With his show Every Word You Say, Clemens von Wedemeyer highlighted a previous chapter in the history of Villa Salve Hospes, now home to Kunstverein Braunschweig. From 1939, it housed the German Language Archive, the precursor to the Institute for German Language founded in Mannheim in 1964. The Archive’s founder was the phonetician and neurologist Eberhard Zwirner, father of the legendary Cologne art dealer Rudolf Zwirner.
Von Wedemeyer is not the first to explore the history of the German Language Archive. In 2002 the Germanist Gerd Simon studied the ‘interface between the discourses of language structure and racism’ using the example of Eberhard Zwirner and his institute. He showed Zwirner’s dealings with the Nazi system, an involvement that clearly went beyond mere opportunism (although he was initially denounced for not toeing the party line). Applications penned by Zwirner reflect the prevailing spirit of the time; according to Simon’s account, there were direct denunciations of Jewish colleagues, as well as a sustained collaboration with the General Government of Hans Frank, the butcher of occupied Poland, aimed at establishing a branch of the Archive in Warsaw (plans that were thwarted by the course of the war).
Zwirner burdened himself with guilt, but he was not a monstrous Nazi henchman like the (fictional) sound engineer Hermann Karnau in Marcel Beyer’s novel The Karnau Tapes (1995). In his assessment of Zwirner, Simon takes a correspondingly differentiated view, calling him one of ‘the most resourceful of linguists’. But one can rightly also call him ‘Count von Count in no-man’s-land’, as Oliver Jungen did in 2005. The influence of Zwirner’s quantitative methods on today’s linguistics is insignificant, to put it mildly. Wedemeyer’s exhibition made clear, however, that even without an explicit Nazi link, neurologically based, structuralist language research is anything but harmless or ineffective. Instead, even in the postwar decades, it breathed the kind of creepy scientific positivism identified by writers from Theodor Adorno to Michel Foucault as a key technology of power in the 20th century.
In the rotunda at the museum’s entrance, Von Wedemeyer created a fitting scene for this theme, covering the faces of the four allegorical female statues in their semi-circular niches with mirrors. Tied to their heads, the mirrors also act as loudspeakers. The four figures (Pax, Concordia, Flora and Minerva) address arriving visitors with synthetic voices: ‘dear visitor, the exhibition by Clemens von Wedemeyer is called Every Word You Say (all works mentioned are part of Every Word You Say, 2014). Like the iPhone’s Siri or Scarlett Johansson in Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013), this spoken address generates an uncanny intimacy. Ingratiation and coaxing as particularly insidious ways of exercising power was a motif that appeared several more times during the show.
The next room presented historical recordings from Zwirner’s institute, a sequence of voices counting down from ten to one in various German dialects. Another leitmotif here was cool quantification and classification of distinctly peculiar material, as when test persons are asked to repeat sample sentences that strike today’s ears as weirdly primeval: ‘my dear child, stay down here, the geese will bite you to death’; ‘behind our house stand three apple trees with little red apples.’ Or when Von Wedemeyer adds a new sound-track to a film showing X-rayed talking skulls from 1924, the speaker’s voice familiar from Sat Nav devices. This underlined the artist’s aim to create aesthetic constellations that suddenly zoom historical material into an emotional present.
A twelve-minute recording made by Zwirner in 1952, featuring a neurologist and his female patient, was staged by Von Wedemeyer as a chamber drama. A thin wooden board, suspended from the ceiling, was activated by a small membrane loudspeaker, becoming the voice of the patient. On the other side of the room, a similar loudspeaker, but on a mirrored surface, was the voice of the doctor. We learn that the woman, half sulky half compliant, is being asked about a lobotomy that has been performed on her. This notorious operation involves surgically severing nerve connections in the frontal lobes of the brain to achieve a dramatic reduction in affect. The doctor adopts an avuncular tone, and when she asks about the function of the severed nerves, he tells her she would need to study medicine for five semesters to understand it.
Two rooms later, the prehistory of this encounter was revealed in another recording made before the lobotomy. The patient had dirtied her single cell (‘as you call it’ the doctor says to her) with excrement (‘there was no way out,’ she says). What is intended as clear proof of insanity proves to be an exemplary protest against an inhuman and misogynistic psychiatric institution. Between the two historical documents, Von Wedemeyer inserted a recent video recording. The two conversations are evaluated by psychologists and linguists with the help of computers. They recognize the power structure, but they dress up their analysis in today’s jargon of motivation and emotion, as if they were talking about business consulting. This polyphony of historical and contemporary sources gives a feeling of how the nerve pathways of the past keep branching their way into the present. We have not escaped the pitfalls of the thought mechanisms of exploitation and control.
Not everything in the exhibition worked. The sound of visitors’ footsteps played back as an echo and eerie knocking from loudspeakers sounded like something commissioned of Dan Graham for a ghost train. This was in marked contrast to the sensitive presentation of a recording made by Zwirner in 1932, in the early days of the institute, including stroke patients who had become aphasic, suffering language difficulties and a loss of even the simplest musicality. Von Wedemeyer placed a record player on a table in front of an open window with a view of the park. On the record, we hear a test person failing to sing Heinrich Heine’s Song of the Loreley (‘ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten…’, ‘I cannot determine the meaning’). The doctor switches to The Internationale – and now, as a final lament, the patient whimpers, without a trace of melody, ‘wacht auf, Verdammte dieser Erde…’ (‘Arise, ye workers from your slumber’, the first line in German, literally, ‘wake up, ye damned of this Earth’). The true importance of this material lies not in the insights it may have offered linguists, but in its testimony to human suffering. And that is precisely what Von Wedemeyer focused on.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell