and Worldmaking Project
People with some forms of synaesthesia perceive sounds as colours. Sometimes synesthetes such as Tori Amos (video) and Pharrell Williams can feel the touch of sounds too. Becoming aware of synaesthesia and harnessing this different way of sensing the world may have cognitive advantages, such as a greater capacity to focus on the here and now. Synesthetic mindfulness exercises aim to develop these abilities in everyone.
At Tate Exchange in London, with the Soundshapes installation, we are turning the sounds of languages into shapes that people can relate to. Visitors react to audio recordings of short phrases in various languages by placing a colourful shape on an online grid. They are asked to rate the sounds by how much they like and know the languages they hear. This is based on the notion that some languages sound weirder than others (World Atlas of Languages Structures).
For instance, English sounds strange to many speakers of other languages because of its 44 different sounds, more than many languages have – including 11 vowel sounds rather than the typical five or six. Yet the rarity of these sounds may be offset by familiarity with the language and previous experiences of being exposed to it: a global language such as English is associated with significant events, such as songs, encounters with others and wars. Our subconscious positive or negative links to other languages is reflected in our instinctive reactions to their sounds.
Languages are therefore not neutral, and we do not have a neutral response to them either. They, and us, carry material and historical forces that shape us and the world around us. But ourselves and the languages we speak also carry rich and endearing, harsh and shocking personal histories, passed from generation to generation, such as the value of waiting for good things, or knowing that a stitch in time saves nine.
Sayings and proverbs embody teachings, values and lessons distilled through time, within and across cultures. Some of them are widely shared, others reflect specificities of a time and place. The Soundshapes listening experience culminates in the presentation of a multilingual coat and headwrap that feature 120 sayings in 15 languages, colourfully embroidered and painted by embroiderers, language teachers and members of the public.
The garments were designed by textile artist Sonia Tuttiett with support from East London Textile Arts at Tate Exchange. They were created during the week-long 2018 edition of the Who are we? exhibition as the participants shared stories related to the featured sayings across languages and cultures. The conversations were captured by visual ethnographer Marcia Chandra and filmographer Sam Bland, and co-produced with support from The Open University and Counterpoints Arts as short films that are available on the Language Acts and Worldmaking YouTube channel.
These activities helped us to explore potential ways of disrupting language teaching in contemporary Britain. By placing teachers in a public, open space and asking them to engage with multi-ethnic embroiderers, visitors and artists in unscripted, quasi-performative ways, traditional boundaries were pushed and new zones of development opened. Participants commented on the many commonalities generated across the diversity of experiences and backgrounds around the collective embroidery task. They also imagined a different classroom space where creativity and collective making can reenergise efforts to learn languages.
Funding was provided by Language Acts and Worldmaking, a flagship project supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council‘s Open World Research Initiative. The project aims to regenerate and transform modern language learning in the UK by foregrounding the power of language to shape how we live and make our worlds. It is led by King’s College London in partnership with The Open University, Queen Mary University and the University of Westminster. The focus is on the transformative and pivotal role of language teachers as creative mediators between diverse languages and everyday cultures.
Please find low-res images of the 2018 installation here. Hi-res images can be provided on demand.