Silvia Kolbowski — f I ruled d wrld
Silvia Kolbowski’s text-based project for X-TRA, f I ruled d wrld (2008) is comprised of five brashly colored panels inscribed with white rectangles that contain the lyrics to the song “If I Ruled the world,” re-performed to great acclaim recently as a duet between the brandy-smooth Tony Bennett and the crystalline Celine Dion. for this project, Kolbowski fed each of the five stanzas through a web-based algorithm that translates proper language into the informal, ever-morphing code of text message lingo. objectified at the center of a rigidly formal composition, these mutant linguistic contractions– developed by SMS (Short Message Service) devotees to eliminate extraneous characters and maximize speed of communication–appear to the untrained eye clunky, primitive, and even illiterate. for the uninitiated, the process of translating these stylized compressions back into conventional linguistic form requires careful phonetic analysis of each character-set (and perhaps even a private rehearsal of the song), a labored, moderately humiliating interpretive process which, ontologically speaking, flies in the face of text messaging as a form and as an ethic. But, strangely, and indeed ironically, to decode this bare-boned, devoutly economic non-language requires greater attention to the meaning and sound of each word and phrase than one would usually accord.
A similar dialectic is contained within the song itself, which relies on saccharine cliches, tired colloquialisms, a steady, predictable meter, and uncomplicated rhyming patterns to sketch out a fantasy of consolidated–albeit benevolent–power. “If I ruled the world,” Bennett croons moodily, “ev’ry man would be free as a bird, ev’ry voice would be a voice to be heard.” It’s an ambitious sentiment for a pop song, and jarringly casual language for such a totalizing vision. The central conceit of the song empowers the singer to inhabit a position of omnipotent power, and invites the listener to conjure a similar fantasy. But also, and far more menacingly, this sweet, whimsical conceit reminds us that positions of agency is exercised often by one man and perhaps with more casual hubris than we would like to imagine.
“f I ruled d wrld, evry mang wud sA d wrld wz Hs frNd, thered b happens dat n mang c%d.” Maybe, then, message lingo, brand colors, and pop songs are among the more apposite and effective means of disseminating, describing, and grappling with the nature of the contemporary demagogue, and, perhaps, one means by which to re-imagine the nature and imperatives of such a “ruler.” Like much of Kolbowski’s best work, initially it is the intricate conceptual mechanics of f I ruled d wrld that ensnares the mind, but, ultimately, it is the materialization of that concept as image that captures the imagination and motivates her argument. Somewhat ironically, then, with this project Kolbowski proposes the viewers reverse that operation, that we look past the formalities of presentation to discover the seeds of radical content: “evry hed wud b held ^ hI, ther’ b sunshine n evry1’s sky, f d dA eva dawned wen I ruled d wrld.”
Silvia Kolbowski is an artist based in New York. Her scope of address includes the ethics and politics of history, culture, and the unconscious. Her project Proximity to Power, American Style, a slide/audio work about the relational aspects of masculine power, was part of a one-person exhibition, inadequate Like Power, at the Secession, Vienna, in 2004. It will be published in the fall of 2008 by White Walls and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. In 2007 she exhibited a revised version of her 1999 an inadequate history of conceptual art at the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. She is on the advisory board of October journal, and teaches in the CCC program of the École Supérieure d’Art Visuel, Geneva. Her most recent project is a video entitled After Hiroshima Mon Amour (2008).