Text & Tongues


किताबों को देखना क्या है?”

The cover of a book is both an aesthetic and commercial decision. It’s a portal to the text; an ‘optical echo’ of the literature inside. The cover signifies that the text is not abstract meanderings in a head or draft anymore, that it is definitive and contained in a comprehensible, semantic bracket. Between the covers, the text becomes an object to be reproduced, disseminated, looked at, browsed through and bought for consumption. So, when the surface of the book is hidden by way of newspapers (which follow an invariable visual vocabulary), the object becomes inaccessible in the realm of cursory vision and recognition.

In the library at Goethe-Institut, each book is labouriously rendered as anonymous as the next by Actant Nilanjana Nandy (and team) until it is physically moved out of the shelf by the invested or disoriented browser. Sometimes, there would be an impatient tear on the cover; there’s anarchy in uniformity. The uniform resists instability and exists outside time; the books are subsumed into homogenous attention as their unique graphics are swallowed up from the visual terrain of the space.

The silverfish works in isolation from these concerns. A nocturnal insect, the silverfish eats its way through the binds and adhesives of books discreetly, eating up the words, their meanings, context, interconnections and associated histories of origin. The text is physically ingested until it is excreted in the realm of microbial manoeuvers, where it acquires new functions.

This expansive installation on the premises outdoors—made up of around ten thousand books, across disciplines—makes their constituent words inaccessible, compelling the passer-by to limit their interest and tactile temptations to a passive gaze. The structural quality of the cumulative object lends it the motion of an arrested creature, its anatomy of literary cells visible and exhibited as patterns. There’s a sense of permanence to the reptilian length, its spine drawn with the spines of books, their content concealed like the nervous system is by an epidermal envelope. The beast lives and breathes in apparent stasis.

The silverfish, like the eye of the viewer, feeds not on the language but the physicality of the structure. The pages lose their geometry and print in a motivated decay, leaving an absent presence, and an anxiety at the inability to comprehend everything. The consumed pages persist in the book as phantom limbs.

Where do the words go?

The words are never quite inaccessible. They often leave the semantic bracket and become meanderings; the process works in reverse as well. They manifest as ideas that ferment across bodies—in isolation, through active congregations as well as accidents of solidarity. Language enables mobility through hierarchies, and can materialise as dissent. The cover is a clothing then, and the body responsive through text and tongue. The inaccessibility engineered here is not a hermetic seal on the books, but a space for incubation as other energies are activated around their presence.

When books are burnt in fascist strategies of erasure, their words assume new life in tongues, and circulate through both lateral and generational passage. When they attempt to stifle the speaker by tiring her body, her words breathe in residue. We can amplify her voice, tiptoe around our own ebullient words, veil them to escape scrutiny, suppress them from exhaustion or fear, or cry them out loud in abandon. This wandering involves reading, listening, thinking, speaking, and acts of sharing and empathy. We embody the silverfish then, scuttling across power regimes with a deliberate naiveté, disrupting the surface through seditious utterings, whispers of heresy, songs of pain and joy and assertion against authority, so that when there’s silence, there’s agency too.

“सब याद रक्खा जायगा।”


A range of bipeds and quadrupeds occupy screen space over an evening, and perform their ‘liveness’ while simulated wind and gravity respond to audio inputs from the immediate environment (i.e. a group conversation led by Actant Sahej Rahal). Coded to respond while also allowed an exercise of volition, the elements of the AI programme are excited through dance, hostile collisions and other interruptions in the code; their limbs move of their own accord. There’s no historical or a priori meaning to this landscape, and time is experienced as pure presence; the conversation in the room takes tangential trajectories as words ricochet off their intended meanings.

The elements are malleable, and the contingent nature of the human exchange informs the mutations in the coded landscape, which respond to the risks and ruptures of the spoken word and its intonations. In this field of acquired sentience, the spoken word is হিজিবিজি, drawing intuitive networks and noise to provoke sensory traffic in isolation from their semantic value. There’s no dramatic culmination to the noise; only a consistent, circular motion of optical echoes.

The distance between the mind and the limb collapses, as both acquire agency in a landscape evolving with randomness; the body liquefies in resistance to this binary hierarchy. Process-generated, the interaction cannot be uncoiled in perfect legible strides towards accessibility. The creation exceeds the creator, knots remain in anticipatory resolution, and utterances function outside empirical logic. Words travel across porous membranes—the page, the code and the voice—creating new configurations for a present and future of not being, but being-with.

Works Addressed:
Nilanjana Nandy, Cover/Uncover | Atufa Rais and Tayyab Hussain, Silverfish | Sahej Rahal, Antraal


Irmgard Emmelhainz, “Conditions of Visuality Under the Anthropocene and Images of the Anthropocene to Come”, e-flux journal #63, March 2015 (https://www.e-flux.com/journal/63/60882/conditions-of-visuality-under-the-anthropocene-and-images-of-the-anthropocene-to-come/)

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Clothing of Books, Penguin Random House India, 2017

Aamir Aziz, “Sab Yaad Rakkha Jayega”, poem

Image Credits:
Inset 1: Cover/Uncover @Annette Jacob
Inset 2: Stills from Silverfish @Amir Pashtoon
Inset 3: A still from Antraal @Sahej Rahal

Cover Image: Silverfish @Annette Jacob

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