BASIC BASIC ENGLISH
The video installation “Basic Basic English” does not present the language and translation limits of various algorithms, but rather proposes a possibility of dialogue between man and machine.
At the center of the work stands the projected image of a trainer, some cross between a spiritual advisor and digital prophetess. This hologram entity invites viewers to learn a new language, one based on a redacted version of English. The software and devices wear a woman’s form, serving as a liaison and coach, a futuristic stewardess, explaining the rules that should be followed to communicate with machines: keep to short sentences, simple words, use the imperative, and speak slowly. Zalmanson’s lexicon contains only 648 words, enabling productive communication with AI systems without creating confusion.
Zalmanson’s lexicon is based on “Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar” by the linguist Charles Ogden, containing 850 essential English words. With the support of the British government, Ogden spent the 1930s toiling over what he believed to be a utopian endeavor to create a rudimentary new language, based on English, to be used in the British colonies throughout Asia.
To consolidate Zalmanson’s even smaller lexicon (just 648 words), the artist recorded people from around the world reading aloud a long list of words. These recordings were then fed into a Google algorithm, with any words not recognized then erased from the list. Thus, the remaining words do permit fruitful and comprehensible exchange with AI interfaces, but the drastic redaction of language also inevitably diminishes the ability to imagine – a familiar subject for outrage among those grieving for forgotten words and the “rise of the emoji”.
The work includes several lessons, presentations, and demonstrations of the new language. The first lesson displays a vision of mutual understanding between biological and digital entities. In one presentation, the instructor lists words excluded from the lexicon, and in another she reads aloud a Basic Basic English rendition to the lyrics of “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. In this version, the song loses its grim undertone, but the repetition of words gives the impression that the original speaker is still present, still watching your every move. The obsession abides, even when the ability to express it has been lost.
(Curatorial Text: Ran Kasmy-Ilan)
Interactive Video Installation, 2019