Common Tongues

Installed for the juried exhibition associated with the ELMCIP conference
and festival,'Remediating the Social,' in the Inspace Gallery,
University of Edinburgh, Nov 1-17, 2012.

For Common Tongues, processes that were developed in the framework of The Readers Project are applied to a reading of Samuel Beckett's How It Is and used to generate new poetic texts, remediating social reading.

The traces and consequences of others' readings are accessible to us over the internet and, more recently, through networked ebook readers. The indexing and statistical analysis of everything that has been inscribed into the realm of big data allows us to search and retrieve textual fragments from a vast, increasingly comprehensive literary and linguistic corpus in arrangements that are first 'read' by algorithmic and statistical models and then offered up to us in finely composed—and often illustrated, multimediated—pages that precede and predetermine any further or deeper 'human' reading. Perhaps this is how we are now inclined to read, as our relationship with language and language-making changes fundamentally? Is the algorithmically composed reading 'social' or 'posthuman'? Is our subsequent 'deep' reading a solipsistic throwback? For works that have been written by human individuals, questions of ownership, copyright and integrity are raised continually in entirely new, if instantly commonplace, situations.

Common Tongues remediates practices and processes of reading, and addresses, critically, the commodification of reading itself, and the proprietary enclosure of a growing portion of our linguistic cultural commons.

More about this installation

The 'perceptual reader', an autonomous software entity embodying specific reading strategies, first developed for the artists' Read For Us installation (2010), is released within Beckett's long prose work, How It Is, on one of the main installation displays. This reader is seen moving through that part of this text known and published elsewhere as 'The Image,' highlighting phrases as it goes, in the center of a perceptually defined, typographically composed space. The reader has been adapted to consume the text in up to four-word phrases and then to attempt to 'source' these sequences on the internet in contexts that are not associated with Beckett or his writing. The searches are sent, live, to auxiliary displays in the installation where visitors may read these phrases in an aestheticized selection of the new contexts that are offered to us by networked services. 'The Image' of How It Is is read through Common Tongues.

Common Tongues is also a literary sound installation. The recording of an oral textual performance is heard within the space of the installation. This text was generated by 'writing to be found' in the commons of language using networked search services. Phrases from 'The Image' are found within language in the networked commons that has not been authored by Samuel Beckett. This language was then composed by Cayley into a new text in a process that is quasi-algorithmic. The new text contains its supply text embedded within language that has been discovered in the linguistic commons. This spoken text is poetic, disturbing, and uncanny in relation to what it purports to be reading through and addressing.

The visually-accessible reading of the 'perceptual reader,' and that of the more expansive generated text in spoken performance will diverge when left to their own devices, but a simple interface allows a visiting human reader to control and bring the aural and visual readings into a more synchronous relation of correspondence and commentary.

As a gesture from the latter days of print, Common Tongues offers, as artifactual, archival and sculptural components of the installation, copies of two print-on-demand publications made from certain processes of its 'reading through'—the exhaustively annotated How It Is in Common Tongues, and The Image (both Providence: NLLF Press). The latter book is composed of screenshots from the search-driven, phrase-by-phrase readings of 'The Image' as performed by the Common Tongues installation. It is a book of images constructed from the same reading strategy performed live by the perceptual reader and its 'images' auxiliary display—a book of the Common Tongues ... reading.

Read for us, 2010

In the artists' Read For Us installation, a similar process was applied to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, as a critique of the market-determined and advertising-inflected reading that phrase-based internet search engenders. For Common Tongues, we address, in addition, the association of phrases with an authorized text, exploding its integrity and discovering the same words 'in the wild,' so to speak—amongst fragments of feral language both human and posthuman, in the common tongues that are proper to the contemporary linguistic commons. Paradoxically we use the same mechanisms of big software that are, as we speak, enclosing language, in order to find the words of an authorized text where they are still, if only momentarily, associating freely.

Thanks and Acknowledgements:
Simon Biggs, Elizabeth Hodson and all of the other conference and exhibition organizers.
Mark Daniels and his team at Inspace.
Clement Valla, Kai Franz, and our students.
Derek Vieira of Brown CIS for networking trouble shooting in the run-up.

This piece is also documented in the ELMCIP Knowledge Base with permanent URL
How It Is in Common Tongues is documented at,
and The Image booklet at