We have had a talk with the Danish artist Marie Thams about what people do to words - and what words do to people
person – in motion
a project by Marie Thams & Rebekka Elisabeth Anker-Møller
person – in motion (2022 - 2023) is a project initiated and developed by visual artist Marie Thams and curator Rebekka Elisabeth Anker-Møller consisting of a series of interventions, an art film and a publication, which calls for the liberation of genders and the distribution of power in the Danish language and society. Through the project, a movement is created across Denmark, where art institutions and their local audience are invited into a processing of the power of language and thus also the role of art in the development of our common culture and standpoint.
The film person by Marie Thams (2022) examines the term ‘chairperson’ versus ‘chairman’ and addresses the way the gendered word follows a linguistic tradition that contributes to the perpetuation of particular notions of gender and the distribution of roles and influence in society. The artwork puts the subject matter in a wider perspective and reaches out to future generations, as who have the right to define the language of the future and their own leeway.
Throughout the traveling project, the questions run: Who completes and develops our joint societal institutions? How are we shaped by language – and can we liberate the distribution of social roles and power structures by expanding the notion of citizenship through language? Who does the term “we” cover? Through the exhibition and multi-voiced conversations, the aim is to contribute to an increased nuance of prevailing structures and notions about the body, equity and fellow human beings, and that diversity and inclusion is ensured in all gatherings.
The contributing authors create an important cross-section between the literary and the artistic as well as current science and business life - and are all invited to write a speech on the subject based on their own professional and lived experience:
Ingrid Baraka and Naima Yasin, who are behind the podcast A Seat At The Table – Drude Dahlerup, gender researcher and political scientist, author and professor emerita – Caspar Eric, poet – Ida Marie Hede, writer – Shëkufe Tadayoni Heiberg, writer, publisher and translator - Merete Pryds Helle, writer - Liv Helm, theater director and artistic director of Husets Teater - Nazila Kivi, literary critic, external lecturer in gender studies and co-founder of Friktion magazine - Moussa Mchangama, co-founder of the consultancy and the research platform In Futurum and former head of Mino Denmark – Ehm Eg Miltersen, linguist, writer and debater – Cecilie Nørgaard, educational and gender sociologist, author and owner of Mangfold – Natalia Rogaczewska, director of Women’s Economy (Kvindeøkonomien) and founder of the consultancy Værdbar – Elias Sadaq, writer and playwright – Marie Thams, visual artist.
Together with publisher Gads Forlag, work is being done to collect the speeches in a follow-up publication. The interventions unfold at Rønnebæksholm in Næstved, Copenhagen Contemporary, Kunsthal Nord in Aalborg and Kunsthal Aarhus from October 2022 to June 2023, and takes shape through the art film person and performative conversations with the project's contributing authors.
We have had a talk with the Danish artist Marie Thams about what people do to words - and what words do to people
an interview by Carmen Line Hust
Marie, in your art film person (2022) you’re initiating a thoughtful play with words. How come you chose to emphasize the three words person, horizon and universe?
It's important for me to play with the very close perspective and the very large perspective in my work and to work with voice and language both concretely and poetically. The three words do different things and they overlap throughout the work and through my thinking around and in the work. In person I call for a liberation of genders in language, with focus on gendered role names such as chairman. Here 'person' stands in opposition to the gendered words – woman, man – and in the work I specifically propose a change from using chairman to chairperson within leading roles. The works sets light on Danish language, where this is very present – here chairman (formand) is still dominant and chairperson (forperson) is slowly gaining ground, but it's far from the majority that use the gender neutral role name.
Then to horizon - by changing from a gendered perspective towards a neutral perspective, a liberation takes place, and in the work I suggest looking at that liberation by using ‘horizon’ – pointing at language’s effect on one’s imagination and scope – being broadened, expanded, through the gender neutral language, i.e., you can see more when you name more inclusive. By naming and thus acknowledging more identities, you can capture more nuances, which then will broaden that horizon of yours, your outlook on the world. Language very much forms us, also in a direct manner: what is named exists, which is where my wish to challenge how language can exclude and restrict comes from. ‘Horizon’ is also related to the lines that the children are drawing, playing on the metaphor of the horizon line and the option to shape of your own and other's horizon.
Then comes the word universe – here lies, among other, a questioning of a so-called universal category, pointing at the dominant human category which society, our institutions, our language is built on – which is not so universal at all, as it is based on a fit, white male body and subject. This limited category is used in technological development, in medical science, in language and in the power structures in society. The work questions that and points out the excluding mechanisms.
In your film, you’re almost singing the word universe and horizon, while whispering at other times. Could you explain why you chose this difference of weight of words/sentences?
The spoken text and more poetic, rhythmical use of voice in the film is a mix of language and vocal emotional registers, which is something I work with generally throughout my practice. The use of voice and the registers that the voice is attached to – emotional registers, bodily registers intellectual registers and so on. The voice allows the language to unfold a deeper human and bodily experience. When I say something literally, I say them with an authoritative tone and register, as when mentioning historical events in Denmark and in Europe, in relation to equality. And then I challenge and complement that line of speak and call for another sense of reading and listening. So, by using singing, a playful vocal use and a more the experimental voice, it creates a more open reading of something that otherwise can be read as very fixed. It's also a way to keep a poetic opening to the words, tasting the words – emphasizing that words both have a taste, a tone, and a sound to them that defines the interpretation of them. In the same way, to whisper is also a way to speak between the lines of a script, to place the speaker on the viewer’s and listener’s shoulder and thus emphasize the timeline and facts, such as how long time it will actually take before gender equality will be obtained globally – which is in a lot of years. It’s also a way to point out the seriousness of the matter – and playfulness and a more personal speak make that difficult to ignore.
What are your thoughts upon using children in your movie?
Children are in many ways right that – they merge seriousness and playfulness. Their playful, open-minded approach to the world that someone, we the grownups, are building for them to inherit, makes the issue very urgent, right?! Their open and innocent being in the world – and in the film them inhabiting the spaces and changing the choreographies of the situation – points at the rigidness and the harsh consequences of the structures that we build on, reproduce, and sent into the future – such as gendered hierarchies in political power, also happening through language. These are serious matters that we are to take responsibility of, and which we are to deal with in a conscious caring manner.
In person, a table is set for 10. Each plate, cup, name card, notepad, and pen, and 4 sheets of paper are outlined with a black marker and then removed from the table again. What are you trying to construct with these outlines?
The number of the people is not fixed, it could be infinite as the camera frames a part of a long table without ends. In the picture a choreography of what could be a meeting situation is happening - a table for example meant for a board meeting or another meeting set for discussion and decision-making is prepared. Two persons are setting the table with the formal marks of such a table - name tags, plates and cups for snacks and drinks, notepads, meeting agendas etc. I've picked out signifiers from the meeting situation and I’m miming the choreography of preparing the meeting, which is then drawn out and recorded – the persons meticulously draw around each element and then withdraw them. So, I'm pointing at the construction and choreography of situations like these, on how it has been decided what makes a board meeting. Simultaneously there is a play with the drawn lines that correspond with the horizon lines, which again points at, maybe also with humor, how the setting and choreography could be different, how we could draw this situation differently, meet differently, be seated differently and so on.
The travelling project person - in motion leads to an overwhelming dialogue about how we use words and what effect spoken language has on our lived lives. In the pursuit of removing patriarchy and gender from language, do you believe that we need to construct new words, like chairperson, to include all genders and identities into the settings of contemporary life?
I'd say the word is already there, in this case. What I suggest is already existing, chairperson is an option, and yes, I do believe that by naming and giving the option to be named in the first place, does enable for more identities to exist within a given situation, group, and society. Language outlines the situation and who is included in it, and we reproduce those structures by naming or not naming. So, by claiming that chairperson is crucial, I call for inclusion and accessibility to positions of power. And I also call for these positions of power being held and filled out by qualified persons, no matter gender or gender identity, physical capability, sexuality, ethnicity etc. By using a gender neutral role name when someone steps into the role as chairperson, that person fills the role out as a person, not with their gender and not having to struggle with historically gendered expectations of the role.
In the limitations of human ability to imagine a use of language and words differing much from the classical dictionary, how do you believe we can introduce the inclusion of all genders into the spoken word of everyday life?
I think it's a continuous process, where we both need concrete, systemic changes and new law making in order to create space for more identities, as well as we still need to create more awareness and to talk about inclusion and equity in society – as we also talked about in the performative conversations in Aarhus. We have to practice together in order to challenge those false assumptions of one gender being able to fully cover all persons, as is the case with chairman. And, as said before, language means existence and language affects the interpretation of a certain title, position etc. It shapes the imagination of who we believe is qualified for a position of power in society, within a company etc. Also, using ‘person’ opens the field of applicants in the first place – who can imagine oneself in the position?
According to World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report of 2021, we will reach global gender equality in 135,6 years. Would it be possible to translate your project into other languages, such as English or Spanish, in the aim of decreasing this time frame? And if so, would these projects look any different than the Danish original person - in motion?
The project would for sure look different in another context – the travelling project and my film work person, is here centered in and directed towards a Danish context and the local discussions around equity and equality in politics, the public, the press etc. We have worked with an intersectional perspective on inclusion, pointing at the need to create access to power and to society’s institutions for more bodies, perspectives and lived experiences – together with the question of gender, we have had questions of ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sexuality, and age in mind. I do believe that by working with this in an art context creates another possibility of grasping this kind of critical discussions and I would always say that yes, it could be translated and expanded, because I believe in the potential change that it can contribute to. I'd say that it would have to be remade in a new context, being it in Spanish, English or other – by including local voices and perspectives, but also carefully departing from the local setting, discourse, and situation of the matter. And then the first thing, about the perspective of reaching global equality in 135.6 years - hopefully it will be before! In the work I mention the time frame from World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report because it’s an alarming number of years, which in itself calls for change and for larger focus on the issue.