The notion of alienation has faded into the background for quite a long time now. Once a powerful tool of social and cultural critique, it is rarely mentioned today, let alone analytically deployed to understand the world in which we live. And yet, alienation is what first comes to mind when we encounter the works of Gabriela Löffel.
Above all it shows itself in a certain claustrophobic atmosphere that surrounds her video installations. In fact, their dark spaces already create an uncanny feeling of enclosure. The screens, even when the projected videos are full of light or, much less often, when they display movements, do not really offer themselves as windows to an outside: be it the world of social life, history, politics, the realm of nature, or the sublime universe of aesthetic values. On the contrary, in the world of Gabriela Löffel’s artworks we seem to be doomed to stay enclosed, with no prospect of breaking out. Her videos convey a total impression of interior, or better, an impression of total interiority. In addition, this world looks entirely artificial with no traces whatsoever of nature, and what is more, with no documentary experience of real human life either. Those men and women we see in the videos are in fact only roles performed by real humans in staged actions, even when they play themselves. One could easily replace them with robots without losing touch with reality. No wonder: there is no dirt, no waste whatsoever in this world. Everything is meticulously tidied up, clean, cold, almost sterile. It looks like a perfect order that has cleansed and purified itself from anything that does not comply with it.
The titles of two of Löffel’s videos explicitly evoke the impression of enclosure, but, at the same time, reveal its rather ambivalent character: Inside (2019) and The Easy Way Out (2010). The first has a main character and a coherent story. In fact, it is this main character who makes the story coherent by simply doing her job. Her name is Ti Wang and she is an interpreter of Mandarin Chinese into English. The video connects two sites of global trade: the Free Trade Zone in Shanghai, or more concretely – within the Zone, the “International Artwork Exchange Center” that was at that time under construction – and The Geneva Freeport. The conversations in Mandarin Chinese recorded by the artist in Shanghai are retold in Geneva by the interpreter in English. The link between these two places, established through a twofold displacement – firstly, of a body in space and, secondly, a linguistic one, from one language to another – activates the real meaning of the story. The artist explores and reconstructs the logic of the functioning of global trade, finance and, in more general terms, the global economy, using the example of so-called free ports for art. This logic, however, implies – or shall we say, is based on – a secret. In her research Löffel discovers that she is not allowed to access the interior of these structures. Thus, the notion of “free” has nothing to do with free access. On the contrary, it points out a closure, a boundary to certain spaces. It excludes, it locks us out. The artist gives voice to judicial experts who disagree on the legal meaning of this boundary. It might mark an extrajudicial space, obviously a precondition for the functioning of the neoliberal global capitalism. Or it might demarcate more than a merely temporarily tax-free zone.
The story, however, does not end in the contradictions of so-called expert knowledge. Löffel reconstructs in virtual reality the space that experts are unable to properly define, and that the artist is prevented from entering, and lets the interpreter walk and talk throughout it. And yet, it would be completely wrong to understand this turn to VR as an artificial compensation for a failure in reality. It is true, this excessive amount of artificiality looks like overkill, like reification at its utmost – a space of geometrical bodies, shadows, structures of a perpetual construction – but the body and the voice of the interpreter are real and they dominate the space. So there is, nevertheless, a way out of the total inside. The labour of translation has not simply found this way, it is itself this way out.
In The Easy Way Out (2010) the labour of translation is explicitly placed in the limelight. This is, however, not its “proper” place, at least according to the commonsensical understanding of translation and even for much linguistic theory. Both, in fact, see translation as an auxiliary form of linguistic practice that takes place in the outer fringes of a language, where it meets other languages, or more precisely, over the abyss between two languages, with the task of bridging it. This is why translation is seen as something marginal and why translators and interpreters are supposed to do their job in the shadow of the “real” and “proper” use of language, in the humblest yet somewhat heroic manner. Eventually, they bring people together who have been fatefully separated by different languages, as the biblical myth of the tower of Babel wants us to believe. Or, they restore a broken communication, as is claimed by linguistic theories, which, echoing the Babel-trauma, blindly follow the paradigm of communication.
Nothing similar happens in Gabriela Löffel’s artworks. The three-channel installation The Easy Way Out (2010) retells a conversation that took place between three people – an American soldier, a hotel owner and a car dealer – outside a US army training camp in Bavaria. This exchange is, however, retold by the three interpreters whom we see working on the three screens. But theses screens are in fact windows akin to those found in cabins for interpreters, and usually installed at the sides of conference halls. They allow the interpreters to look out into the “real event” and also, most probably, to calm down their claustrophobic feelings. But Löffel displaces this gaze outside of the cabin and turns it into its inside. It is now the “real event” that looks into the inside of the labour of translation. Moreover, there is no “real event” outside of these cabins. It takes place within. Translation does not retell a story, it is the story being told
But again: where does this tension between an “inside” and a “way out”, made explicit in the titles of the artworks, actually come from? It seems to indicate a predicament deeper and more traumatic than the feeling of being excluded which, in fact, can be, however imperfectly, explained by judicial experts and compensated for in virtual reality. And what finally is the role of translation here? If it is the story of the artwork, what does it actually tell us?
When in 1972 Fredric Jameson published his classic work The Prison-House of Language (with the subtitle: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism), its readers, impressed by the strong metaphorical meaning of the title, understood it – as many still do nowadays – in terms of language being a sort of prison. Those, however, who read the book more carefully, realized that the carceral metaphor in the title is never directly addressed in the text itself. The notion “The Prison-House of Language” is in fact taken from a wrong translation of the Nietzsche’s aphorism, which Jameson used as the opening epigraph of his book: “We have to cease to think if we refuse to do it in the prison-house of language; for we cannot reach further than the doubt which asks whether the limit we see is really a limit …”1 The problem is that in the German original the prison-metaphor does not appear at all. It rather reads “in dem sprachlichen Zwange” which was originally translated (by Walter Kaufmann) as “under the constraint of language”.2 Jameson obviously adopted the notion “prison-house” from a secondary source without checking the original or the “official” translation. However, a mistranslation, as well as an over-translation, is still a translation.3 As such it encounters, on the one side, the limits of language – or the constraints, as in the Jameson’s metaphor, where it hits the walls of its prison-house – for instance in the guise of the untranslatable. Yet on the other side translation facilitates what Deleuze and Guattari called the line of flight (ligne de fuite), the line of alteration, mutation, multiplication, or, what the authors of Capitalism and Schizophrenia also call deterritorialization. It is not simply an act of fleeing incarceration but rather a radical opening to an outside – an act of ungating and unbordering of language that makes it flow freely into a new unlimited territory, beyond its mono- and homo-lingual enclosure. Language becomes again what it essentially is – a praxis and not an enclosed, autonomous entity, not a “dead, thing-like shell”. This is what Bakhtin called a discourse that got caught and reified in grammatical structures.4 It is like returning life to language, in a sort of continuation of its life. Here, it should be remembered that Walter Benjamin understood translation as Fortleben, a forthlife, or forelife of the original. For Emily Apter, translation is a medium in which Nietzsche’s sprachlicher Zwang (constraints of language) manages to transcend itself, which is what makes translation “something of a jail-breaking trope.”5
“The way out”, which is searched for and found in the artworks of Gabriela Löffel, might be called “easy” because it is omnipresent in her artistic expression. Translation in the strict linguistic sense is only one of many lines of escape. But watching her videos we cannot help but constantly look for and find them. In the three-channel video installation 5.752.414.468 (2020-2021), which explores a legal case between the Swedish energy company Vatenfall and the Federal Republic of Germany, we hear a casting director telling one of the potential actors:
– “Really, do it with a Dutch accent. I think it changes things. Because it is a bit weird and not clear why he is speaking like that.”
Indeed, it is not clear and it is weird because the opacity cannot be completely erased from our linguistic praxis and because an absolute transparency – a perfect communication – is an illusion of a language understood as an enclosed, autonomous entity, the utopian ideal of a meta-language, not the reality of our natural languages. But again, this minor linguistic difference, this accent, is important. It might change things, it might become the way out, “an easy way out,” since it is a mere accent, a little effort of the tongue. It reminds us of our ability to outdo “the constraints of language”. And even more than that.
What is at stake in Fredric Jameson’s critique of the structuralist “prison-house of language” is history itself. History is where the way out, whether easily found or not, leads to. And history, too, is where the art of Gabriela Löffel wants to bring us to. Out of the totalizing interiority of the existing form of life, which is killing us; out of the hermetically enclosed territory of post-historical-necessity, which neither sees nor can think of any alternative; out of our fatal alienation from both, from nature and ourselves; out of the prison-house in which we have incarcerated our languages and with them ourselves. Either we translate us into the future or the future will find its translation – its forthlife – without us.
Finally, the question we cannot avoid: who is the one who is bringing us these alarming messages? Who in fact is Gabriela Löffel? Is she an artist? And nothing else? Or, is she also a political activist, a linguist, a translator, a cultural critic, a theorist, a thinker … yes, she is all of that and more. And what does she want of us? She wants to confront us with history, which is, for sure, not a pleasant experience. On the contrary. “History is what hurts,” as Fredric Jameson once wrote.6