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An artist in search of forbidden language

She holds a transparent, orange-tinted box with an open slot on top. Inside are bits of paper with scribbled “forbidden” words. Since the start of seminar week Maria-Magdalena Ianchis, a Romanian-Austrian artist, has confronted scholarship holders asking them to write down a word or euphemism that makes them feel uncomfortable or they believe is taboo and post them in the box.

She wants her poster-sized photograph, Pandora’s Box of Forbidden Words, hanging outside the Erwin Schrödinger conference room, to bring the old myth of a box full of bad fortune into modern day society. Ms Ianchis says that many people today try to solve problems by changing the language that describes the issue rather than solving the actual problem.

“On the one hand we should think about language and, importantly, change it, but we must then confront problems and talk openly about them,” says Ms Ianchis.

Her photograph is a self-portrait and part of the exhibition in the Congress Centre made by photography students from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. The pieces are commissioned for Alpbach with the common theme Tools of Enlightenment.

People censor their conversations in order protect others or themselves or to avoid feeling uncomfortable, Ms Ianchis says. She gives the example of the German word “slumviertel”, which means a slum quarter. A writer she knows was asked by one of her readers to change this word into “organically grown area” because “slum quarter” made the reader feel bad.

“Ok, I mean if someone would read this they wouldn’t understand what it was about and how does this help the people that live there?”

EFA/Andrei Pungovschi
The exhibition Tools of Enlightenment was initiated with an art walk, where the young artists presented the ideas behind their work to the audience.

People come to Alpbach from all over the world to exchange ideas and opinions, and Ms Ianchis believes that taboos must be addressed before people start communicating. “Otherwise we won’t get very far.”

“The problem is that we are trying to solve problems with language, and I mean yes, words can hurt, but you can hurt someone much more with poverty and with your actions.”

Ms Ianchis hopes that her box and photograph can challenge the way people think about their language and encourage a more open debate. The project is part of an ongoing series about mythology in modern life and will eventually be published as a book in which all the words collected in Alpbach will be used.

Tatiana Tilly and Lucy Thomas, Alpbach Media Academy

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