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Video, Education, Language, and the Body

Lemma, 2013. Magdalena Papanikolopoulou

The video camera became a partner in the performances of several influential artists drawn to electronic media, recording intimate, often ritualized actions.

Influenced by the interplay of performance and sculpture in Nauman’s work who also based his work on the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), I created three video pieces named Academia, Lemma and Hearth.

According to the analytic philosopher (linguistic philosopher),

the limits of thought are the limits of language.

The same meaning had earlier been expressed by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the founder of modern linguistics, with the metaphorical phrase: "thought and language are two sides of the same coin." The truth of this scientific revelation was never disputed. Indeed, humanity's entire cognitive system, its perceptual and communicative ability, is based on a linguistic code: on the ability to construct a system of correspondence between the signifier and the signified; in other words, words (symbols) that refer to 'something' of a concrete or abstract nature (e.g. tree, freedom).

EM ME © Magdalena Papanikolopoulou

The more extensive the linguistic code (vocabulary), the greater and easier the human expressive, representational and ultimately communicative capacity. Or, to be even more precise, aesthetically more complete. It goes without saying that the use of a linguistic code requires following certain rules (grammatical and syntactical), since language as a phenomenon establishes a structure with logical cohesion, sequence and an interpretable evolutionary course. According to the great linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), all national languages can be traced back to a common 'deep structure', corresponding to the instinctive, natural human logic. Chomsky's claim regarding 'deep structure' leads to the certain conclusion that theories on superior and inferior languages are erroneous. In any case, those presented as inferior languages are 'inferior' as a result of historical circumstances and not of a primary, spontaneous and inviolable cause.

Humans acquire language gradually, starting from the moment of birth. The first auditory impressions of language are experienced in the family setting (linguistic link), which are critical for the subsequent formation and development of their linguistic course. And certainly the foundation of human linguistic cultivation is established in this environment (elementary vocabulary and rudimentary expression). Further development of linguistic cultivation however, takes place mainly through education.

As a lecturer of graphic design at the Technological Institute of Athens, my creative ideas and my thoughts often involve questions about education and the way knowledge is transmitted through language and the body. What is the perfect system for transmitting knowledge? Can body be excluded from the learning process? How can you transmit knowledge without using your body? Judith Butler suggests that within phenomenology, “The body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities, a complicated process of appropriation which any phenomenological theory of constitution needs to describe." (Butler, 1990: 403)

Merleau-Ponty renders experience of immediate and direct relevance to philosophy and the production of knowledge. He locates experience midway between mind and body. Not only does he link experience to the privileged locus of consciousness; he also demonstrates that experience is always necessarily embodied, corporeally constructed, located in and as the subject’s incarnation. “Experience can only be understood between mind and body - or across them – in their lived conjunction.” (Merleau-Ponty, 2002: 95)

In my works lemma and hearth, I take the role of a child who acquires language through various pedagogical practices that involve the use of the body (playing with letters as a metaphor of experimenting with the subject matter) and travelling (gaining knowledge by being exposed to different cultures and pedagogical methods).

The book Inventing the Modern Self and John Dewey: Modernities and the Travelling of Pragmatism in Education led me to consider the field of ideas, authority relations, and institutions through which modern schools are constructed, and the multiple principles of pedagogical practices in governing who the child is and should be.

David Kolb’s learning styles and experimental learning theory and Malcolm Knowles’s ideas on informal adult education fed my interest on educational methods. I felt free to express my personal thoughts on travelling and education by using my body while I was speaking. I interacted with a large pile of multi-coloured, cut out letters. While I was saying my text, I was picking up letters which were sometimes relevant to my sentences.

Fig 39. Papanikolopoulou, M., Lemma, 2013, video made in Aegina Island

The lemma video was an entry for the 2013 Student Travel Video Contest. In the above 5-minute video, I used the 3D cut out letters to communicate the idea of travelling and how important it is for one's studies. The video was taken on the island of Aegina in the bright sunlight. The idea I was proposing to the contest was to travel anywhere in the world and make small improvisational films, as well as give workshops on 'Dance typography', a workshop combining language and movement that I developed myself.

It was the first time I decided to speak while I performed for my video. Although sound and speech are not in my particular area of interest, for the lemma video I wanted to express myself freely with body and speech. While I was making the video, I was aware that the possible reactions could be very intense, since I was going to talk in such a simple language (non-academic) about such an important subject. I would also screen the video at the WIP seminar with viewers, lecturers and professors of the doctoral programme. And indeed it was an intense experience. To stand in front of people as a child with total freedom of movement and speak with a naïve, spontaneous-like quality in a non-native language about a theme to which the viewer is sensitive, is not an easy task. Once again, I realised the strength of the medium of performance art and the exposition involved in it. Amelia Jones has recently countered such privileging of the live event, "while the experience of viewing a photograph and reading a text is clearly different from that of sitting in a small room watching an artist perform, neither has a privileged relationship to historical 'truth'." (Jones,1997: 11-18)

Fig 39. Papanikolopoulou, M., Hearth, 2013, digital prints of the video made at Marathonas B beach in Aegina

Fig 40. Papanikolopoulou, M., Hearth, 2013, stills of the video made at Marathonas beach A on Aegina Island

In the Hearth video, I decided not to speak but to use only my body interacting with the same made-up letters. In the video titled Hearth (Εστία-Estia), I attempted to satirise this formalism with the letters surrounding me appearing like the hearth of an ancient altar next to the beach (another negation of formalism is the removal of the Hearth from an interior space to an exterior space).

With my work Academia (10 minute video), I was also attempting to satirise another aspect of education: the fierce competition that takes place in all institutions. At the beginning of the programme, I was asked to make a performance based on Tracey Emin’s textual work as a way to objectify my interest. I would be taking on Emin’s subjectivity by being objective about it and about my own subjectivity.

In my video, we see an expensive and elaborately designed wooden chair in an outdoor open space and myself wrapping it with toilet paper and then writing on top of it “This is an academic chair". Influenced by Emin's most famous works that came out of sewing letters onto her grandmother's armchair in There's A Lot of Money in Chairs (1994), I borrowed her text as a comment on the way the academic environment works. I was even being satirical about my choice to study abroad which meant I would have to spend a lot of money.

Fig 41. Emin, T., There's a Lot of Money in Chairs, 1994

Fig 42. Papanikolopoulou M., Academia, 2012, stills of the video, made in Aegina


[1] Bill Arning. “Transformative Vision”, Parkett 76. 2006.

#videoart #art #performance