Month: October 2012

A Migration of Words

As we move further and further into a world in which printed, bound, and preserved language seems obsolete, the temptation is to declare printed words well beyond the point of no return. Daily we assert that we have lost literacy, that we degrade the power and beauty of literature. We literally throw away our words as libraries weed their shelves. Every day we throw away our words, tossing them out with yesterday’s quaintly printed newspapers and the books in our parents’ attics. But we do not lose them. Words are more essential and sublime than the printed impressions we use, reuse, or destroy.

We live at a transformative moment, at the cusp of a world characterized by the changing, mutating, evolving, and perpetually edited freedom of digital media. Text is literally migrating from one form to another, taking new shapes and meanings every day. We must learn again, in an unceasing sea of words, how to navigate the waters of our language.

Mysteries of Vernacular

I have recently discovered an amazing project called Mysteries of Vernacular.  The creator, Jessica Oreck, makes these tiny films using old books and stop motion animation to tell the history of words.  Ultimately she plans 26, one for each letter of the alphabet, though as of now there are only four of these perfect little films: Assassin, Clue, Pants, and Hearse.  Each film details the history of the word, tracing it back to its root and illustrating its development and evolution with delightful paper cutouts and ink drawing animation.  From the colors, music, and narrative voice, to the matter of fact way in which remarkable details are revealed, these films are a perfect antidote to a world in love with irony and too cool to acknowledge the actual coolness of our world.  It is eye-opening to imagine, as in the case of hearse, how many different things a word can mean in a short span of time and the film illustrates this wonderfully.

Part of what I love about the project is the reuse of old, unloved, discarded books. Oreck says all the books she cuts up and draws on for Mysteries of Vernacular are ones she found on the sidewalk and dollar bin.  My installation A Migration of Words was a similar project in giving life and agency to the books society has thrown away.  For that project I chose books either from the clearance rack at the used bookstore or from the trash itself, rescuing and then dismantling the books to transform them into something new.

But it is more than this material similarity that draws me to Oreck’s Mysteries of Vernacular.  I love words and each of these little films is a beautiful journey in to the past, in the history of the word.  In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Oreck said that her projects are “intended to instill a sense of wonder in the viewer” and this is certainly the case with this project.  With each film you are drawn into the history of word and shown something strange and beautiful and unexpected.  I imagine these words sneaking about their days, smugly knowing so much more than we do.  Not just the books, medium for the illustration of the story, but the words themselves come to life, and, hours and days later, they stay with you.  The films draw me back the importance of words, and of the power they hold.

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