‘You, Me, Undone, London’ is a new work addressed to the city itself by artist and author Taey Iohe. Part letter, part photo essay, it is an ‘essay’ in the original sense of the word, an attempt, a try, a speculative exploration of the language and aesthetics of migration.
We met on a frosty and chilly evening in January, ten years ago, in Kilburn. You looked suspiciously toward me. I was wearing a thin black coat and carrying a suitcase. Your voice was so low I couldn’t hear you clearly. I didn’t really know how to talk to you back then. I was shy and inarticulate, I suppose. You seemed to dismiss me quickly, after nodding slightly to acknowledge I had arrived.
I started to learn how to speak to you. Most of the students at the language centre don’t speak English very well, so I learned quickly how to communicate with gestures and invited people for food. Friendship with broken language is great. You get to be real. Telling lies in a foreign language is so hard. Learning someone’s language is also learning their strategy for lying. Once you learn how they lie, then you learn what they are.
Hi Jane – How are you?
I am fine, thank you, John. And you?
I am fine too. Good to see you.
There are other versions too, such as “Oh! How interesting!” or, “We really must catch up soon!” Once I memorise what to say properly, then I can put on a clear voice.
Learning a phrase is one thing. But learning a tone is something else entirely. I guess tone relates to the materiality of the voice. But it is not exactly the same thing. Tone signals the physicality of the voice, vocal cords, oral cavity, tongue and teeth. In speech, it is easier to sense this by facial expression, gesture, pitch and choice of words. Tone is the point of engagement with a sentence in speech. Tone shapes space differently. Sometimes tone itself becomes the message. For example when you say, “mind the gap” – it feels as if you are holding and slightly squeezing my shoulder at the yellow line on the platform.
Tone is like a container; it can hold emotion or feeling and sensation, because it suggests an emotional positioning, personal attitude. It brings a situated condition. Tone can be also misunderstood, especially if there is distortion or an unusual accent.
Certainly you have animated accents and lots of tones. Putney has a cranky grandmother’s voice; she is always wearing garden gloves. Haringey seems downbeat continually. Mayfair is unnecessarily pompous, spoiled child that it is. Then Brixton and Hackney seem to have a bad temper, and an unpredictable frame of mind. They are lonely in bed, but trying to give off an attitude on the street.
Camberwell sounds sniffly, he might need some morning coffee. Victoria seems to have a personality disorder; I hope she calms down soon. Dalston hiccups all the time. Shadwell is a bit awkward and has bouts of stammering. You are a complex and peculiar being indeed. Little alleys, dark corners, nameless underground clubs, wet sofas on the street, a poet’s secret society, abandoned land, unspoken populations, well-turned out chancers and scruffy clients, swooping birds, lost tourists, so many writers, painters and criminals; I have loved and hated you for a long time.
Taey Iohe is an artist and writer based in London, Seoul and Dublin. Her creative work engages with socio-cultural memories through languages, moving images and the space of migration. She has received her PhD at the School of English, Drama and Film at the University College Dublin (2014); her research discusses a creative way of understanding migratory aesthetics, and builds an imaginary architecture to bring together the critical concepts and the practical tools of the artist in her art making.