Discussion with Carl Trahan and Michael Cowan

Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 7:00pm

Carl Trahan’s recent work draws inspiration from the writings of German-Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer (1881-1960), who survived the Shoah in one of the last ’Jewish houses’ in Dresden. After the Second World War, Klemperer’s critical observations on the ideological underpinnings of language were published as LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii, or “The Language of the Third Reich”, one of the most compelling accounts on the power of man to corrupt language.


Words acquire meaning through context. By bringing them into drawings and objects, Trahan extracts, isolates, seals or elides them, at times neutralizing or narrowing down their significance to a minimal existential state. In one piece, a list of words that the Spanish author Jorge Semprún considered of the utmost importance to navigate life in the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where he was imprisoned, is carved in graphite. In a series of drawings, Trahan superimposes the letters that compose a selection of words drawn from the National Socialist vocabulary in Fraktur typeface, thereby creating abstract and sculptural forms. By giving words and letters a variety of typefaces, Trahan considers how they acquire a history of their own.


Typography was pivotal to National Socialists’ communication strategy. The Fraktur font was initially considered to be intrinsically “German”, but it was abandoned in 1941 for more modern typefaces; Sütterlin, a cursive and mannered version from the Fraktur family, was disgraced and eventually replaced by a simpler profile. These typefaces are no longer taught today, but whenever they are used, they allude – not always innocently – to notions of history and tradition.


What is the meaning of “ewig”  (eternal)? This question begets two works in the exhibition: a neon sign written in Sütterlin and a wall piece that maps out all its possible translations between German and French.  Writing and typography cannot alter the meaning of a word, but they can add a layer of meaning to the act of communication they make visible.


Dirk Nauguschewski, Researcher in language and culture

Translated from French by Claudine Hubert


Carl Trahan has presented his multidisciplinary work since 1994 throughout Canada and Europe. Since 2005, his interest in contexts of foreign language has led him to carry out residencies in various European cities.


Michael Cowan is a professor of German and film studies at McGill University, and is the director of the Moving Image Research Laboratory (MIRL). Cowan's focus is primarily in cinema, examining intersections between discourses on media, technology, aesthetics and the body in modern culture.


Image : Carl Trahan, série 7 (les mots les plus terribles du national-socialisme), 2011, photo : Gianni Plescia
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