Peter Nisbet

In the Company of Words

A sign can have two origins. First, it can be stipulated beforehand. By agreement. ... With such signs we have expressed what in the world was already existing, already made. ... The second origin: a sign is born, it then receives its name, but its meaning is revealed later.
El Lissitzky (1921)

Now you can name everything, even things that haven‘t been invented yet.
Adib Fricke (1996)
Words to Watch, Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1999

Consider two words: Smorp and Snorp—The first is one of the invented words presented in this exhibition by Adib Fricke, a Berlin-based artist who calls these neologisms “protonyms.” The second, I discover from a newspaper I happen to read as I begin to compose these remarks, is the name of a newly introduced mouthwash that supposedly mutes snoring.1

By creating new words with no designated or accumulated meaning, Fricke can operate unsettlingly and tantalizingly close to the commercial world of consumer products and trade names. After all, we regularly see advertisements promoting medical drugs only by name and evocative image, with no explicit indication of the medication’s function. Even the name Viagra was apparently invented initially for a urology drug that never came to market, and therefore was available (a “free-floating signifier”?) for branding a now celebrated impotence treatment.2

However, it is the differences between Snorp and Smorp that really count: the one carries a strong evocative sound-reference to its putative function, while the other refuses any such comfort. Fricke’s words are well-made and independent.

Take another word: Kuboå—Could that be one of Fricke’s protonyms? If not, why not? (Is there a connoisseurship which can distinguish genuine protonyms from fakes?). Actually, this is the new word that comes to the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s seminal modernist novel Hunger (1890) as he lies in prison, desperately struggling with the anxiety and darkness surrounding him, the alienated outsider on the edge of madness.

Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn’t exist in the language, I have invented it—Kuboå. It does have letters like a word—sweet Jesus, man, you have invented a word ... Kuboå ... of great grammatical importance. The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. ... I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It doesn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show? ... All things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. ...

A few minutes go by and I get nervous, the new word worries me incessantly and keeps coming back; in the end it takes possession of all my thoughts and makes me stop laughing. I had made up my mind what the word shouldn’t mean, but had taken no decision on what it should mean. That is a minor question! ... The word had been found, thank God, and that was the main thing. But my thoughts worry me ceaselessly and keep me from falling asleep; nothing seemed good enough for this rare word.3

Neither Fricke nor his public, presumably, goes through these delirious torments when creating or confronting a protonym. But is not Smorp the (admittedly, distant) descendant of Kuboå? Do it and the other protonyms not also draw on the avant-garde dream of a wholly new creation, transcending the limits of conventional society, language, meaning? Part of the fascination with these neologisms surely lies in the implied parallel to a wholly new, non-referential visual image. Our century has explored the possibility of a radical pictorial abstraction.4

Why not an unprecedented, autonomous word in the museum?

Presenting a selection of the protonyms in a museum setting should reinforce our sensitivity to this submerged utopianism in Fricke’s project. Moreover, the museum context can also, by contrast, heighten our awareness of the quasi-commercial model which Fricke has adopted for his creativity. Since 1994, he has functioned as The Word Company, with its signature logo b never very far from the protonyms. The Word Company can be thought of as an organization which owns the rights to these proprietary neologisms (in a typeface determined by the owner), and licenses them temporarily to museums for “showing.”5 Although this paradigm cannot be fully followed (partly because German law apparently would not consider the protonyms to be worthy of copyright6), it raises irritating questions about our current obsessions with originality and intellectual property: just what can one own (genes? words? phrases?), and under what conditions? Can a corporation invent? How does the art museum relate to this mode of creativity?

Fricke neatly and unspectacularly continues the use of language as a medium of social and institutional critique. The latter carries a special piquancy for the Busch-Reisinger Museum, a museum whose mission is in part language-based (“the art of German-speaking Europe”) but which here is presenting words that are presumably a-national (from an artist living in Germany). Like other artists of his generation (he was born in 1962), Fricke is interested in adopting aspects of the service economy, almost as his preferred medium.7 This straddling of art and commerce understandably leads to a concern that his protonyms receive a wide, if unpredictable circulation beyond the art institution.

Although at Harvard they will be shown within the museum (disrupting the visual field, but nevertheless painted in black, with stencils, on the surface of the white wall), the artist did also inquire about the possibility of temporarily renaming some local streets (“Onomono Lane”), and earlier projects have involved the words being the subject of a lottery give-away in Hamburg, rubber-stamped on pages of a German art magazine, and included as “your word for the day” in fortune cookies to be given out in London cafés.8

Fricke’s strategy is one of defamiliarization, often deploying a welcome wit and lightness of touch. For one exhibition he produced a series of six glossy covers for a fictive magazine, The New Word, with teaser headlines such as “Child Labor in the Word Factory: When 3-Year-Olds Find New Words,” “Battle for the Word: Import Restrictions for Suffixes from the Far East,” “Special: How Long do Words Last?” Characteristically, the weekly covers were available for purchase at city newsstands for the duration of the exhibition.9 Another show involved not only work in a gallery, but also two-colored handouts combining the artist’s interest in words and in slogans, which, with deadpan humor, he terms “units consisting of words:” on one side, say, “Give me SMORP” or “Give me MIPSEL,” on the other “Young, Rich and SMORP” or “New, Cool and MIPSEL” and so on, always accompanied by the exhortation “Spread the Word!”10

These modest but persistent interventions into our communications system seem designed to annoy and to please, combining a wry irony and a naive fondness for the potential beauty of the new word. Fricke’s collection of protonyms is surprisingly small; partly because he wants to ensure that they really do not already exist in other languages or contexts, and partly, it seems clear, because a selection process akin to the aesthetic is at work. Invented words are retained in the repertoire because of the artist’s preference. Used repeatedly over the past five years, they retain a puzzling integrity, successfully resisting both specific meaning and decorative vacuity. Somehow, the words stay with you.


1) Cincinnati Enquirer, 24 December 1998, p. B10.
2) Globe and Mail (Toronto), 14 August 1998, p. B21.
3) Knut Hamsun, Hunger, translated by Sverre Lyngstad (New York, 1998), pp. 65-66.
4) The Russian futurist artists and poets explored both autonomous images and autonomous language in the years around World War I. Indeed, the example of Hamsun’s “Kuboå” played an important role in their theorizing about the materiality of poetic form and the self-sufficiency of language. See Stephen Rudy’s introduction to Roman Jakobson, My Futurist Years (New York, 1997), pp. xii-xvi.
5) Some earlier The Word Company exhibitions included the text of the “General Terms and Conditions of Business” (which also governed the acquisition of protonyms by collectors). The catalogue for an exhibition in Spring 1998 at the Leipzig Gallery for Contemporary Art (Galerie für zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig) included the agreement licensing the use of the word ONTOM as the title of that exhibition.
6) For a discussion of this, see the essays by Arthur Waldenberger and Christine Fuchs in Adib Fricke, The Word Company, vol. III (Berlin, 1997).
7) Striking examples of this tendency can be taken from the exhibition ONTOM referred to above (note 5): artists who, as their art within the exhibition space, have served meals, offered yoga lessons, made advertising space available, and so on. In this sense, Fricke’s service is to make new words available.
8) See “Win A Word!—The Word Lottery” in the exhibition Schnittstellen (Hamburg, 1994); neue bildende kunst, vol. 5 no. 3 (June-August 1995), p. 33 (Harvard’s copy has the protonym METHOS); Henriette Bretton-Meyer, “Your Word for the Day” in Record Play FastForward Rewind Stop Eject (London, 1998), n.p. (a project developed as part of the Goldsmiths College M.A. in Curating, but unrealized).
9) Kasseler Kunstverein, Surfing Systems. Die Gunst der 90er Jahre – Positionen zeitgenössischer Art (Basel and Frankfurt am Main, 1996), p. 124 and catalogue brochure. The German title of this project was Das neue Wort – Magazin für neue Wörter.
10) Ready to Mean, Galleri Wang, Oslo, 1996.


Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge/MA,
Harvard University Art Museums, Gallery Series No. 26,
© 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.