PRINT January 1995


“MY WORK FUNCTIONS IN THE spaces between things,” says Pieter Schoolwerth, “between genders, between man and monster, between species, between alphabets.” In recent years many thinkers and artists have focused on the idea of the indefiniteness of recognized entities and the existence of unacknowledged categories between them, but, unlike most visual artists, Schoolwerth enters this realm of the indefinite or the in-between primarily through language—and not through poetic or metaphoric language, but through bizarrely rigorous manipulations of the alphabet.

Schoolwerth’s work has various components—sculptural, pictorial, media-based—but at its foundation is the creation of alternative alphabets, of which the centerpiece or capstone so far is “an alphabet that exists between alphabets.” This alphabet between alphabets was produced by doubling the Latin characters: parts of two letters are combined into a new letter that can be read either way, or both ways at once. Sequences of these letters generate words that can be read in different ways, related not by meaning but by the arbitrary facts of having the same number of letters and being one of the finite number of workable combinations produced by this set of letters in the in-between alphabet. Theoretically an entire book could be written in this doublespeak—or two or more books written as one, telling entirely different stories (and frequently fading into “between-sense”). This is only one of Schoolwerth’s alphabets: he has produced six more, including one based on reversing the Latin alphabet and another based on using it upside down.

His installation at the Thread Waxing Space this fall, Astrid’s Secret Banana, extended this search for the in-between. Schoolwerth constructed an arena with curved corners like a skating rink, its space divided into four quadrants, each corresponding to one of the four alphabets and each with a TV monitor in its corner playing the same 31-minute video over and over. In the video, Schoolwerth plays Astrid, a bigendered, binatured character with often hilarious and sometimes slapstick outfits to match. “When Astrid puts on lipstick and bunny ears,” he asks, “does that make Astrid man, woman, animal, or something in between? What is it that determines these fragilities of identity?”

Determinedly, Astrid occupies the gaps between categories. He/she/it rises, in fantasy, from alphabetical research to don a comedic medieval go-go costume and to embark on four undefined quests with plastic sword and shield, bunny ears, or royal crown. Four episodes are played out of sync on the four monitors, so that at any moment a different episode is playing in each quadrant. In each of the episodes Astrid runs, roller-skates, or skateboards wildly through streets and pastures to find a small shrinelike repository, usually in the countryside but once in a tennis court. Each repository has an elementary shape and color of its own. Approaching each shrine reverently, Astrid unlocks it and removes a small scroll containing a brief written phrase, each time in a different alphabet, which he proclaims like a town crier in oddly unnerving tones. Then she reopens the shrine with a mysterious newly found key, and discovers within it a new identity and a new alphabet to be sought, and tears off again, to the shrine of the next identity and alphabet, which will in turn, however, only send it into the following episode. Astrid furiously seeks each identity and is just as furiously eager to shed it.

The phrase on the scrolls is always the same, but is written each time in a different alphabet. Astrid has only four words to say in each episode—kitten, flower, banana, mitten—or, in the case of the double alphabet, only two words: kitten-flower, banana-mitten. The childishness of the text is a fundamental stylistic affectation of the work, which, though at first it looks like the pastime of an average seven-year-old, turns out upon inspection to suggest the work of a two-year-old with a 180 IQ.

A palette of blues and pinks likewise suggests a baby’s room. “The first scene is a pink circle. I speak in the English language. The second scene is a yellow square. I’m speaking upside down, using the inverted alphabet; b becomes p, for example, so instead of saying ‘banana’ I say ‘pauaua.’ The repository in the third scene is a blue diamond; I speak in the backwards alphabet so b becomes d, ‘banana’ becomes ‘dpnpnp.’ (The a is cheated a little bit—the long line is extended downward.) The fourth is a white triangle. I speak in the double alphabet where every time you say a word it says two things simultaneously. This is the climactic scene.” Afterward, Astrid comes back from the fantasy and sits again at the table with his (back to single-gendered reality) alphabetical studies.

The installation was derived from the video. Each of the arena’s quadrants contained the shrine and other accoutrements of one of Astrid’s four quests, along with notations in the appropriate alphabet. Though it looked arbitrary and unaccountable at first, much of it derived methodically from the original idea of the alphabet between alphabets.

“I just treat myself as a word,” says Schoolwerth. “So when I flip the b to become a p I just wear my clothes upside down, and everything in the video appears upside down. It's like a little virus you put in the alphabet and this is the result.”

I say banana, you say “pauaua.”

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and distinguished professor of art history at Rice University, Houston. He divides his time between Houston, New York, and elsewhere.