How do we understand?

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NORTH ADAMS — Artist Steffani Jemison's fascination with language is not constricted by the same rules and structures that languages are and in expressing this, she has fashioned artwork that distills such complications into clear, minimalist symbols.

Jemison's new show show at Mass MoCA, "Plant You Now, Dig You Later," unites several pieces while examining the nature of language, shared and personal, and how language reflects the landscape in which it is born and utilized. Each minimalist creation stands in front of mountains of information, and that dynamic begs the question — how should a viewer approach Jemison's work — armed with knowledge or completely blank?

"I love that question, because it addresses issues that are actually at the core of my work: that is to say, what does it mean to understand?" said Jemison. "Could we consider understanding an historically specific phenomenon? A culturally specific phenomenon? For me, concepts like "legibility" and "accessibility" have political implications—can't all political problems be restated as problems of understanding? To understand, and the inverse, to communicate, is to take a leap of faith. We spend every waking hour of every day making these small, unrewarded leaps whose success is physically and conceptually and emotionally impossible to measure."

That is how Jemison's brain works. Any given expression or detail in her artwork references a storm of ideas poised to burst out and wash over you. Nothing is executed without purpose and like language itself, each work from Jemison is built on connections that power its accrued meaning.

Included in the show is"R citatif (What if we need new words?)" largely a sound piece, using 19th century French composer Fran ois Sudre's artificial language Solresol for audio that plays in the gallery, accompanying Jemison's drawings of the musical scales being played by voice, cello, percussion and keyboard.

For the show — there's an opening reception Saturday afternoon at 5:30 — Jemison has also fashioned images from the language of African American outsider artist James Hampton, who left a notebook full of writings in a "personal language" that has yet to be cracked but which Jemison takes outside of the confines of a notebook, singling out specific calligraphy to be viewed on its own terms.

Language has been a fascination of Jemison's since childhood. She thought she'd be a writer when she grew up. As an adult, the ideas of New York City sculptor, hip hop musician, graffiti writer and philosopher Rammellzee transformed her perception of language.

"The alphabet, Rammellzee argued, is merely a bet—a gentleman's agreement, and one that can be suspended at any time," she said. "It was then that I began to think more seriously about languages as contingent rather than eternal, and became more interested than ever in the right to refuse to be understood."

This idea of language being a less-than-absolute experience stuck with her. This Mass MoCA show found her reading about adults who learned to read only later in their lives, documenting a moment that most intrigues her, the one "in which mark becomes letter, or gesture becomes form," the moment of acceptance of that gentleman's agreement. She is especially excited when the agreement is extended to music.

"How curious that Francois Sudre, the inventor of Solresol, was not a linguist or even a writer, but a composer," Jemmison said. "I can't help but think that he wanted spoken language to approach the richness and expressiveness and mathematical clarity of song. Throughout the vocal portions in particular of "R citatif," an attentive listener can hear the physical effort involved in producing sounds that correspond to my score. It requires incredible attention."

The perceived difference between Solresol and Hamptonism is that the former invites a new way of communicating and creates commonality, while the latter, as a personal construct in a notebook not released to the world, is one meant to solidify privacy. But Jemison thinks the processes and questions that lead to the inventions of these languages reveal much commonality.

"The distinction seems to reflect wildly diverging historical and cultural circumstances and privileges — Do others understand me? Do I deserve to be understood? If no one is listening, then why should I direct my energy outward at the void instead of inward toward myself? — as much as anything else," she said. "I don't think it's unreasonable to imagine that Sudre may have considered himself a kind of secular prophet or seer. We are all our own first and best listeners."

The title of Jemison's show points to the contradictions of language that she recognizes. It's a quote from Louis Armstrong, coming from the world of slang, a language style that is alive and organic and uncontrollable, the opposite of Solresol or Hamptonism. Slang offers rapid pace freedom that causes people to grasp at its speed, while the created languages represent efforts to controlled for personal agendas of expression.

"The difference between a language that evolves organically and one that is organized and prescribed is so profound, and the failures of artificial language so universal, that some readers probably don't consider constructed languages to be proper languages at all," said Jemison.

But for Jemison, each aspect of the work leads to a new one, a constant process that generates new ideas and new forms, as organic as the slang of her show's title — and with that as her standard procedure, she can't help but take her previous thought to the next step in conceptualizing the possibilities of language.

"I do wonder, though, what kind of slang might have evolved had Solresol achieved Sudre's goal of serving as a global auxiliary language," she said.

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