Interview:

Tell me your name and where you live and work.

My name is Xu Bing. I live and work in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Tell me what the name of the piece is and what we see when we first walk up to it? .

The work is called "Book from the Ground," it consists of two computer's facing each other, separated by a wall of frosted-glass and a dialogue written in a language of icons is printed on this divider.

What do you want a visitor to do?   Describe how people interact with the displays.   Do you need two people to interact at the same time?

Users sit across from one another at the computer terminals, but even though they are only separated by a few inches, they can't see each other through the frosted-glass. It is an experience of closeness and distance that many of us are familiar with. The computers are installed with a basic chat program. The user types in an English sentence and when he or she presses return, it is translated into a language of icons that appears in the chat window. Nevertheless, the program can work with a single user, by simply entering text that one wants to see translated and pressing return. The program is meant to enable communication regardless of the user's cultural background or level of education.

What interested you in symbols-and how meaning communicated through language?

It was only when I looked back at my past works, that I realized how much of an interest I have in language, which is deeply connected to my life experience and state of being, for instance living between different cultures and languages. Also, I grew up at Beijing University where my parents worked, my mother in the department of library studies. They were both very busy when I was little, and so I was often locked in the library. Even though I was surrounded by books and language, I was too young to read. But when I first started reading, the Cultural Revolution happened. At that time, we were only allowed to read one thing: Mao's "Little Red Book." Then, when the Cultural Revolution ended, we finally had a chance to read again. A Cultural Fever broke out, and we were like a starving person, who can eat at last, but who stuffs himself to the point of pain. I didn't come to America until I was 35. While my mind was already fully developed, my English level was still that of a child. This awkward feeling that came from my experience of cultural and linguistic miscommunication turned my interest towards symbols, language and communication.

Explain what the term "language of icons" means.

Icon languages have existed since ancient times. But the "language of icons" we are talking about is a concept that comes from the fact that we have entered an age of "reading pictures." In this age, a new prototype has emerged. We call it a language because it is a vocabulary made up of symbols collected from everyday life, symbols that are already universally recognizable, ones that we did not invent.

Where did the symbols first catch your attention (airline safety cards)?

Language is a kind of symbol, especially Chinese, which began as pictographs, so my interest in symbols is natural. In the last ten or so years, I have spent a lot of time in airports and on airplanes. Airline safety cards caught my attention because they use the least amount of words to explain important and complex situations. I feel like the airline safety card is really the first "global reader."

Why are airports some of the first adopters of this symbol language?

Airports are the epitome of the "global village." People from many countries, speaking many languages cross paths at the airport with great frequency and in great numbers and so only a language of icons works in this situation.

Why does the "global village" need a universal language?   What trends are moving us toward this?

Traditional languages grew out of small villages. And now the internet has shrunk the world down to a small village. Today's villagers use many different systems of marks and sounds to communicate, but still have to work and live on the same platform, the world is becoming more and more flat. The languages we use are almost the same as the ones we used a thousand years ago, but our way of life has changed completely. Traditional languages are not adapted to today's world. So it is only today that the Tower of Babel can be realized.     

How do we arrive at a shared meaning for these symbols?  

Our only work has been that of collecting, organizing and cataloguing icons in search of their most universal aspects. We have not been involved in any creation or invention. This is crucial, because it is how we have tried to arrive at the most commonly-understood symbols.

Tell me about how you collected symbols. .

I began in 1999 collecting airline safety cards. In 2003, I saw icons on a pack of gum that explained how to throw it away when you were done chewing. I realized that if icons can be used to tell a short story, then they should also be able to express a longer, more complex one. That is when I really began collecting symbols and icons. Whenever I see a symbol or icon, I take a photo or cut it out, and then paste it into a book that is sort of like a dictionary of symbols. I discovered that every specialization, like music, dance, design, math, chemistry etc. etc. has its own universal language of symbols, and it is only modern life that does not. New icons appear on the internet everyday, making this process of collecting symbols bigger and bigger, and more and more complex.

Describe a couple of the symbols you are using in detail (what do they look like, what do they mean). What is the total number of symbols in the program now?

People share common visual cues. The symbols that we have collected to represent sound, the kind of symbol that usually is shown coming out of a speaker or telephone, are a good example. When the sound lines are straight it represents a normal sound, when they look more like lightning bolts it represents a ear-splitting noise, but when they look like rings on the surface of a pond it represents a softer sound. Right now the program has nearly 2000 symbols, but we are adding more everyday.

What language do people use for translation, what are your plans for the program in the future?

At the moment, English. But our next step is to expand the program into Chinese and other languages. Once we achieve this, the program will be a bridge between different languages and the book that we will publish using this language, can be distributed throughout the world without need for translation.

Why do you feel that a language of symbols is in humanity's future?

This will be determined by the direction in which humankind is headed. The convergence of lifestyles, commercial standardization, the globalization of advertising strategies, the increasing convenience of copying and managing images and especially the resistance of a new generation to traditional language forms have all led to the emergence of a language of icons, abbreviations and symbols. The continuation of this trend is humanity's future.

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