Shannon Ebner’s new exhibition Invisible Language Workshop derives its name from MIT’s influential Visible Language Workshop, co-founded in 1975 by groundbreaking graphic designer Muriel Cooper. This facility researched the intersection between visual communication, graphics and artificial intelligence—leading the way to designing for a burgeoning computer culture. Ebner discovered the program’s practice while working on her recent monograph with graphic design team Dexter Sinister (The Sun as Error, 2009). Through this project she realized the crucial role that arrangement and structure play in the comprehension of image and text. This issue is not novel to her oeuvre, as previous projects probed the perception of language and photography—employing the first as raw material at the service of the other. In her series Dead Democracy Letters (2002-2006) and The Sun & the Sign (2006-2008) she placed temporary handmade letters in random landscapes and captured them in black and white. This action resulted in redefining the function of her photographic images, as well as the phrases they displayed.
Ebner’s current body of work is a poetic departure from its predecessors, as she moves towards abstracted representations of her thoughts and surroundings. Rather than utilizing the Latin alphabet to construct legible phrases, she now draws upon technical diagrams, linguistic signs, optical illusion and typographic systems. In the photograph Ampersand (2009) and the sculpture Not Equal (2009) we view these common symbols inexplicably positioned in arbitrary environments. The photograph The Sun as Error (2009) displays an asterisk painted on the upper corner of a blank wall, while Erratum cum Laude (2009) depicts a nondescript splash of black paint. Contextualized only by way of spatial framing, these marks suggest that language and its structures can be found in a variety of forms and places. This point is perhaps best epitomized in the subtle visual connection we make between the striped pattern of P.S. (2009) – a found wooden fencepost – and the borders of adjacent ruled notebook pages (Notebook Pages ).
Stripped to the core of linguistic arrangements, Ebner’s works demand a subjective interpretation that leaves the viewer to decide what fills the blank notebook pages or appears before and after the ampersand and unequal sign. In effect, she has reduced language and image to their symbolic essence—offering us instead modern-day hieroglyphs that sum up meaning and emotion in a single representation. As she sets out to revoke the belief that photographs “point to what is in the world,” Ebner successfully creates open-ended imagery that denotes little more than personal truth.
Images: Invisible Language Workshop, 2009. Installation view, Wallspace Gallery; The Sun as Error, 2009, Chromogenic print, 42 x 32.3 inches; Ampersand, 2009. Chromogenic print, 63 x 48 inches. Courtesy Wallspace Gallery, New York.