Who’s Reading Who?

My interest in text and the city started by walking around downtown Vancouver and noticing poems on buildings—words on a space different than what we’re used to. I still stop for words (like Here Comes, A Window Story) and this building seen while roaming around the East Side Culture Crawl:

So when I heard the Contemporary Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver was featuring a window exhibit by Turkish artist Meriç Algün Ringborg called Metatext, I went to check it out, to read it.

The exhibit is literally written into the front façade of the building (as shown above), on several different window panels. You read it from left to right, like you would a novel. And as you read it, you feel you are reading something like a novel.

And then you feel you really have no idea what you’re reading. A string of words—or definitions—is closer to what it is. Here’s the description from the CAG:

The new work at the Contemporary Art Gallery takes the English dictionary as its starting point. Using only selected definitions of specific words, this ambitious commission appears as a series of inter-related sentences notionally composing mini-narratives and realized in a way that seems to incorporate different voices and characters. As such the work evolves out of the dictionary akin to a fragmentary novel or short story, a series of episodes branching out into a loose meta-narrative concerning writing as a creative act as implied through the use of this ‘found’ language.

It is a strange experience reading the text(s) because each line relates slightly to what’s around it, but also completely interrupts it with something new. Metatext plays with the idea of being a novel and yet lacks any of the cohesiveness we look for in novels. It is terribly self-conscious and long-winded about what it is doing—writing about writing, and a little pompous about it too: “the book that I’ve just written. considering the conditions, it’s very good” . . . “the book is a thoroughly entertaining read. it’s the best novel I’ve ever read”. The whole thing reads very ironically because by the end, we realize we have just read the novel being talked about (this metatext on the windows) and it isn’t very good but the author(s) thinks it is, and do we feel pity for the deluded writer, or sympathy because no doubt we’ve been there too, or annoyance for having spent twenty minutes reading this text that makes no sense, and what kind of dictionary is she using anyway?

IMG_6626Since the text is embedded into a building in downtown Vancouver, it makes us consider narratives of the city and the people who inhabit its space. How do our narratives of private and public overlap? The picture below showing my reflection, along with the buildings in the background, speak to this confluence of private and public. The act of writing a novel is typically a solitary activity, done in the privacy of a home, with typewriter/computer and one’s own thoughts late at night or early in the morning. What happens when it is exposed in a public space, a city space where we use words and construct narratives on a daily basis? How do our inner and outer words interact, especially in Vancouver, a city that never lets you escape your reflection as you’re walking to the office, walking to the grocery store, walking to and from home? We see ourselves in the window and wonder, who’s reading who?

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