“The New Alphabet — Opening Days”

Nick Currie

January 31, 2019
Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin
January 10–13, 2019

A city with an institution like the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW)—Berlin’s House of World Cultures, a cantilevered cockle shell sitting on the Spree River beside the chancellery buildings that fund it—is a happy city indeed, for it can boast a progressive intellectual hub, a cultural engine spitting with vigor and restless curiosity. HKW is a bulwark against commercial logic, the surging tides of populism, and the threat of Western “endarkenment.” Massive subsidy is required, of course. Offered here by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the German state culture fund, that subsidy is neutral enough to allow the institution’s directors to strike the right balance between affirmation and contestation, observation and critique.

Events like “The New Alphabet — Opening Days,” a four-day launch for a program of events that will run for the next two years, exploring cultural, political, and critical approaches to alphabets and code, do not play to empty rooms. Berlin supplies an audience of culturally active people filled with enthusiasm for questions that might strike the citizens of more pragmatic, phlegmatic towns as heavy and pretentious. The blurb for “The New Alphabet” begins with three such questions: “Is it possible to imagine an overabundance of multifarious fields of languages, knowledge production, and learning practices beyond one universal matrix? Can common reference points and collective action be enabled without monopolistic force? How can knowledge be both situated and globally relevant?” HKW director Bernd Scherer’s opening address in the circus-like central chamber multiplied these inquiries, expanding them to machine learning, the growing power of algorithms to determine subjectivity, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s attempts to imagine a new universal language for science.

In panel discussions running concurrently in different corners of the building, artists and academics tried to square their own interests with these enormous themes, to varying effect. I was particularly impressed by a presentation by the art collective Slavs and Tatars about changing Soviet attitudes toward languages and scripts in its empire, and by Armin Linke and Giulia Bruno’s calm, Brechtian project Court of Justice of the European Union (2018), observing multilingualism at work in the titular court. Comprising shelves of EU publications, videos of judicial pronouncements, and an accompanying artists’ talk, the work took on a deep poignancy when contrasted with the chaos unfolding at that very moment in the British parliament. On the installation screen, one could observe a judgment being read about fines on Poland for cutting down too many trees, while on one’s iPhone screen desperate lines popped up about ending freedom of movement and escaping the decrees of this very court.

More visceral and playful approaches were also on offer. In Alexander Kluge’s video The Robot Whisperer (2019), a bearded man called Helge Schneider suggests that animals habitually use their dung as a language. This seemed a perfectly sound, post-anthropocentric theme: shit as a subversive alphabet indecipherable to humans. Later, upstairs in the auditorium, I found Schneider in person, reducing an audience of several hundred people to hysterics with this same thesis, accompanied by avant-garde music: he turns out to be a famous musical comedian, a sort of German Viv Stanshall.

More politically engaged themes came from Hito Steyerl (on the banality of facial recognition and AI speech technology) and Kader Attia (on dispossession in the virtual world). There was an interesting talk from Odete Semedo about the origins and semiology of embroidered panu di pinti fabrics in Guinea-Bissau, emphasizing both the links between the matrices of textile production and computer code, and the subversive, anti-colonial messages some weavers hid in apparently innocuous motifs. After the talk, robes featuring these designs were displayed by models in a kind of fashion show.

When the weight of words got too heavy, there was eclectic music to escape to: demonstrations of how the European saraband changed when it reached Bolivia, played by Karin Harrasser and Eva Reiter on viola da gamba, or “The Miyagi Haikus” (2011), Indian composer Sandeep Bhagwati’s expressionistic meditations in response to the 2011 tsunami in Japan. It was as if a design center had been fused with an anthropological museum and merged with a concert hall and an art gallery, and the government had waived the entrance fees.

All this worked so well—a “Babylon without the tower collapsing,” in the words of one of the posters pasted to HKW’s sturdy pillars—because the themes, somewhat incoherent and over-reaching though they were, flourished and multiplied in a buzz of sociability and joy under HKW’s arched roof. Here was great graphic design, countless installations, a pop-up bookstall, and actors in eighteenth-century costume strolling through the building in a witty nod to the Encyclopédistes. In the lobby were vibrantly colored book trucks and stools in the style of the Memphis Group—architecture practice Raumlabor Berlin’s homage to Ettore Sottsass—and playgrounds designed by Aldo van Eyck. If the “Opening Days” sometimes resembled an academic conference with better visuals, a crowded semantic airport humming with art students and their teachers, or even a new Bauhaus, it also provided a space in which to feel strangely positive about a future in which intelligence isn’t necessarily in the service of malevolence, and a global human conversation carries on—although probably more in the spirit of Alfred Jarry than of Leibniz, and with algorithms interrupting with increasing clamor.

Language & Linguistics, Music
Artificial intelligence, Algorithms, Knowledge Production, Academia

Nick Currie has been making records, books and art performances since the 1980s under the name of Momus. He lives in Berlin.

RSVP for “The New Alphabet — Opening Days”
Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW)
January 31, 2019

Thank you for your RSVP.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) will be in touch.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.