◡ ◠ ⭘ ◠ ◡ (Compost Cycles for Island X), 2023

MFA Thesis Exhibition
Audain Gallery, University of Victoria

◡ ◠ ⭘ ◠ ◡ (pronounced ur-on-oh-on-ur) features a large, multi-room shelter made with salvaged industrial materials. It sits on a muddy, eroding island diorama with small coastal plants. Carved with the graphemes of an unfamiliar language, and animated with sound and light, the rooms and the objects inside reveal details about their inhabitants and builders; smaller beings, (a couple feet tall) and good climbers, who use human debris, plant matter, waste, and collaboration to survive in a collapsing climate. It is backdropped by a projection of a digital ocean scene, with small islands protruding from the water. In a storage room in the back of the gallery is a recreation of the artist’s studio, which includes objects from the island, drawings of survival shelters, as well as notes about the beings’ fictional language. It is a room for studying, archetyped and detailed similar to the island’s rooms, implicating the artist as one of Island’s beings while breaking the fourth wall. The installation uses fiction and play to explore material realities of climate crisis and colonization. ◡ ◠ ⭘ ◠ ◡ uses materials like real and fake plant matter, salvaged metal, reclaimed wood, hand tools, and electronics. 

Photo credit: Max Keene

Exhibition Essay by “The Translator”

The Language of Island X

I’m trying to learn New Progeny
I’m trying to learn New Progeny— a language written and spoken on Island X. At least nine beings there can speak it, and at least three of them can write it. They keep to themselves, and dislike most interactions with humans, but the smallest among them (with the longest arms) agreed to loan me documents and scraps on an ongoing basis to help me learn. They’re happy I’m learning the language because in their words, “English is a broken, trash language and we have urrr it to a better place.” Ur is the New Progeny word for carry, among many other things, and can be verbally stretched for emphasis. It’s poetic that New Progeny could improve English by carrying it rather than conquering it. It’s a cultural progression arrived at through earnest but troubled exchange rather than violence and conflict— science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin writes about this in her text The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction, and praises carrying as better for culture and better for stories. This is an especially feminist line of thought.

Like a lot of language learners I use my first language as a crutch, but am trying to learn the new dialect on its own terms. This isn’t helped by the fact that New Progeny borrows a dictionary-worth of words from English, the dominant human language of CAN-West. It does however have a different structure and mapping to sounds. Some sounds I’m familiar with are missing or substituted. A “yuh” sound is mapped to U, V, W, and Y. Which tells me a lot about redundancy in my own language. And it’s an appropriate replacement based on how New Progeny speakers like to speak.

The written script emphasizes botanical forms— every glyph (with a few exceptions) has a stem, and a baseline it emerges from. Glyphs are also hybridized to form unexpected ligatures, which have been likened to grafted plants. I like to say the language is plant-based. A trendy term, but it helps me distinguish how New Progeny is not as based in anthropocentric, “humanist” forms of latin script. It also comes with a profound acknowledgement of the lives of plants, soil, and their cycles.

New Progeny’s structure itself is multi-directional, connected, and hybrid. This is especially clear in the sprawling tendrils of the treeform writing style. In treeform, lines and glyphs emerge in plant-like syntaxes from a baseline. A single sentence can grow in a few or a dozen directions. When it’s spoken, treeform sentences are traced back to their “root” and repeated with different continuations or variations. This can be both repetitive and mesmerizing, but it often annoys human listeners, likened to bad poetry. The two forms seen on the handouts are variations of treeform: the taller being tall grassform and the shorter, wider being fernform.

New Progeny is written left-to-right and bottom-up. I know English translators who flip the structure of the original texts for top-down legibility. This is a failure and as both a learner and a plant-guy it angers me— these top-down translations are hierarchical, rather than emergent and growing as the original language was intended. I try to correct this practice where possible.

The transcendent words ◡, ◠, and ⭘

You’ll come across three “transcendent” words in New Progeny: ◡, ◠, and ⭘. These transcend the stems and baselines that connect all other letters in New Progeny’s alphabet. You’ll find all three of them in the exhibition title. Ur (◡) is the bottom half of a circle, referred to as the carrier. On (◠) is the top half of a circle, referred to as the coverer or protector. Oh (⭘) is a full circle, referred to as the carrier-coverer. which visually transcend the baselines of the written language, floating above or around. The three words are polysemous, meaning they each carry (no pun intended) many meanings. They can each be used as a verb, a noun, or adjective. This is hard to figure out.

Among many things, ◡ can refer to being affectionate, benevolent, or warm. It can refer to a barrel, a mouth, the bottom of something (including a bum), a bowl, a collection, a specifically intimate form of sex, soil, or supplies. It can mean to carry, to caress, to grow, to discuss, to love, or to transport.

Among many things, ◠ can refer to being durable, resistant, strong, or snug. It can refer to a blanket, a canopy, a leaf, the moon, a specifically fiery form of sex, shade, shelter, the sky, the sun, or a tarp. It can mean to cover, to fasten, to guard, to protect, to shade, to provide shelter, to shelter oneself or others, to shield, or to wrap.

Because ⭘ (only visually) expresses the combination of ◡ and ◠, it’s hard to find comparisons in my language, and most of these meanings I don’t understand. At least not really. I believe it can refer to being perfect or total. It can refer to all-things (this includes all time and all space). It can refer to a covered vehicle or boat, ecology, a shared home, a respected parent or guardian, utopia (which itself may contain or be contained by dystopia), a particularly balanced and exceptional form of sex, as well as world-and-nonworld. It often refers to kinship actions like to parent or be parented, to raise kin or be raised as kin, and to be born or to bear children. It can mean to be both a host and a guest simultaneously, to transport in a protecting way, to keep safe while traveling (“⭘!”, New Progenists might say to wish safe travels), to share or to teach.

Each of these words can refer to love or can mean “good”, but each seems to mean it in a different way. Very positive despite the context, right? New Progeny holds an ideology, and I’m stuck between interpreting this affirmative language as delusional coping or a resilience-building. It’s my understanding that it can actually be both. There’s enough room in the language for misplaced intention and even co-opting. I tread lightly.
Terms antithetical to ◡, ◠, ⭘, and New Progeny’s rhizomatic structure carry more weight. Terms like toxic, barren, stunted, and poison can be extremely perjorative in the right context. Words to describe overbearing power are heavy in New Progeny. Cruel, corrupt, controlling, tyrant, and fascist are among these, and even archaic terms like didact and pedant. “Fascist (vass-ist)! Didact (dy-dac)!” a New Progeny speaker might shout at someone particularly disliked.