Words fly up

In Response invites artists from CAG’s past, present and forthcoming programming to reflect on our current moment. Each week, an artist shares their observations on how the circumstances of a global pandemic are revealing themselves in their life and work.

The fourth response, Words fly up, from Germaine Koh is below.

Dear Kimberly and Julia,*

Thanks for reaching out to know how I’m adapting. As a former nomad, I have long-established systems for being productive wherever I find myself, so my life has changed little, except that the reduced pace allows time to grow and cook food—processes that the speed and logic of our accelerated society would normally say are more efficiently performed by others. Now, while I tend my little seedlings, I have been reflecting on the utility of poetic gestures in face of a public health crisis in which the arts are not considered essential in the way food and health are.

My work Prayers was part of my exhibition that opened the Contemporary Art Gallery’s new building in 2001. It’s a work that attempted to visualize connection at a distance, by broadcasting the activity of one of the gallery’s networked computers as Morse-encoded smoke signals that communicated the work that was being done in the moment by the unseen worker. The intangibility of the fleeting puffs of smoke encoded something of the isolated-but-connected character of modern work, and tied that to a lineage of technologies for communication at a distance, from steam power and the telegraph to email and other digital communications. More than 20 years after I produced that piece, here we find ourselves working from home, sending connective blasts using one of those communication systems—the internet—that has become an essential utility, and one whose robustness is due to its distributed and generic nature.

As an artwork, Prayers is abstract and poetic, and it appeals to our tendencies toward connection. My work usually doesn’t appear to be overtly political or focused on identity (despite my having of course experienced the same anti-Asian biases that are currently resurgent). I usually explain this seeming impartiality as my choosing to focus on the things that connect us, the things we have in common, rather than the marks of division. I hope it is now clear that this approach has been political all along, and that maybe the time has come for the arguments it makes about the value of the common denominators of human connection, and the often-unappreciated systems that sustain our daily lives.

In the current moment, we have arrived at a pervasive state of awareness of how our societies are ensuring the basics for all: health, food security, and adequate protection and shelter. In the coming time, at least some of the excess consumption and commerce that doesn’t have roots in useful production is going to fall away in favour of essentials. This world doesn’t need more influencers feeding off actual producers; we need social systems with distributed production that encourage local resilience and D.I.Y. action.

“Prayers” might seem like an odd title for an artwork made of code and circuits, but I chose it specifically because of the idea of prayer being tangible acts of all kinds directed towards the abstract. I had in mind a line from Hamlet: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Claudius acknowledges to himself that his prayers will go unheard because they are empty of real intention. They are all “influence” without right action.

Just imagine if this great pause were the occasion to affirm some big ideas—the importance of social programs and the possibilities of de-growth, with the potential benefits for our climate crisis that would bring. It’s an opportunity to reset and reconfigure to slower, smaller and more sustainable forms of production, to affirm principles of public care, to attend to local forms of support, to cultivate short chains of mutual aid in contrast to the tenuous, just-in-time, global supply chains that bring us cheap crap. These are practical ideas, and they are also poetic in that they ask us to think outside of our own selves and towards the future and greater good of our communities. And some poetic ideas are possible: paradigm-changing systems we now take for granted—such as the idea of a network of connected devices—began as grand concepts advanced by creative thinkers.

In this view, art is not one of the luxuries that will fall away: poetic gestures and creative ideas are what prompt us to imagine alternate worlds and systems. In addition to socialized care that focuses on the collective, the things that are going to sustain us through and beyond this crisis are creative gestures and innovative technologies, because they are the necessary human products that imagine and model grand, inspirational ideas that extend beyond the individual. There’s the utility of art.

Stay safe and well,


p.s. I’m also sending you images of a couple other works of mine that prototype reconfigured or new systems. (1) Fallow was an experiment in down-time in which we moved the soil and plant matter from a vacant lot into the gallery and allowed that to grow for a full exhibition cycle. What was really fascinating about that work was how strongly emotional and protective people became towards that temporary environment; some came back daily to spend time with the plants and bugs—evidence of how compelling process can be, especially when inflected with a sense of precarity. (2) There|Here was a collaboration with Gordon Hicks, which developed from our thinking about the ad hoc systems for flagging each other’s attention that we had invented over years working together in different cities. We were trying to create a system for non-verbal communication at a distance. This eventually took the form of two doors connected over the internet that match each other’s behaviour, so that the they become portals to each other, opening possibilities for communication through touch, pressure, and movement. (3) Pledge was a quantity of copper tokens embossed with the words “I WILL” that were put into person-to-person circulation to suggest an alternate form of currency for recognizing non-commercial exchanges, particularly social bonds of trust and the kinds of personal gestures that escape quantification. They were tokens that made abstract intentions concrete and marked moments of individual agreement: small changes.

Germaine Koh, Prayers, 1999, Intervention with computer, existing computer network, electronic circuitry, and fog machine. Photo: Germaine Koh.

Germaine Koh, Fallow, 2009 version. Site-responsive installation with soil and plants transplanted from nearby vacant land. Photo: Ian Verchere.

Germaine Koh & Gordon Hicks, There|Here, 2011. Two doors connected by Internet data stream, modified door mechanisms, microcontrollers, custom electronics. Photo: Gordon Hicks.

Germaine Koh, Pledge, 2002. Copper tokens, for person-to-person distribution. Photo: Germaine Koh.

* [Ed.] CAG Curator Kimberly Phillips and Assistant Curator Julia Lamare