With 26 handstands it is possible to present the alphabet. Yet how does one capture the immense variation of the hand shapes of gestures and signs? Every sign, moreover, has a movement, however small. In the exhibition Alphabetum VIII ‘Gebareniconen’(‘Sign icons’) of sign language researcher Ruud Janssen we see, by ways of panels, video and sculpture, the nuances and challenges in capturing silent language in a spatial sense.
If a random person would be asked about what language is, they will probably quickly come up with associations regarding letters, alphabets and writing. This indeed belongs to a form of language, however one that is mainly derived from sound. With the exception of iconographic writing systems that incorporate image, such as Chinese characters. Nevertheless, the basis of language is not necessarily connected to literacy. After all, communication is not only verbal.
Language is not just letters, sounds or writing. It is initially dependent upon the senses, after which notation systems develop that opt to capture the communicable message and try to make it ‘readable’. There have been different useful and valuable notation systems that mapped the non-verbal elements of speech, such as the phonetic symbols in Visible Speech (1867) of Melville Bell, or William Stokoe with the first notation system for American Sign Language (ASL) in 1965. But it is still a complex issue.
The Alphabetum is a space where the formative and formal aspects of language can be explored. The ambition of the Alphabetum is to show that these two characteristics of written language are much more connected than is generally acknowledged. A letter is a letter because we recognize it as a letter; and because we recognize it as a letter it is a letter.