Communicative failures and defeats

The co-curator of the 6th Moscow Biennale Nicolaus Schafhausen and the Chinese writer, critic and blogger Mian Mian conducted ten discussions mimicking TV talk show format in the Central VDNKh pavilion. Andrey Shental reflects on how their attempt to establish a dialogue became successful through their failures and misunderstandings.


Notwithstanding the fact that the image of Eurasia, which was the main motif of the Biennale, had to overcome the binary juxtaposition between the “former West” and the “former East”, the persistent ideas of the bipolar world regularly interrupted the conceptual continuity proposed by the curators. For instance, an artist born in the GDR was learning to dance under the tutelage of a Russian classical ballet teacher, while a Belgian artist turned to the traditional metaphor of a two-faced Janus on a huge swing hanging from the ceiling. The everyday talk shows led by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Mian Mian were based on the same principle of impossibility of meeting: an established Western European curator converses with a famous Chinese writer on stage reminiscent of TV show decorations. Both of the participants (and especially Schafhausen) tried to find common points and discover the sought for “common”, but quite often their attempts failed miserably. Dialogue got stuck, stumbling over slips of tongue, mispronunciation, grammar mistakes, and misunderstanding, so they constantly had to repeat their questions and answers.

Their conversation also failed to go right because of the differing worldview and ideological disagreements. If Schafhausen spoke from the position of a European intellectual, repeating loci communis of critical theory, Mian Mian turned to such abstract notions as “love”, “life”, “compassion”, “death”, and others and did her best to resist being embedded into a theoretical discourse. Even on the level of humour both participants of the talk show experienced cultural misunderstanding: “You are so european! We ,Chinese, don’t make such jokes,” said Miam. Schafhausen got defensive: “But you are laughing!” “I’m laughing at what you are.”

Contrary to the ideas of multiculturalism, integration or the currently popular “cultural mediation”, whose role is to sustain stability and non-conflictual exchange between different cultures, both participants of the talk show interacted through dissensus and disagreement. If the technical problems of using foreign language only obstruct the conversation, then the different views of life put the very possibility of dialogue into question. Thus Schafhausen and Mian Mian speak of the tragic impossibility of establishing a dialogue with the Other, and simultaneously admit the failure of peripheral biennales that aspire to become the lingua franca of contemporary globalised world.

However, within this failure — which is itself a very important motif of the Biennale — a new potentiality of interpretation opens up. According to Walter Benjamin’s linguistic theory, languages are not completely different from one another, but “a priori, and independently of all historical connections, related to each other in what they want to say.” The variety of languages are preceded by what the philosopher calls a “pure language” — a kind of ahistorical kinship of various dialects. The task of the interpreter, according to Benjamin, is not to transmit the meaning of a work, but to compound one language with the meanings that were realised in other “modes of its intention.” In other words, he attempts to enrich the work with new forms of signification. “Translation, — Benjamin says, — cannot possibly reveal or produce this hidden relationship; however, translation can represent this relationship, insofar as it realises it seminally or intensively.”

Nicolaus Schafhausen and Mian Mian’s talk show is based on the tripartite translation, which is dramatised through communicative failures and defeats. The German and Chinese languages — or, rather, two different modes/logics of thinking in the regime of real encounter — are translated and adapted to the analytical logic of the English language, and then they are again recoded into the synthetic Russian language by the simultaneous interpreter, who has to somehow convey not only the meaning as such, but also what has not been understood by the interlocutors. In this sense the conflict between the two cultures emphasises the very manner of meaning, the very process of thinking, valuation, and reaction. The “out-of-sync-ness” reveals this linguistic kinship, while misunderstandings and disagreements between Schafhausen and Mian Mian can probably tell us much more of imaginary Eurasia, than the transparent communication of the lectures.