These are just a few of the words that come to mind when you first encounter Brian Dailey’s installation WORDS, now on view at American University’s Katzen Art Center. Combining sculpture and video, the three-sided tower dominates the first floor gallery in which it is situated, rising far above the viewer’s head towards the second level above. Thirteen video screens positioned on the steel frame display a randomly changing montage of faces posed against national flags, each speaking in their native language. The cross-conversation jars the viewer’s ear, just as the kaleidoscopic passage of backdrops assaults the eye. Dailey’s quest to probe national identify defies traditional notions of beauty, underscoring the chaos that ensues as cultures collide.
Circumnavigating the work, it becomes clear that WORDS is more than just a static sculpture. It is more descriptive to think of the piece as a cultural investigation, glancing into the minds of citizens across the world to see what–if anything– links them philosophically. Over the past six years, Dailey visited 90 countries, asking people to vocalize their first impressions to ideas such as peace, environment, government and religion. Guides in each country translated these concepts into the local languages; the video monitors capture the speakers’ responses in their native language (English subtitles are provided for the viewer). In the field, participants were positioned in front of a green screen, with their preferred flag backdrop digitally added in post-production.
The result hearkens back to the biblical tower of Babel, presenting a cascade of visual and aural information that clashes rather than harmonizes. While formally trained as an artist, Dailey has also had a political career in arms control and it is clear he has a sharp interest in how nations define and differentiate themselves. This differentiation is evident culturally through the disparate languages used and politically by the 90-plus flags chosen by the individuals interviewed. Often those flags corresponded to the geographic locations of the interviewees, but there were instances when political or cultural affiliations crossed recognized borders, underscoring the complexity of personal identity and nation states in the modern world.
WORDS is not easy to thoughtfully digest, nor does the artist intend it to be. What does it mean to produce a work that functions simultaneously as art and as social science inquiry? The key for Dailey is that focusing on the way in which a social narrative slowly (and somewhat haphazardly) unwinds from the complex interweave of one-word responses. In choosing words that capture aspects of the human condition, Dailey provides a mental framework for subjects’ responses that mirrors the physical frame of the tower itself. The work is impossible to understand from a fixed perspective; the viewer must continually circumnavigate to see the individual subjects. In doing so–in looking straight into their eyes and hearing their words, unadulterated from their own mouths—we begin to understand just how the complexity of modern life trickles down to the individual. The result isn’t necessarily always positive; Dailey noted during a recent gallery talk how notions of mistrust in governmental institutions was the norm rather than the exception.
Dailey hopes this work will travel to places where political decision makers will see this personal feedback from their constituents. He could have summed up this anthropological study in a book form or as a PowerPoint presentation. The fact that he chose to do so through visual poetry is telling. It underscores the notion that art functions as a provocative tool just as much as it does a signifier of beauty.
WORDS will be on view at American University’s Katzen Arts Center through March 11, 2018. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner image: Video still from WORDS featuring an interviewee from Mozambique speaking about war. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.