A New World Literature

Adam Thirlwell and Hans Ulrich Obrist discuss art in the age of isolationism – and the show they curated for Manchester International Festival

Hans Ulrich (left) in conversation wth Adam Thirlwell at Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 2019

Adam Thirlwell and Hans Ulrich Obrist are the cocurators of Studio Créole, a group show whose medium is literature. Premiering at the Manchester International Festival (MIF) in July, the work experiments with the possibility of staging the act of translation by combining storytelling, performance, architecture and the visual arts. In deconstructing the idea of an interpreter’s booth, making it something mobile and freefloating, a stage design by Rem Koolhaas and Federico Martelli dramatises the idea that new forms of literature might emerge at the point where languages meet. 

Ahead of the show’s opening, Obrist and Thirlwell met to discuss multilingual artforms, creolisation and identity as a function of cultural exchange.

Hans Ulrich Obrist The Lebanese-French-American poet Etel Adnan recently wrote for my Instagram that ‘The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.’

Studio Créole is about a common future threatened by isolationism. So, we should start this conversation by introducing a key influence on the project, the Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, who understood early on that we are living through a period of globalisation. Not necessarily the first – the Roman Empire was another – but certainly the most extreme and perhaps also the most violent.

That leads to a lot of different things disappearing, not only species but also cultures and cultural phenomena. Now, of course, we are experiencing a counterreaction to this extreme form of globalisation in the emergence of new forms of nationalism, racism and intolerance. Glissant wrote that we need to resist both the disappearance of cultures and the counterreaction against it. He called this new form of exchange – which does not homogenise but instead produces a ‘difference’ from which new things can emerge – mondialité [which might be translated as ‘globality’]. And this exhibition might be understood as contributing, in some small way, to this idea of mondialité.

The title of this project alludes to one aspect of mondialité. In his first novel, La Lézarde [The Ripening, 1958], Glissant considers the blend of languages and cultures as characteristic of Antillean identity. His native Creole was formed from a combination of colonial French with the languages of African slaves, and yet is independent of them both and unexpectedly new. Using this as a basis for his insights, Glissant observed similar cultural fusions all over the world. Creolisation is a global phenomenon and, as he noted in Le Discour Antillais [Caribbean Discourse, 1981], ‘a process which never stops’.

We need to resist both the disappearance of cultures and the counterreaction 

Adam Thirlwell I feel like Glissant is one crucial member of a secret society whose mission is the utopian, maybe impossible ideal of a world literature – an ideal that emerges into the open for the first time in one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s conversations with Johann Peter Eckermann, dated to January 1827: ‘National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.’

That was the ideal of literature I grew up with – of literature as an international artform. My deep model was always the modernist moment – the Paris of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein – along with Picabia, Apollinaire and so on. Their entire concept of literature was that it should transcend the idea of the nation. (Pound, ABC of Reading [1934]: ‘One has to divide the readers who want to be experts from those who do not, and divide, as it were, those who want to see the world from those who merely want to know WHAT PART OF IT THEY LIVE IN’.)

I always loved the magazine El Lissitzky put out – Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet, a magazine whose multiple title reflected its multilingual contents, from Viktor Shklovsky to Le Corbusier. And I guess that modernist aesthetic contained an implicit argument – Why should the map of literature be the same as the map of the century’s murderous border disputes? – a proposal that was also made concrete in the century’s two great works of European criticism: Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis [1946], and E.R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages [1948], one written by a Jewish exile in Istanbul, the other by a German internal émigré, both published in Switzerland in the postwar 1940s. Weltliteratur was a rebuke to the insanities of nationalism.

But then you are faced with this very specific problem for literature as an international artform, which is language. An idea of an international artform is very different for an artist like Marcel Duchamp, say, or a composer like Igor Stravinsky – whereas literature is always limited by the language in which it is written. Language is at once the medium through which it communicates and a kind of limiting agent. And this, at least from the nineteenth century onwards, has allowed literature to be part of a nationalistic paradigm – because language became bound up with the idea of a ‘national literature’. This notion that literature should belong to a nation always seemed to me depressing, as a novelist. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to me to describe a novel as a ‘Russian’ or ‘British’ novel. A novel belongs to an international history. And so I’ve always wanted to explore what might be necessary to achieve this kind of international existence.

Which means I’ve also always been fascinated by translation and the role translation has to play in literature. And that brings us back to Glissant, because one thing Glissant was talking about through his theories of mondialité, or créolisation, was translation. Translation is a creolising agent: it brings two languages together and, in doing so, preserves them but also changes them.

HUO Glissant also writes about the archipelago as providing a way of thinking: an island group that has no centre but is instead a string of cultures whose interaction does not compromise their individual identity. This leads to his incredibly important insight: ‘I can change through exchange with the other without losing or diluting my sense of self.

A novel belongs to an international history

'So the question was how we can bring that kind of thinking into the exhibition, the way Glissant also tried to imagine a museum. To quote Glissant a final time, ‘I imagined the museum as an archipelago. It would have housed, not the synthesis serving to standardise, but a network of interrelationships between various traditions and perspectives.’

AT Translation is one form of archipelagic thinking, I think: something that makes it possible to hold two terms together without diminishing either, and to effect an exchange between them. And that is what we’re trying, I think, to dramatise in this exhibition.

But also there’s a wider problem we’re addressing here – which is how to be cosmopolitan without extinguishing the local. And Glissant’s idea of archipelagic thought offers the possibility of reconciling those two.

Because there are two absences that need to be reversed, in order to think accurately about world literature. The first is the absence of translation: and I’ve always wanted to put translation at the centre of literature rather than at its periphery. This always seemed incredibly important to me. But also there’s the absence of the original language – a translation isn’t valuable if it becomes so powerful that it obliterates the original. And this is particularly a problem, perhaps, for a global language like English. So, when you approached me and asked me how I would stage literature in the context of an exhibition in Manchester, I immediately wanted to make a kind of literalised version of what happens when we read in translation – without losing the translation, the original or the meaning of the story.

And then, in developing that idea, I returned to the fact that there are obviously two types of translation. There’s what’s called literary translation, which involves a text written by an author, translated by another writer, making their own text out of that text – a process that takes time, and which has a giant history and theory behind it. In that context there is an emphasis on accuracy, and on the idea of literary style and its preservation across languages. Then there’s simultaneous translation, or interpretation, which happens live and is, because it has to be, being completely time-limited, much more improvised and much rougher. And I thought it would be interesting to subject literature – this august form of language, in which words are treated with total reverence – to the chance encounters of live interpretation as opposed to literary translation.

HUO This is where Rem [Koolhaas]’s design comes in. One of the great inspirations for Rem was his experience of working in Brussels as part of a think tank, with Umberto Eco and others, which was convened to design a logo for the European Union. As part of the research, Rem studied the interpreters’ booths that are part of every EU session and which would in a deconstructed form become a central part of our exhibition architecture – where the authors are placed on islands with their interpreters, connected only by noise-cancelling headphones and cables…

AT It’s a very high-tech setup. The audience will be supplied with bone conduction headphones, which aren’t inserted into the ear but instead rest on the listener’s bone just in front of the ear – so that the sound is conducted through bone, not the ear itself. Which means that you will be able to hear two things at once: through your ears, the sound in the room – a live translation into the audience’s host language – which in Manchester, of course, will be English – and, through the headphones, each writer reading a story in their original language.

We’re not proposing some single definition of what literature should be

That juxtaposition really dramatises what happens when you read in translation, because there is always this other voice in the background. That’s where I think Glissant is also very important, because we’re not trying to forge some artificial synthesis but allow the two voices to coexist and to interact to create new meaning.

We’re not proposing some single definition of what literature should be. Instead we want to present these seven different writers working in different languages, with very different practices and approaches to language. And one of the interesting things to emerge from this project is just how fascinating it is to hear seven different stories. Not just because of the variety of languages used, but also because of the conventions of what a story can be in different literary cultures.

Which brings me back to a question that has always fascinated me: how do you create an idea of a world culture? Does that idea exist only at a level of such abstraction that it’s meaningless, or is it possible to create a precarious identity out of multiple interlocking identities? How can you keep the original in focus even as, in some sense, you obliterate it?

HUO It’s about the production of knowledge, and I’ve always believed that exhibitions have to come up with new rules of the game in order to achieve that. In this example, these rules govern the presentation of literature in time and space, and through translation.

When we talked about this at the beginning of the project, we discussed Oulipian techniques. Because, of course, the Oulipo group – Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Harry Mathews and others – came up with new rules of the game in order to produce literature. And you’ve implemented new sets of rules before when curating literature, like the project you did for Dave Eggers’s magazine McSweeney’s, for example.

AT You’re calling it curating, but the more prosaic term would be editing… Dave Eggers asked me to guest-edit an issue of McSweeney’s – an issue which we ended up calling Multiples. We decided that, for this one issue, the rules of the game would be like that game ‘telephone’ – where a story gets retold over and over again via different speakers. So my rules were: a story, never translated before into English, would be translated by a chain of novelists (professional translators were banned). We took 12 stories, which were each translated by a chain of international novelists, each working only from the previous language.

I wanted to test the extent to which literary style could be translated – how far it could survive the assault of other novelists’ different styles, and also dubious competence in the language they were translating. We ended up with this huge network of stories, and that led me and you, I remember, to a discussion of how it might be possible to do a group show for literature (in a way, every anthology is a group show), but this time explore how literature is of course a time-based medium.

HUO I have always worked at MIF, first with Alex Poots and now John McGrath [the past and current directors] to produce exhibitions that work with time rather than exclusively with space, incorporating other disciplines and trying out new formats. And Studio Créole is very much an extension of that investigation into working in time, rather than producing static objects.

AT I’m interested in how a novel is a sequential artform, like cinema or music, but it’s much harder to control the reader’s tempo. The megalomaniac in me wants to force a reader to sit down and not let them move until they have finished the whole novel – the way a film director can at least control the viewer’s attention in a cinema.

And so we were thinking it would be interesting to make literature ‘live’ in that way, to be able to control the reader’s experience of it. So it’s true that for Studio Créole we began with one basic rule of the game: that each novelist would be allowed a fixed amount of time. We then realised that one problem of an anthology is that the stories can be too disparate – whereas we were more interested in trying to create some kind of unity out of diversity, something like a federalised identity – and so we decided to set out some parameters to the stories themselves.

Another rule was relatively simple: that no iteration of the exhibition – because this show will be presented in different countries, it’s designed to keep on travelling forever, in new configurations – will feature a writer who works in the ‘host’ language. So there won’t be an English-speaking writer in Manchester, for instance.

HUO This is actually the only rule of the game I came up with, because otherwise I was just listening to you. But I was committed to the idea that the exhibition should tour and that each iteration should be different and adapt to local conditions, because of course that’s very much in the spirit of Glissant’s mondialité.

I learned, when I was starting out as a curator, how problematic it is if you package exhibitions and throw them from city A to city B to city C and don’t change them. That’s nothing other than homogenised globalisation. The idea with this model is that each time the show goes somewhere, it responds to the local context.

AT One of the main impetuses behind the exhibition is to dismantle the way English asserts itself as the cosmopolitan language. I’m excited with this first iteration that we’ll be able to subject anglophone audiences to the experience of other languages. English-speaking people are able, in large part, to live without ever experiencing the anxieties of translation and interpreting, which is very different to all of those people who are required to learn English as a second language. English speakers seem often not even to notice that this is going on, that other people are forced so regularly into these positions of uncertainty.

[To] package exhibitions and throw them from city A to city B to city C... is nothing other than homogenised globalisation 

HUO Another rule is the theme of these pieces of writing, and their address to identity, difference and otherness.

AT Yes, so the parameters we set out for the stories were that each one had to be written in an anonymous first person, and that at some point it should feature a conversation with a stranger. That, in itself, was enough to create all the themes that we needed. We wanted to explore precisely those issues – of identity, belonging, place – but it was far more interesting to give people a specific instruction than to say ‘make it about belonging’.

HUO And then the director, John Collins, came in to help stage this polyphony. To create some kind of visual component to the act of translation.

AT John is the artistic director of Elevator Repair Service in New York, a company he founded – and they’ve always been very attentive to how to work with text. (Their most famous show is maybe Gatz, a giant word-for-word version of The Great Gatsby.) John has been integral to making this work, because the idea as you and I first envisioned it was that there would be seven writers onstage, and about 45 interpreters translating each writer in every single direction. What we realised, after our first workshop with John, is that interpreting is simply too improvised an artform, as a theatrical artform, for it to be visually compelling. The interpreters are too densely engaged with the task of interpreting. And so there was a 24-hour period where we thought the entire project was in jeopardy.

But John then came up with the idea of feeding the live translations to an actor, who would then be tasked with rewording and representing them. And we’re incredibly lucky in Manchester that the wonderful actor Lisa Dwan, who is famous for her interpretations of Beckett’s monologues, will have the job of acting out the interpretation as she hears it. Becoming, in some sense, an incarnation of both author and translator. We never anticipated that performance element, but it’s now the place where for me all the excitement of the piece pivots – it means that this work is really a combination of theatre, literature, performance and installation.

HUO This project about moving across borders and translation has also gained some extra significance in the three years since we first discussed making it.

It’s in making mistakes, merging languages, mistranslating, that we might see emerge a new kind of literature

AT We’re living in an era that seems to see a border or an identity – both collective and individual – as something absolute and to be valued. Our current politics, on both the left and the right, is pitiful. So, yes, this project has certainly acquired extra polemical meaning, but then I always understood Studio Créole as an act of resistance. Maybe this is just because I’m Jewish – and Jewishness in literature for me has always meant a refusal of national boundaries. But then, I think there may be an even deeper blasphemy going on here, that goes beyond even politics. It’s always important to be blasphemous about the things that people take most seriously, and one reason why world literature still feels like a conspiratorial project is that we still tend to take language very seriously. The world cannot be said in a single language – just as a person is not bound to a single language either. But we’re so rooted in the idea of a single language, a mother tongue, and of a person’s identity as in some way correspondingly single and transparent, that any attempt to think in terms of a world or a planet is very difficult. It can feel either artificial or unnatural. But what a future world literature will require is the knowledge that a language isn’t something that belongs – to a landscape, or a nation, or a person. And one method will be a form of créolité

I’ve always been interested in deconstructing fluency and competence – to question the authority literature would like to achieve. That’s why Glissant’s example is so important, and his idea of créolité: it’s in making mistakes, merging languages, mistranslating, that we might see emerge a new kind of literature.

HUO Perhaps we can finish with another quote from Etel Adnan: ‘Thankfully, we are living after Babel, in a world of many languages that we can all move between. Our deepest identity is created from an infinite number of things and every language is the door to a whole world.’

Hans Ulrich Obrist, born in Zürich, is an art curator, critic and historian of art. He is artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London, and author of The Interview Project, an extensive ongoing project of interviews. He is also coeditor of the journal Cahiers d’Art.

Adam Thirlwell, born in London, is a novelist and essayist whose works – including Politics (2003), The Escape (2009) and Lurid & Cute (2015) – have been translated into 30 languages. He has twice been named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. In 2015 he received the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2018 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is the London editor of The Paris Review.

The above is an edited and expanded version of a conversation at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, in May 2019, part of the United Artists for Europe programme. 

Studio Créole is a new commission by the 2019 edition of Manchester International Festival (4–21 July, 2019). For further information visit www.mif.co.uk.

From the Summer 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia