The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #27 May / June 2017
An Art Exhibition That Spoke To Me
by Olivier Elzingre
May / June 2017 | 

Have you ever wondered what language actually is? I don't mean distinguishing between a language and a dialect, or pondering whether to call computer programming a language or not. I mean what is this phenomenon we call language?

In the last few decades, attention has been turned somewhat (not entirely) away from trying to define things in a pretence of objectivity, to instead describe how concepts or phenomena are locally understood, how are they are performed in social contexts. Thus for complex ideas such as language, a plethora of ‘definitions' are available, stemming from the most abstract conceptualisations to the most socially relevant. This is where one can observe that definitions are not neutral, but may used to achieve argumentative goals.

It is difficult to express a multipoint position convincingly because of the risk of contradiction. Consider how discrediting it is for politicians to make a statement at one point in time, only to contradict themselves a while later – in a few instants, clever videos are shared globally to mock the person. I enjoy them. Yet, contradictions are a part of life; we all do it.

Encapsulating the notion of multipositionality, the work of the Swiss artist Maximilien Urfer invites his public to think about language both as an institutionalised discourse and as an idiolect, or the private use that is made of it, in his current exhibition "Ob-la-di Ob-la-bla" - l'imitation du language (

Over 2000 years ago, Socrates (or rather Plato who pretended to write Socrates' words) suggested that art be eradicated from the ideal society. The reason was that it could never represent what Socrates considered the true nature of things. Art was judged a pale representation of reality, a dangerous mode of expression leading citizens to a world of false thoughts, where justice was not achievable. Urfer, however, shows that art is not only representative of something essential about language, but does so by presenting the most criticised of all language usages: the political spin.

"Think Different" is the name given to this narrative on the politically oriented. In this video, 5 minutes of which are available on his webpage, Urfer sits on a swivel chair between three cameras pointing at him. A word is chosen from a pre-written list, concepts perennial to the political discourse: security, environment, multiculturalism. Urfer then spins on his chair, randomly choosing which camera he will be facing. Each camera represents a political inclination: left, right or centre. The artist then deliberates on the topic given by the word from the perspective of the camera selected.

Language here performs a multiplicity of roles, all bundled up in a single imitative performance.

At the institutionalised level, the audience is able to observe the artist deliberate from an ideological stance, irrespective of the artist's own true inclination. The intellectual tiredness felt by the artist is symbolic of the general apathy towards dominant discourses, acting as an opium du peuple. Read Byung-Chul Han's acclaimed philosophical treaty titled "La Société de la fatigue", 2010. In broad strokes, Urfer presents at that level an imitation of the usual political discourse. His deliberations are caricatures to some extent, arguments without weight. The performance is a strong reminder of a populist approach to politics.

From the level of the individual expression, the imitation of language lies in the artist's pretence to converse with an audience. Yet this is not an intimate conversation between the artist and the spectators. Urfer assigns an ideological significance to the camera he speaks to, challenging the audience's traditional role as viewer/agent in the co-construction of performance's meaning. The audience is thus muted in the camera's eye and the argumentative force of the speech is rendered futile. The immediate message is removed. If the language is then not a tool for true communication, the performance, by contrast, is.

The silencing of the audience creates a tension, a gap filled in by the audience's critical force. The audience's critical mind is thus awakened by the context in which the language is used. It is indeed the performance, not the language, which brings the viewer to ask themselves about how language vehicles their own thoughts and beliefs.

The title of this piece is also worth exploring critically. Why is it called "thinking different" when the action is about talking, gradually losing the ability to think? The artist pushes himself to the point that thinking is drowned under the pressure of both the randomness of the political perspective to adopt and the head spin he experiences by swivelling in his chair. Urfer may be experiencing some randomness in his piece, but his title is certainly very astute. The viewer will initially accept that thinking is taking place, because the sign says it does. Yet the experience demonstrates the power of language and the experience of tiredness and apathy. It is a realisation that we are not viewing thinking, but we are invited to think differently. The process of reflexivity turns the audience into the piece and the piece into the critical audience.

In my opinion, the true artistry of this piece lies in this brutal reflexivity experienced by the spectator. The realisation that we proudly announce our own adherence to an ideological discourse, while at the same time claiming to be free thinkers gives us an experience of our own intellectual tiredness. Urfer aims to shake us from our deep discourse-induced slumber.

Just like prisoners chained at the bottom of a cave, shackles are removed for the time of the video. Do we become free? No, it is still up to us to climb the treacherous incline which might eventually lead us to a clearer vision of our position in this world. "Thinking different" perhaps offers us a chance to begin this journey.

As Urfer's work begins with a question, it feels only natural that I extend my own question to him. While language is conceptualised here as simply existent, even through the challenges of miscommunication, how could the trajectories of language be represented in his art? The learning of a language, the evolution of the language through societal changes? The piece denounces the existence of discourses, but isn't a window in how they appear.

Whatever you may draw from the work of this artist, there are many layers to be explored. The variety of the audience interpretations is ultimately a reflexion of the way we all think differently.

Olivier Elzingre is a PhD candidate researching motivation and identity development in study abroad contexts. He teaches high school French in Australia. Correspondence to

An Art Exhibition That Spoke To Me
Writer: Olivier Elzingre
Petey: Wire-frame head; Talking head

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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