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The Text, Wandering across the River

(Eva Ursprung)

"Talking the Fish" is an ironic intervention, reflecting digital versus analogue communication in the context of our society of acceleration. It is a subversive game with borderline situations, political as well as physical.

The project was originally planned as a mobile performance on a ship. Comprising three different countries in different stages of EU-membership or non-membership (Italy, Croatia, Slovenia), the intervention was supposed to be launched in 2005 from the former military harbor of Pula. This harbor is situated in a bay, which is characterized by a decaying military area and its ruins. The Croatian borders to EU-members Italy and Slovenia are set in open sea.

A unit of three performers was supposed to trespass these invisible but politically significant borders while approaching Pula on a ship. On their way to the harbor, they were to send out a message via semaphore signals, using the flag "Oscar". This "flag message" was encoded like the protocol of an email-message. Because the semaphore alphabet only works if there is direct eye contact, it would have been necessary to incorporate a "relay station" at a tower of the former military barracks. From there the message would have been passed on to the harbor by three additional performers. The project was also supposed to point to Pula´s role as the most important military harbor of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In addition, it was referring to the military origins of the semaphore alphabet and the internet.

The project could not be carried out because it came up against its financial rather then political borders. However, a reduced version could be realized in the summer of 2006 on the shores of the river Mur. This river separates Austria from Slovenia, which, at that point, had not yet implemented the Schengen-Agreement. After two days of practice, the participants managed to send the technical protocol of an email message across the border. The message, which was sent in flag-alphabet, read: "I am the text, wandering across the river".

It was the idea of the performance to use old codes for the transmission of messages (semphore alphabet), in order to transfer the "new", digital codes of an email message from one computer to the other. Humans were used as transmitters and recipients, replacing technical transmission lines. The transmission was "analogized" with help of physical action. The sending-process gets slowed down to a human pace, which, therefore, makes human perception possible. It was our goal to visualize the complex processes behind the delivery of an email-message. In this decelerated way, it takes two hours to send a message, which normally can be sent in a few seconds (or less).

The performance uses the semaphore alphabet, which was originally invented to make communication between ships possible. Nowadays, this method has lost most of its significance. However, it is still used in certain military operations, because in contrast to radio communication, the flag- communication is very difficult to intercept.

Nowadays, surveillance of communication (surveillance cameras, satellites, RFID, telephone wiring, Email, radio, etc.) has become possible to a very high degree. Therefore, the project should also be understood as a subversive trigger against mechanisms of governmental control. Similar to the secret sign languages of subversive groups in past centuries, our method could be a base for an insider-code. The slowness of transmission alone would make decoding very difficult. "Mute like a fish" and not intercepted by national authorities, the sentence wanders very slowly but lightly across the river and the borders.


Fishtalk Transcoded

Basics of analogue/digital communication via flag-interface.

"Talking the Fish" transforms the common way of email transmission, made possible by technical protocols, into a form, which can be perceived by humans: into movement and interpretation of movement. The transmitting station (sender) consists of two performers with flags. At first, these performers have to send a "handshake message". The recipient, consisting of two performers with flags and binoculars, first has to reply to this initial signal. Once this "welcoming-sequence" has successfully led to a connection, further information can be sent.

The receptors feed the computer with the transferred signals. First with data legible for the computer and later transformed by a program into data legible for humans. At the end of every successful sequence of communication stands information, which can be interpreted, as legible text in our case. Invisible everyday processes of digital data communication therefore become visible in all their complexity using a human "interface".

In order for communication to work, previously designed standards have to be adhered to. Every language is such a standard. The entire world of the Internet is based on numerous standards and protocols. Every protocol is a set of agreements, accomplishing a specific assignment on the net. IP (Internet Protocol) is responsible for the transportation of data between computers. SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) transports Emails from one mail server to the other. Http (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is used to access web pages.

The programmers of "Talking the Fish" developed a protocol based on the semaphore alphabet, which can transfer IP data between two computers. This new standard was published by the IEFT (Internet Engineering Task Force) on April 1, 2007 as RFC (Request for Comments) in the category "informational". This RFC with the number 4824 can (for example) be found at


The body as Transmitter of Signs

(Doris Jauk-Hinz)

Not only can body language express emotions but the body can also transfer languages of signs. As opposed to emotional "behavior", the code applied in the semaphore alphabet is based on standardized, arbitrary movements. The flags function as extensions of the wo/mens? arms, leading to a better legibility of the letters, which are displayed by different patterns of position. In "Talking the Fish" this code of body movements stands in contrast to the digital code of an email message.

The fish-team chose Pula and Mureck for this intervention, in order to point to borderline situations, both in a military and a political sense. Such borderline situations usually go hand in hand with exclusion. Once the semaphore-alphabet is used outside of its most common context (military situation involving ships), it allows for various interpretations depending on the social or political situation. Encultured meanings shape the perspective of the observer. The transmission of a simple message like "I am the text, wandering across the river" can either be interpreted as a playful/sporty act or as a politically incorrect provocation, especially in crisis-shaken regions. The choice of the performers´ outfit can also shape the perception of the observer. The performers are either perceived as game-playing private individuals or as constructed figures of art, performing staged actions. Once the performers dress uniformly, the performance is understood as a public, nationalistic or even military action.

Leaving or diversifying traditional encoded meanings leads to uncertainty of perception. With their project "The Danube Streaming Show" (2003) Kunstverein W.A.S. (Womyn´s Art Support) tried to unveil such processes of perception. Three artists (Veronika Dreier, Doris Jauk-Hinz, Eva Ursprung), wearing multifunctional uniform outfits, were either perceived as a group of cleaning ladies, as baggage handlers or Greenpeace-Activists. On their journey on a ship from Vienna to the Black Sea, the artists approached the local population. The uniform overalls and the flag signals, usually used in shipping, were applied in order to attract attention. (Catalogue "The Danube Streaming Show", Kunstverein W.A.S., orders:

Transmission of texts via email is limited to a code, displaying the content of a text with neutral signs. It can, therefore, not be assigned to an observer in the way this is possible with analogue transmissions: Language, which is communicated with body-movements, acts out in a cultural, political and social environment. The transmission of information is biased on encultured meanings of physical and social behavior. "Non-physical" communication (letters, fax or emails) is mostly free of such inscriptions. Encultured meanings only appear in the content and, rudimentarily, in the form of transmission. Perhaps, the use of smileys constitutes a comeback of the body for "non-physical" codes of information.


Fishtalk in Graz: "Hinter den Zeichen" (Behind the Signs)

Worklab, Performances, Presentations and Exhibition in Progress at Medienkunstlabor (Laboratory of Media and Arts), Kunsthaus Graz

From Mid-October until Mid-November 2007 the "Fish"-team was dealing intensively with various aspects of communication. Based on the project "Talking the Fish", they worked in the Medienkunstlabor at Kunsthaus Graz and in public space.

Functionality, behavior and complexity of everyday digital communication were made transparent in performances, workshops and presentations. This time, the omni-present aspects of data security, control and surveillance, rather than the problems of political borders, were dealt with in the Graz urban area. Public surveillance cameras and webcams were the preferred locations of semaphore training-sessions.

Translations: Wolfgang Wendlinger