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Open Access Publications from the University of California


Issue cover
Cover Caption: Marc Miller, Transposition 118 – Derivation 118-0, 2018 (this volume)


Letter from the Editor

The idea for this issue began percolating in the very early stages of Refract’s existence. I attended the Venice Biennale in 2017 with my partner, infant, and in-laws. I soon became aware of the several roles I inhabited: I was at once a contemporary visual culture thinker honing my critical eye, a new parent managing a balance of feedings and jet-lagged nap schedules, and an in-law guiding my family in a country that inspires many to bask in the visual. I juggled these roles while also trying to fulfill our collective desires for the quintessential family trip to Italy. This exercise invited a reflection on the practice of translation of experience and access (of age, of interest, of comfort, of cost), in addition to language and culture.


At arm’s length, we might define translation as a process by which a set of information is manipulated, altered, transferred, or rendered into another form. But translation also, and often, bears on us more personally, more intimately. It has the potential to bridge chasms of difference in our encounters between languages, interpretations, and experiences. Translation also carries with it the possibility of getting things wrong. How might we align the spirit of translation—of the things it does—with the undoings it can engender? How might this issue probe the scope of translation across and beyond modes and textures of expression such as the written, the spoken, the sensory, the visual, and the auditory?

Craptions: Instagram Notes from Joseph Grigely

Joseph Grigely is, among many things, an artist, a writer, and a person who is deaf. On his public Instagram page, he occasionally posts documentation of his experiences navigating a world designed for people who can hear. Grigely has generously allowed Refract to publish a selection of his Instagram posts, curated below by managing editor Kate Korroch. These posts expand the notion of translation beyond that of language to think instead of the aural, the visual, and issues of access and inclusion. Grigely’s playful documentation reveals a deeply problematic and systemic failing to account for differently abled bodies. His posts offer a perspective that is invisible in a society made for people with hearing. In this instance, mistranslation becomes a form of erasure.

The Heat is On

At one point in Kahlil Joseph’s two-screen installation BLKNWS (2018 – ongoing), African American poet June Jordan recites her “Song of the Law Abiding Citizen.” Strategicallyunderstated and delivered with deadpan irony, the poem begins by quickly accumulating momentum.

Trans Self-Imaging Praxis, Decolonizing Photography, and the Work of Alok Vaid-Menon

As an identity and an analytic, trans offers a compelling challenge to photographic discourse. Trans, as a rejection of the assigned sex at birth, is a rejection of what was assigned to us based on our physical attributes, an assumption made about us based on our surface aesthetics. Trans rejects the physical surface in favor of living our lives based on an internal feeling: something that is not visible but manifested visually in a way that plays with the aesthetics and expectations of gender. As trans scholar and artist micha cárdenas has observed, trans is often about a rejection of the visible. To picture trans subjects, then, is to make a surface rendering of something (the person’s outward appearance) that is already de-essentialized from any necessary essence or “truth.” Trans as an analytic offers a method to view the photographic image not only as distinct and distant from the referent but in tension with it. Trans as a method prompts a rethinking of surfaces in relation to essence, identity, authenticity, and fixity, unfixing the surface from the subject.

(Un)veiling Sappho: Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney’s Radical Translation Projects

In 1894 a strange book titled Les chansons des Bilitis (The Songs of Bilitis) was published by the popular French writer Pierre Louÿs. A collection of erotic poetry, it began with an introduction that claimed the poems were found on the walls of a tomb in Cyprus and were written by an ancient Greek woman named Bilitis, a courtesan and contemporary of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. In fact, Loüys fabricated Bilitis and the majority of the poems in the collection. He cites some of Sappho’s real verses, but credits them to his invented Bilitis. To lend authenticity to the forgery, he listed some of the poems as “untranslated” in the book’s index, and included a bibliography with earlier translations of collections of Bilitis’s poetry, which were, of course, also false. Yet upon publication, the fraud eluded even the most expert of scholars. Perhaps most surprisingly, even when the literary hoax was eventually exposed, it did little to diminish the book’s popularity. Louÿs’s endeavor both challenges the ethics of “faithful” translation and raises the question: why didn’t readers care that Bilitis wasn’t a real poet?

"LeWitt Transpositions" and Conceptual Transpositions: Considering the Grammars of Conceptual Art and Parametric Drawing

In the 1970s, artists and designers were trying to formalize their respective processes using rules. In the fine arts, there was a long period of reflection that had gained traction within the modern art movement. For designers, it presented an opportunity to formalize design practices and procedures, thus providing a rationale for repetitive processes. In both cases, grammar and syntax were used to frame the process of translating the rules into operations.

“Translation, Translation, Rehearsal” in Conversation

Scott Hunter’s “Translation, Translation, Rehearsal” is a sound piece that explores issues of translation when a tarot deck is used to dictate the fate of each note for a saxophone quartet. Each translation of a tarot card, be it “the fool” or “the hermit,” manifests in a harmonic progression of rehearsals that culminate in an infinite play on what is lost, or not lost, in the act of translation. Accompanying “Translation, Translation, Rehearsal” is a brief interview between Scott Hunter, a PhD student of literature at UC Santa Cruz, and Refract editorial board member Alexandra Macheski about how tarot and music composition and the concept of rehearsal can create new and unforeseen harmonies. This interview, from June 15 to August 4, 2019 started as a face-to-face conversation in Santa Cruz, California, and then moved to written correspondence.

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Daisy Bell

In this digital mash-up recording, the artist has recreated the early 20 th century song Daisy Bell.The song sits squarely within a history of the digital interfacing with speech synthesis/AI formatsto produce new sound experiences; notably, here it references, and starts off from, how thesong is used in the movie Space Odyssey 2001 as part of the computer HAL’s database.Through the compilation of various versions and recording instruments the musical piece/artwork here showcases how, symbolically, the translation and transmutation of voice and musicacross modes can produce the uncanny and force us to question what is essential, what ispersistent, and what changes through different formats. It combines the voices of earlier singersand earlier modes of recording with new technologies for sound making as well as “voices thatwere never alive to begin with.” It explores the ontology of simulation and addresses how thedigital engages questions of nostalgia and the uncanny.

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Lupine Sensibilities: Dynamically Embodied Intersubjectivity between Humans and Refugee Wolves

There is a growing body of literature in the field of environmental education that draws from the phenomenological tradition in theorizing about human-animal interactions. I am inspired by the eco-phenomenology of Phillip G. Payne and aim here to further an educational pedagogy of intercorporeal relations and to conceptualize M:W as “an active experiential and existential site of and for inquiry in and with various natures and environments.” From the animal welfarist perspective, some work has also been done about how these interactions occur in the contexts of zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, and how they can be mutually enriching for non/humans; Lindsey Mehrkam, Nicolle Verdi, and Clive Wynne have specifically studied captive wolves and wolf-dogs in this regard. Holding all these schools of thought in mind, this essay lies at the four-way intersection of human-animal studies (HAS), anthropological methodology, environmental education, and phenomenology. More specifically, I endeavor to bring the anthropological framework of dynamic embodiment—which draws heavily from phenomenology but has been largely humancentric—firmly into conversation with these other intellectual genealogies.

Untitled (Speech Poem #2)

Closed captions often do not fully convey the meaning, emotion, or even the full dialogue of spoken English to a d/Deaf audience. They are often incomplete, whether due to audist assumptions about the ability of d/Deaf to understand content (such as with captions that present allegedly less lofty language than that spoken by the actors on-screen), or the technological failure whereby caption decoders in televisions and in the devices cinemas use drop a line of dialogue. Other times, the failure of closed captions relates to the more subtle inability of formal written captioning protocols to capture tone of voice, or to really represent what emotional information is portrayed by a soundtrack. What does it mean to have “upbeat music” or to name the instrument itself? My work subverts this obfuscation of meaning, turning the tables to privilege disabled communities over non-disabled communities.

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Languages of Violence

Languages of Violence is a gaming/sound performance mediated by the streaming service Twitch. The visual elements represent the active key registrations and inputs being made during a video game, while the sound is of the game as it’s played and mixed through analog pedals and feedback loops. The context of the game and the event that it produces are obscured by this interpretation. What’s left is an impressionistic gesture that mediates a fact of violence. At the outset of this work, I was exploring what I saw left open by realistic digital violence, in that it can be directed beyond its actual origins. Gunfire is made indistinguishable from a real life event, but its context as a video game rescues it or makes it acceptable.

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BLAST RADIUS: No. 4 in a Series of Data Humanization Performances

At around 7:30pm on April 13, 2017 the US government dropped the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb near the Moman Dara Village in the Asadkhel area in the Achin district of Nagarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Nicknamed the "Mother of All Bombs" the weapon is the largest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal, with a blast radius, meaning the area in which serious effects on people and structures can be felt, of a mile. While the MOAB was the largest weapon released, it was but one of 4,361 air weapons that targeted Afghanistan during 2017, according to US Air Forces Central Command declassified airpower summaries.

At 7:30am on April 13, 2018, the anniversary of this event, I walked a path equivalent to the blast radius of MOAB on land in Arizona. This walk memorialized the civilians killed, the villages terrorized, the populations forced to migrate, and the lands scarred as a result of the endless wars being carried out in the name of protecting US citizens.

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Interpreting the Legal Archive of Visual Transformations: Textual Articulations of Visibility in Evidentiary Procedures and Documentary Formats of Colonial Law

This article is concerned with tracing an onto-epistemological break through the archeology of colonial penal law, whereby a historical restructuring of the “visible” and the “articulable” produces modern ways of “seeing” and “knowing.” This epistemic break will be investigated through eighteenth and nineteenth century “Regulation” of Islamic sharīʿa penal law by British administrators of the East India Company in colonial Bengal. The juridico-discursive body, which came to be known as Anglo-Muhammadan law, will be analyzed through court records compiled by Company jurists and their Regulations modifying sharīʿa jurisprudence. Islamic penal law is based on hermeneutical practices of juridical reasoning formed through particular ways of seeing, knowing, and verifying the truth through eye-witness and testimony. In this article I will show that when the British commandeered this system of justice towards their own ends, the regulatory changes they instituted inadvertently brought about visual transformations of the ways in which legal life-worlds of the colony come to be recorded, articulated, and expressed. Under the British administration of colonial Bengal, this dual-process of appropriation and subversion of the law took shape through translation and transliteration of fiqh treatises, to legal amendments and sweeping legislations in substantive law. This process not only provided colonial power access to the bodies of colonial subjects, but also conditioned the relations between criminality, visuality, and juridical veridiction through penal legislation. As this article will show, the East India Company’s regulation of Islamic penal law began incorporating modern forms of evidentiary proofs, indexicality, and documentary formats that restructured the lifeworld of colonial law in 19th century Bengal.

All le moto a ces droits: Notes on Hervé Youmbi’s Translation of the Déclaration Universelle des Droits de l’Homme (DUDH)

The following photo essay considers Hervé Youmbi’s 2017 artwork DUDH in the context of the current political crisis in Cameroon. For DUDH, Youmbi translated five articles from the Déclaration Universelle des Droits de l’Homme into Camfranglais and installed them on signs in the quartiers of New Bell Ngangue and Ndogpassi III in Douala, Cameroon. He printed one set of the five articles on a blue background for New Bell and the same articles on green for installation in Ndogpassi III. Youmbi unveiled the signs in December 2017 as part of the Salon Urbain de Douala (SUD) triennial.

Voices of Visual Studies

Lag and Impact in Visual Studies

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on my porch with a friend and my partner, trying to explain just what visual studies is. My friend, a historian, and my partner, who teaches in an English department, both listened patiently as I muddled through my usual preambles:

It’s like art history, but with a more politicized vision… Some people approach visual studies as a means to think about perception and technologies that have literally changed vision… Others use it as a means to explain how what is made (or allowed to be) visible is a tool of consolidating and maintaining hegemonic power… Some people see it as a development of art history; others define it as a radical rupture.…

I listed examples of potential objects of study. I began with the obvious: art, posters, film, advertisements, maps. I then listed more totalizing, which is to say less concrete, examples: systems of representation, discourse, the use of space, the commons. I inventoried the range of theoretical tools at my disposal: Marxism, feminism, critical race studies, indigeneity, postcolonialism, and queer theory… My historian friend nodded generously. “Yes,” she said, “people in my discipline work on these issues, as well.” My partner, more than a bit familiar with this intrigue of mine, acknowledged that his classroom and writing practice also welcome a variety of methodologies and source materials. So, what then, I proceeded to ask, is it that makes visual studies a discipline when its approach—that is to say, its methodology of interdisciplinarity—is being practiced (and seemingly welcomed) across the humanities?

Full Issue

Refract Journal, Volume 2: "Translation"

Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal

Translation | Volume 2 | Issue 1