KUALA LUMPUR, July 31 — What would our national language look and sound like in the future? This question is the basis for KATA-KATA 2100, an interactive art project that explores the evolution of the Malay language as part of this year’s George Town Festival.
KATA-KATA 2100 is the brainchild of Gianluca Menini and Sarah Ahmad, the two designers behind Glasgow-based creative studio Something Meaningful.
Despite their different backgrounds, both share a belief in using design in creating new cultural patterns to challenge and redefine the needs of society.
Gianluca explains their philosophy, “To quote one of my favourite writers, Nicolas Bouvier: ‘Like water, the world traverses you, and for a while, lends you its colours.’ This is a powerful driving force for creativity, and it helps us to keep an open mind and to keep exploring and learning new things.”
The Italian-born designer was strongly influenced by his family, from both the north and south of Italy. He says,“Culturally, there are so many differences. In fact, Italy still struggles in terms of national unity between the north and the south.
“But for me the issue has never existed; my childhood was made of family visits, celebrations and holidays in very different contexts, with very different people.”
Growing up in Subang Jaya, Sarah also shared her partner’s curiosity and hunger for curiosity. She recalls, “I always had the knack for art, from drawing comics to playing with papier-mâché. During my last year of architecture study, I realised I wasn’t passionate about it.
“That was when I decided to pursue my Masters and career in design instead, in Glasgow. There, I rediscovered my love for creating fun and meaningful things.”
It was in the Scottish city that the duo met three years ago while doing their Masters at the Glasgow School of Art.
They discovered they were both very much passionate about service design and how it can be used to create positive impact on society in the present and in the future.
“Coming from different backgrounds, both professionally and culturally, we brought together a broad range of interests and skills,” says Gianluca. “We soon have realised that there was a unique richness in this.
“We think the future will be more of a hybrid nature — identities, jobs, cultures. Because of our mixed nature, we are in the perfect position to embrace this. And so our creative studio Something Meaningful was born!”
The seed for KATA-KATA 2100 was first planted during a dinner last year for some friends of Sarah’s. She recalls, “While we were chatting, Gianluca mentioned that the conversations between my friends and me were confusing as we kept switching from English, then to Malay, then to Manglish.
“It came so naturally to us that when Gianluca pointed this out, we started discussing about what languages, identity, diversity and culture meant to us.”
A text message Sarah had once received is perhaps the perfect example of how technology has also transformed our way of communicating. She explains, “It said ‘Ko nk gi kl x nnti...?’ and I couldn’t decipher it. The sentence was completely alien to me!”
The duo thus decided that the evolution of languages was an interesting and unique concept to explore, which led to KATA-KATA 2100. In a nutshell, KATA-KATA 2100 is an art and design project aimed at rediscovering Malaysia’s linguistic roots and the international influences the country has absorbed throughout centuries of historical and cultural experiences.
“Our goal is to create a meaningful journey into Malaysian cultural identity and diversity by pushing people to explore different notions of what a language is and could be, and how they might evolve in the future,” says Gianluca.
“This is a journey of discovery, where you might see something completely strange to you, which you might struggle to understand, but right next to it you can see a cultural influence that’s very familiar. It’s a process of ‘joining the dots’, and it’s fascinating to think people could learn through this ‘coded system’ we call language.”
Sarah adds, “When you look back at our history, all the experiences that we Malaysians and our ancestors have gone through — colonisation, war, religion, migration, trading — you realise that our identity as a nation is very intense and meaningful.
“We are so colourful and so vibrant as a culture, and it’s from the discovery of the origins of words from Malay that has grounded my pride and love towards my own individuality.”
One of the conversations the project hopes to raise is that of cultural appropriation. Some people are very open to cultural changes while others insist on preserving traditions. Whichever stand one may take, Gianluca believes projects such as KATA-KATA 2100 have the opportunity to show what lies behind a culture.
He says, “It’s part of the creative process to suspend judgement, personal and collective bias, and to pay respect to other people’s heritage, habits and values in a way that is meaningful.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of KATA-KATA 2100 is their attempt to develop a “future Malaysian language of the year 2100.” The duo realised that language is constantly evolving and wondered what would the Malaysian language look and sound like in 2100, especially given the powerful role technology plays.
Sarah explains, “Have you ever asked yourself how Manglish came about? It might sound like an informal way of speaking, and it may be quite kasar (or crude) here and there, but certain slang, phrases and expressions go back centuries!
“We thought it’d be interesting to future-cast a prototype of a language that’s influenced by history, but also by current events, the advancement of technology and how it all might evolve over the time.”
The duo note that they are not linguists; instead they decided to explore different possibilities through the use of design methods. Gianluca says, “We didn’t want to create and definite ‘final’ language of the future, which would have probably ended up being quite fake and unrealistic. It’s more about showing a glimpse into the future of how people could potentially interact and communicate in different ways.”
Dates: July 29 – August 28, 2016
Venue: Wakao Café, 278 Lebuh Pantai, Penang, Malaysia
Admission free. For more information, contact [email protected] or call 04-261 6308.