serena lee
In the future, we all speak a second language
not of our choosing.
It is assigned at birth and selected at random from the history of language, to be learnt and used alongside the mother tongue.
All nations or organised societies have agreed upon a lottery system and the pool of possible draws consists of every single language that has ever existed -- dead or living, dialects too -- and the pool keeps growing.
Natural Law
Hyperobjects / Networks / Mesh
Time / Calendar / Seasons / History
Passages / Paths
Food / Drink
Knowledge / Myths / Stories / Songs
Beliefs / Customs / Rituals
Taste / Quality
Organization / Community / Government
System / Rules / Consequences
Object / Vessel / Tool
What counts as a language?
How would you learn a language that your family doesn’t know?
How much do you need to know in order to know a language? What does it mean to know a language completely?
What would happen if you forgot your first or second language?
How would you learn and use your second language on a day-to-day basis?
How would you learn and use your second language if it was dead?
How would you learn and use a second language that was only oral?
To recover dead languages, would we have other Rosetta stones? What form would they take? Would they be material indexes or memories?
Do new uses of language develop - like coding or pure maths? Do new forms of inclusion and exclusion develop from these new literacies?
How do languages enter the lottery pool - what is the baseline for defining a language or dialect?
Are some languages preferred over others?
Would languages evolve quicker or slower based on this system?
Would the pool of languages diversify or simplify based on this system?
Would empathy change based on language-use?
Is one sense centred over the others?
Do cultures become more visual? More aural? More oral?
What is lost?
Would the notion of family and community change based on the second languages?
If we were to learn languages of more-than-human beings, hyperobjects, the language of trees, pheromones, or quantum code-based languages - would we still identify as human?
How would the notion/category/structures of national identity change?

Are nations / organised societies defined by official language - singular or plural?
What types of mobility emerge? Devolve?
How many and which languages do they use on ‘international’ flights and at borders?
Will we have borders?
Does that which we understand as knowledge change?
What is the relationship between language and comprehension in the future? What is the nature of understanding - does it rely on increasing our vocabularies, or rather capacity to read between the lines?
The origins of written language were for use in accounting and divination; what could future uses be beyond what we currently know as transactional and mortal?
What precipitated this global decree?
What sort of political/economic/environmental situation could have prompted this?
How would time and labour be structured in order for everyone to prioritize learning the second language?
What would the economy be based upon? Are there new notions of ‘resource’ and ‘labour’ and ‘progress’?
Would new forms of power emerge, based on new forms of value?
How much would all of this cost?
What technologies make language learning easier? More complex?
How does it change our behaviour?
Our physiology?
What platforms allow persons to gather in their shared first or second language? Do these meetings happen in real time or another dimension of time?
What mediates the use of language in virtual or IRL space - the interface; the technology? Is it human, artificial intelligence, or something else?
What data does this system generate, and where is the data stored, how is it used?
Is there an excess that cannot be identified and captured?
Historically, the collection and cataloguing of dialect field recordings came from a desire for preservation - is there a different sense of historicity motivating data/knowledge gathering?
Will we distinguish between data and knowledge?
Will we have different notions of ability?
Cursive script was developed to allow for faster writing; printing changed the temporality of writing; attention spans have gotten shorter: what is the speed of language be in the future? Could second language acquisition slow everything down?
What would this mean for our bodies?
Will there be a change in an assumed hierarchy of language use: written versus oral? Could this change our concept of ‘civilization’? Would it allow for ‘civilization’ to be re-defined, challenged, de-centred? Would this change our relationship to objecthood, decay and permanence?
Will memory change? Our capacity for memory?
Would we decide to break language instead? To miscommunicate, to misunderstand, to make no sense, to twist, to be imprecise?
What is a ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ language?
Is there a correlation between statistics and authenticity when it comes to dialect or accent? Will we live by a different centre and margin?
How would we share or claim cultural heritage through second language; would it be at risk of appropriation? Who is responsible for a ‘shared’ past? Who is entitled to nostalgia?
If you are isolated by learning a dead language, would you develop a different conception of public and private space; internal and external experience?
Who profits?
Adékúnmi Ọlátúnjí
Alex Panicacci
Alice Ongaro
Amal Khalaf
Andrea Francke
Ania Bas
Ania Okrasko
Annette Krauß
Black Shuck
Casey Wong and his mom
Catalina Imizcoz
Daniella Sanader
Daria Blum
Diana Duta
Elaine Ho 何穎雅
Emma Clayton
Erik Martinson
Ethan Keating
Fan Wu 吴凡 (吳凡)
Harriet Plewis
I-Ying Liu
Jonnie Robinson, The British Library
Laura Clarke
Li Beike 李贝壳 & Liu Xiyan 刘希言
Lillian Chan 陳勵瑩 (陈励莹)
Louise Shelley
Marianna Takou
Marsya Maharani
Minami Kanesawa
Nahed Mansour
mother tongues
Penny Burkett
Sameer Farooq
Sanne Oorthuizen
Siya Chen & He Cong
Participants of Syllabus IV
Karen Tam 譚嘉文 & Tam Kim Soon 譚錦慈 & Yuen Yin Law 阮嫣娜
The Voice of Domestic Workers
Vanessa Morrell
Ying Que
Zain Dada, Free Word Centre
Second Tongues
world-building sessions, conversations, exhibition
Cubitt – London, 2019
curated by Louise Shelley
as part of Structures that Cooperate
Photography by Mark Blower, courtesy of Cubitt
Self does not understand  
Screening and Performance Programme
curated by Erik Martinson in response to Second Tongues
July 2019, Cubitt Gallery

Taking Serena Lee’s Second Tongues proposition, Canadian curator Erik Martinson has programmed an evening of film and readings.

Self does not understand derives its title from a phrase spoken by the character Warlock in the 1980’s comic The New Mutants. Warlock is an alien with the power to meta-morph into any shape or form, though he has a difficult time understanding our world, needing to constantly learn about how humans communicate with each other. He identifies as ‘Self’ and his teammates are his ‘Self-friends’. One teammate in particular called Doug Ramsey, codenamed Cypher, has the mutant power to innately learn and understand languages rapidly, whether they are human, machinic, or alien in nature. These two characters’ lives are intertwined, from first encounter of communicating through patterned light, in the vein of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to a complicated mutually symbiotic relationship. Through tragedy Warlock must come to terms with death, something his kind experiences and understands in some fundamentally different ways, prompting this programme’s title.

Self does not understand considers tiny translations between: ‘self’ and ‘self’, ‘self’ and ‘other self’, ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘other’ and ‘other’, and various permutations or these arbitrary structures. When fluency and comprehension are closely examined, the solid ground they present is quickly revealed as ongoing, fragile calculations. Like a decimal place rounded-up, they are an approximation, even within the same language set. Fluency and comprehension are made up of so many encounters, of so many oscillations between understanding and not, until one seems to win out.

The event features a selection of readings and artists’ moving image. Artists presented include: Stephanie Comilang, Jessa Mockridge, Lana Lin, Shanzhai Lyric, Anastasia Sosunova, with a guest appearance by Vrillon.
Three-channel Video Installation with Audio and Augmented Reality
Technical Production: Black Shuck
Salt dough works produced with The Voice of Domestic Workers
and by Ethan Keating, Penny Burkett, Louise Shelley
Technician: Lucy Woodhouse
With video images and audio contributions by Second Tongues participants 
Scenography by Clemence Seilles

Produced with the generous support of
Canada House (UK) and the Canada Council for the Arts
Contributed by Daria Blum
Contributed by Minami Kanesawa
Second Tongues
as part of group exhibition
Qalqalah قلقلة: Plus d’une langue

La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, 2021
Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Occitanie / Pyrénées-Méditerranée – Sète, 2020
curated by
Virginie Bobin and Victorine Grataloup
as part of editorial and curatorial platform Qalqalah قلقلة
Translation: Virginie Bobin, Alice Ongaro, Toleen Touq

Installation view at CRAC Occitanie à Sète, 2020
Photography by Marc Domage, courtesy of CRAC Occitanie à Sète
Five-channel video installation with broken and non-broken headphones
with video images and audio contributions by Second Tongues participants from workshops in London and Sheffield
Sculptural installation with salt dough, fake breads, work tables, curtain (British Library architectural model)

The works echo multiple, hybrid languages, acquired in the course of family migrations, personal exile or uprooted encounters. Native, secondary, adoptive, migrant, lost, imposed, common, minor, invented, pirated, contaminated languages… How do we speak (to each other) in more than one language, using more than one alphabet? How we listen from within the place and language in which we find ourselves? Between the lines, the exhibition examines the perspective from which we view works, according to the political and social imaginations that shape us.

Most of the invited artists place the works’ publication, circulation and reception modalities at the heart of their practice. Operations of translation, transliteration, rewriting, archiving, publication, republication, montage, even casting and karaoke appear as attempts to offer the eyes and ears stories that are sometimes evasive. Beyond a linguistic approach, it is about establishing a space in which plural stories and heterogeneous accounts can be presented, based on one possible meaning—in more than one language—of the Arabic word قلقلة: “a movement of language, a phonetic vibration, a bounce or echo”.

Tempo Rubato
A short story commissioned for Qalqalah قلقلة
Published October 2020

French translation by Virginie Bobin
with Line Ajan, Montasser Drissi,
Vir Andres Hera and Serena Lee
English edit by Daniella Sanader
Second Tongues
world-building sessions with language mapping and salt dough
with members of The Voice of Domestic Workers
Cubitt – London, 2019
Second Tongues
world-building sessions with language mapping and salt dough
with participants of The Syllabus IV
S1 Artspace – Sheffield, 2019
Second Tongues
A score for world-building sessions situated in a courtroom, reading, writing, drawing, speaking, sitting, standing, lying down.
facilitated by Nevin Lochhead
with the Working Group of Knot Project Space
SAW Video – Ottawa, 2019
Second Tongues
as part of group exhibition
在工作:艺术实践中的女性 In Working

何香凝美术馆 He XiangNing Art Museum – Shenzhen, 2022
curated by Li Beike 李贝壳 & Liu Xiyan 刘希言
translated by Siya Chen & He Cong

Video stills

Exhibition Photography courtesy of He Xiang Ning Art Museum, 2022

Installation view at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, 2021
Photography by Sébastien Bozon
Courtesy of La Kunsthalle Mulhouse