Tag Archive | Glenn Kaino

In Which I Go to a Magic Show

On Sunday evening, my friend Isabelle and I went to In & Of Itself, a magic show at the Geffen Playhouse. Glenn Kaino, the conceptual artist for whom we created Lunar French got us tickets, since he was the show’s producer. The performer was magician Derek DelGaudio.

Before the show began, we joined the crowd milling around a wall hung with cards that read “I am a…”. The blank was filled with many different options, and the cards were arranged in alphabetical order. A sign on an easel instructed us to choose the card that represented how we wished to be seen. We stood there for a while, amused, and then I overheard the usher at the door to the theater telling someone that choosing a card was a condition of entry. We started to look a little harder. The choices ranged from “Gaffer” (Isabelle had to explain to me that that was a glassmaker; after looking the word up, though, I don’t think that was the definition foremost in the card makers’ minds) to “Flautist,” from “Nonconformist” to “Foreigner.” There was no “Writer,” but there was “Novelist.” I finally decided on “Cellist.” Isabelle picked “Well-Wisher.”

We were admitted into the theater, where another usher tore off the identity end of our cards, leaving us with “I am” stubs. She piled the cards in a neat stack. Isabelle and I found ourselves sitting in the front row of the very intimate theater. The seats filled, and eventually the usher put the tall stack of cards on the table on stage.

If there’s any chance you’re going to see this show, you should perhaps stop reading. Spoilers for magic shows? Is that a thing?

The set consisted of a wall that looked like it was constructed of gray planks. There were six windows cut into it, with different objects in each one. One contained a golden automaton whose face appeared to be that of…could it be? Frantz Fanon? It was the twin of the Pierrot figure in the moon automaton.

Derek DelGaudio walked on stage and began to tell us a story about a man playing Russian roulette. After finishing the story, he went to one of the windows and took out the half-empty bottle that was sitting in it. He peeled the label off the bottle, folded it into a paper boat, and moved the boat along the back of a chair. A light projected the shadows of the chair and the boat onto the wall, making it look like the boat was bobbing on the ocean. Then he stuck the boat into the back of the chair somehow, so it perched there. He took the bottle and did more shadow games, until at last he passed the bottle in front of the paper boat on the chair. When he lifted the bottle again, the paper boat was floating on the liquid inside of it.

Next, he asked for a volunteer who was willing to come back to the next show, which was to be on Tuesday. Somebody eventually volunteered. Then he called down the volunteer from the last show, who came on stage with a journal in which he’d recorded everything he could remember from the previous show, up until when he’d left. DelGaudio read a few words aloud from his journal entry and then sent him back to his seat.

There followed some nice card tricks. Then DelGaudio told another story–presumably autobiographical?–about growing up in Colorado with his lesbian mothers. He stood next to the window in which a brick was stuck halfway through a pane of cracked glass. Apparently someone threw a brick into their house. After telling the story, he placed the brick, which was painted gold, on the table on which he’d done the card tricks and surrounded it with a little house of cards. He asked the audience to supply the name of an intersection in Los Angeles. We came up with Wilshire & Sepulveda. Then he said the brick was now at that intersection, and he blew down the house of cards to reveal that the brick had vanished.

After the show, I did some poking around online and discovered that people had taken photos of golden bricks found at various intersections around LA. Intersections from previous shows, no doubt. I haven’t been to Wilshire & Sepulveda yet to check myself.

At this point, DelGaudio asked the volunteer who said he’d come back to the next show to leave. Before he left, though, he helped DelGaudio choose a random(-ish?) audience member. DelGaudio invited her on stage and asked her what card she’d chosen. She said, “Dapper Dan man.” (I had to look that up later. And I’ve even seen Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?.) I’m telling this slightly out of order, but DelGaudio climbed a ladder to one of the higher windows, in which lots of envelopes were sitting in a matrix of cubbies. He chose about six letters and presented them to the young woman on stage, pointing out that they were all addressed to him and had some relation written on the back such as “Dad” or “Lawyer.” He said she could pick one, so she picked the one that said “Dad.” He had her imagine some letter-writing scenarios and then finally had her open the envelope.

She slid her finger under the flap, unfolded the letter inside…and sort of curled up on herself in her chair, covering her mouth with her hand. She exclaimed, stared at DelGaudio, almost started crying. Then she read the letter aloud. It was addressed to Zoe (“my name,” she said) and mentioned a family pet and her brother, both by name. It was from her dad. Given her reaction, I imagine the handwriting must have been right. We all stared. This was easily the most impressive moment in the show. I spent a little time later wondering how it all might have worked, but not too much time. I don’t really want to figure it out. Though if I were that young woman, the first thing I would’ve done upon leaving the show is call my dad.

After that stunning bit of magic, DelGaudio asked anyone in the audience who had chosen a card because it was genuinely how they wanted to be seen to stand up. Probably about half the audience rose. Isabelle did. After a few moments’ reflection, I decided “cellist” was not actually how I wanted to be seen, so I didn’t stand.

DelGaudio began going down the front row, telling people what card they had chosen. I forgot to mention: he had moved the stack of cards from the table onto one side of an antique metal scale in one of the other windows early in the show. They hadn’t moved since. There were impressed murmurs as he got the first few people’s cards right. I waited for him to get to Isabelle since I knew what her card had been and also that she, if no one else in the theater, was not a plant. DelGaudio got to her and said, “Well-wisher.”

After doing the first couple of rows, he told people to sit down if he’d gotten their card right. Everyone in the first few rows sat down. He then continued to name the cards of every other person standing. There were probably well over fifty people. One by one, they sat down as he named the correct card. After the letter from dad, this was the next most impressive bit.

And that was the final act. Or almost. He turned back to the set, which lit up. What were once windows had become posters, and these fell to the ground, leaving a blank wall behind them. The stage floor rose up, revealing a mirror on the underside that showed us our own reflection. And that was the end.

Lunar French

In my 2015 year in review, I mentioned that I had helped create a dialect of Lunar French for a conceptual artist. At the time, I promised to write more about it. Now I’m finally getting around to it.

Thanks to our proximity to Hollywood, the UCLA Linguistics Department occasionally receives requests from folks in the entertainment industry to create languages for film or TV. (“Simple but not imbecile” dialect for a Clan of the Cave Bear TV show, anyone?) Last fall, Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino connected with a phonetics professor in our department, who passed his request on to me and my friend and fellow grad student Isabelle.

Glenn was planning an installation involving a crescent moon automaton that would sing “The Internationale,” the famous socialist anthem, in a kind of French spoken by the descendants of lunar colonists. After discussing the project with him, Isabelle and I agreed to devise the Lunar French dialect.

The premise was that the French had colonized the moon around the same time they were colonizing North America and Africa, so Isabelle and I decided to base the French of the original lunar colonists on that of Jean-Antoine de Baïf, a 16th century French poet. De Baïf was useful to us because he wrote his poetry in an idiosyncratic phonetic orthography that allowed us to determine the 16th century pronunciation of French words (at least as de Baïf pronounced them). We relied primarily on his psalter, a versified French translation of the psalms.

De Baïf’s orthography is pretty strange-looking, though, and although there was a key that gave correspondences between his symbols and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it was still sometimes difficult to determine what modern French word de Baïf’s 16th century pronunciation represented. Thus we started out proceeding in a rather inefficient manner. I would think of a psalm I had memorized (if only partially). Say, Psalm 121. We would look it up in the online version of de Baïf’s psalter:

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 12.54.39 PM

I would look for keywords like “Lord,” “eyes,” and “hills” in his versified translation. Then we would note both the French word (“Seigneur,” “yeux,” “monts”) and its pronunciation according to de Baïf’s orthography.

After a lot of this, we discovered that one only had to hover over the first letter of each line to see it rendered in modern French orthography.

Using de Baïf as a reference, we turned the 19th century French text of “The Internationale” into 16th century French. The original refrain of “The Internationale” is the following:

C’est la lutte finale
Groupons-nous et demain
Sera le genre humain

The 16th century version is not too different, except that all the consonants that are silent in modern French are pronounced.

Next we had to decide how the lunar colonists’ French would change over the three centuries between their arrival on the moon and the writing of “The Internationale.” Since the text of the song was fixed, we implemented only phonetic changes, not syntactic ones. Glenn was interested in the effect of technology on Lunar French, so we merged /f/ and /s/ into /f/ on the grounds that the two sounds would be hard to distinguish through whatever spacesuit microphones the colonists were speaking through. A possibly bizarre line of reasoning led us to make word-final /s/s [θ]s, however ([θ] = “th” in “thin”).

We also denasalized nasal vowels but retained the nasal consonants that made those vowels nasalize in Earth French. We simplified certain consonant clusters. We collapsed the vowels /o/ and /ɔ/ into /o/.

In the end, the refrain looked like this (spelled like normal French with IPA inserted to show where Lunar French is different):

[fɛt] la lutte finale
G[upon] nou[z] e[t] dem[ɛn]
[f]era le g[an]re hum[ɛn]

Then, since we knew we would be teaching the Lunar French version of “The Internationale” to a non-linguist (but French-speaking) singer, we converted the text to a pseudo-orthography Isabelle designed. It’s meant to permit someone who already speaks French to pronounce Lunar French. In the pseudo-orthography, the refrain looks like this:

Fète la lutte finale
Goupaune nouz éte demène
Fera le janere humène

In preparation for teaching the song, Isabelle and I recorded ourselves both reading and singing the Lunar French text. In my case, this meant learning the tune of “The Internationale” (apparently nearly all French people, including Isabelle, have heard it before). (Let me just say, once you’ve learned the melody, it’s an insidious earworm. It’s been stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this post.) We shut ourselves up in the phonetics lab sound booth and did many, many takes, because we kept dissolving into laughter at the weirdness of the changed French.

In November, we went to Glenn’s studio in Hollywood to teach the Lunar French “Internationale” to the lead singer of the band YACHT, who was going to be the voice of the moon automaton. We got to see the moon sculpture too, with its tracking eye and its Pierrot figure with the face of postcolonial philosopher Frantz Fanon.

In December, Glenn’s piece, entitled The Internationale, was exhibited at Art Basel Miami Beach. You can see a video of the automaton and hear the song in Lunar French here.

Over the holidays, Glenn asked Isabelle and me to convert the first ten pages of Frantz Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) into Lunar French. I’d never read Fanon before, so I was glad to have the opportunity, though it’s hard to concentrate on content and implementing phonetic changes at the same time.

In January, Glenn’s piece, now entitled L’ènetènafionale, went to the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth as part of his new show there. You can read more about that exhibit here.

Lunar French is definitely the most unusual use to which I’ve ever put my linguistics knowledge, and it’s been a lot of fun. Inventing a dialect of an existing language is less work than creating an entirely new language, which I have in fact tried to do for a certain fantasy world… But the conlanging post will have to be for another time!