ accents and have them then teach each of them to her, on video. The recordings were then played on six televisions. In an interview, Katchadourian stated that the art work demonstrates “the tricky manoeuvring between the desire to preserve the distinctive marks of one’s culture, on one hand, and to decrease them in order to seem less foreign, on the other.”
Katchadourian’s latest solo exhibition, Seat Assignment, is currently showing at the Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, until May 26th.