"Some kind of inspiration porn on Deaf’s natural language"
October 26, 2018 10:28 PM   Subscribe

A new mural commissioned by the ACLU of Idaho and executed with the help of the Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation was recently completed in downtown Idaho Falls. The selected artist’s concept employed American Sign Language subject matter, and was titled “Look and Listen.” The artist reviewed the work with a friend who teaches ASL, but did not consult with members of the Deaf community in advance. It did not go over well.

The mural was meant to bring a message of unity to the community in celebration of 25 years of the ACLU in Idaho. Instead, it is receiving backlash from the deaf community. The mural is supposed to depict ASL signs that read look, listen, understand and ask. Critics say the ASL signs used are incorrect and the inaccurate mural is offensive. Facebook immediately lit up with criticisms of both the piece and its intent.

Ricky Taylor, 44, of Pocatello, a deaf video blogger who is fluent in ASL, said in a text message that the signs depicted in the mural are not ASL and that he considers the project cultural appropriation. Taylor said the mural is “absolutely cringeworthy” and an attempt to translate the sign language results in “gibberish.” “This is cultural appropriation, using (a) hearing artist to gain some kind of inspiration porn on Deaf’s natural language — American Sign Language,” Taylor said.

The artist's response: “We stepped in something I didn’t understand.”

For a full reporting of the topic, the Daily Moth has the story (starting at 7:55). Trigger Warning - the Daily Moth is a news show and the first story they report on involves specific harm to women.
posted by Toddles (32 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
You'd think that people would learn.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:42 PM on October 26, 2018


It's foolish as all hell, politically, to try to do this without involving the actual deaf community in the city in which it's displayed.

At the same time, I can relate to the difficulty, and perhaps equal foolishness, of thinking one even could represent ASL signs in a static painting, especially since three of the four signs in question, if I am reading the intent right, require motion.
posted by rokusan at 11:03 PM on October 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


Deaf’s natural language — American Sign Language

Is there some kind of translation issue here? Because this statement as it reads now is itself extraordinarily offensive.
posted by praemunire at 11:07 PM on October 26, 2018 [11 favorites]


It's not that they require motion, per se - the artist did a pretty good job of capturing a static sense of "motion." But her "sign" for "listen" for example is pretty clearly completely unrelated to either of the meanings of listen captured by ASL.

To be crude, they all vaguely look like graphic depictions of fingering someone's genitals.
posted by muddgirl at 11:12 PM on October 26, 2018 [7 favorites]


Honest to god. How does this keep happening? It’s like every time someone does this kind of thing, they’re like “Oh! Wow! We never knew we should involve someone from the community we’re trying to represent! We’re learning so much right now!” Every. Damn. Time.
posted by greermahoney at 11:58 PM on October 26, 2018 [31 favorites]


(Not Deaf, just attempting an analogy)

Among other things, this mural is missing a very basic aspect of the structure of ASL - place of articulation. A single hand floating in space can't execute these signs because they require a reference point on the body! So for instance, the signs for 'man' and 'woman' have the same hand shape and motion/manner of articulation , but the first is signed at the forehead and the second at the chin.

This is roughly (at least as) as wrong if you tried to pronounce 'look' and 'listen' as 'woop' and 'wiffpem', except at least bilabial placement is a possible articulation point in English.
posted by heyforfour at 12:04 AM on October 27, 2018 [17 favorites]


Because this statement as it reads now is itself extraordinarily offensive.

ASL is a natural language of the American Deaf community, as opposed to a constructed language. The statement is a bit broad in not differentiating other natural signed languages. but I thought the meaning was clear given that it was sent in a text message.
posted by muddgirl at 12:18 AM on October 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Also capitalizing the word "Deaf" has a specific meaning related to the self-identity of people who are lower-case-deaf or hard of hearing. I am not equipped to write an essay on Deaf vs deaf but there are many resources online.
posted by muddgirl at 12:20 AM on October 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


I am aware that there is a distinction in usage between Deaf and deaf; I don't, however, think "Deaf" excludes speakers of other signed languages. Unless I'm missing some other context, suggesting that the contrast is with "constructed" language seems like a reach (I am not aware that there are any constructed signing languages in regular use, or why it would be meaningful to draw that distinction here) and I'm not sure how being written in a text excuses disappearing the dozens (hundreds?) of other signed languages around the world, as it is does not require many keystrokes in English to specify "a" rather than "the." It's just a weird thing to be doing while protesting mistreatment of your own language.

Which is why I'm wondering if there is a translation issue here. I don't know enough about sign language to know (nor do I know if his first language was ASL, as I think he's of an age where it's possible but not necessarily the case).
posted by praemunire at 4:24 AM on October 27, 2018


I know it isn’t literal, but it is noticeable in their apologies how often they say they are listening.
posted by snofoam at 4:33 AM on October 27, 2018 [10 favorites]


*sighs* praemunrie, I believe that Ricky Taylor was referring to ASL being a language used and modified by Deaf people, as opposed to oral languages. which are not primarily used by Deaf people.

It is crucial for people to have some context for why Ricky Taylor would say that. Education of d/Deaf has a long, ugly history involving the forcible imposition of spoken languages and the derision of sign languages. And audism being what it is, d/Deaf people are still """praised""" for voicing as opposed to signing while a vastly simplified ASL gets marketed as a trendy way to make your baby smarter.

Hence the pushback by the local Deaf community on a mural that would have been accurate if they had been consulted!
posted by lineofsight at 5:46 AM on October 27, 2018 [16 favorites]


The artist said:

I hope that you can connect with the meaning of the mural, which is this: It’s sometimes hard to listen to what seems unsavory, see something that seems wrong, understand something new, and ask about something you’d rather not know.

But it kind of seems as though the person who really needs to connect with the meaning of the mural is the artist.
posted by entropone at 5:46 AM on October 27, 2018 [21 favorites]


Which is why I'm wondering if there is a translation issue here.

Yes, I thought maybe that. Certainly BSL grammar doesn't use 'the'/'a', although I don't know about ASL.

I am kind of stunned that this was mural was reviewed with a friend who teaches ASL. Obviously it should have been reviewed with more than just "oh my friend speaks that, I'll ask her" anyway, but how come even that friend didn't see a problem? Was there even a friend? What happened?
posted by Catseye at 6:15 AM on October 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


Here's the full mural, screengrab from the linked video. I like the concept of the art, the depiction of motion, the little pun of mixing the shape of the state of Idaho in with the hand shapes.

But if it's not ASL it's not ASL. I mean, how does something so stupid happen? I'm reminded of the time someone tried to fake a sign translation at Nelson Mandela's funeral. Both events betray a lack of respect for signed languages as being actual languages.
posted by Nelson at 7:22 AM on October 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


Regardless of our good intentions, we have offended beloved members of both the hearing and the deaf communities, and we regret that
What a terrible non apology on every level.
posted by jeather at 8:03 AM on October 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Note that they mention the affront to the hearing community first. Priorities.
posted by greermahoney at 8:14 AM on October 27, 2018 [7 favorites]


Unless I'm missing some other context, suggesting that the contrast is with "constructed" language seems like a reach (I am not aware that there are any constructed signing languages in regular use, or why it would be meaningful to draw that distinction here)

There are lots of constructed sign languages, around which people have a variety of complicated emotions. (In the US, Signed Exact English is the most well known example of this.) Further, the word in ASL that you would use for "native" (as in "native language") is the same as the word for "natural". Further still, the idea that a signed language is the natural thing for deaf people to have as an L1, versus the often (but not always!) artificially acquired skills needed for spoken language, is a very commonly discussed one in deaf circles. The sentence makes sense to me in that context.

And yes, it excludes non-American SLs, but I think it is fairly clear that Ricky was speaking about an American context here. So at worst it's a bit thoughtless, and not implying that, say, ASL should be a language of colonialism. Though it does have a history and a present as such. That's something our community needs to grapple with, but possibly that conversation needs to happen separately from this one.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:41 AM on October 27, 2018 [18 favorites]


I don't know specifically about the use in this particular context, but the phrase "natural language" is a term of art in linguistics, and refers to languages that humans speak ('speak' meaning 'be fluent in' and 'have an instinctual command of the grammar') as opposed to languages which have been invented for a specific purpose, such as a programming language. So referring to ASL as a "natural language" could be conveying that it is a human language which is governed by standardized rules of phonology, syntax, and semantics. It has not always been the case that signed languages have been accepted as natural languages, but for decades linguists have been researching the structural underpinnings of signed languages, in the same way that other natural languages are studied.
posted by tractorfeed at 9:24 AM on October 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


So it seems like not just that the hands themselves are wrong but the mural would need repainting to to include their location in space. So not an easy fix. Seems like it should be redone.
posted by emjaybee at 9:35 AM on October 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm a signwriter and I paint murals sometimes. I can only be deeply, deeply grateful that I was not involved in this one.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:01 AM on October 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


The artist's non-apology at the link is ... kind of terrible.
posted by basalganglia at 11:16 AM on October 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Showed this to a friend of mine who is not Deaf but has some training in sign language interpretation. He echoed what heyforfour said above, about signs - and these signs in particular - needing the context of a body (for the body part beside which the sign is made, the direction the palms are facing, and direction of motion) before they mean anything. The signs as they're portrayed are almost the equivalent of someone who isn't familiar with English writing not understanding that you need to write the complete word and instead of writing "Look Listen Understand Ask" they write out "Ok Ten Stand Sk" instead.

It's shameful that a Hearing artist apparently chose to portray sign language in their art as a bit of a gimmick and failed to show their prototype to someone knowledgeable to make sure what they were creating would be both accurate and respectful.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 4:08 PM on October 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


I was thinking that the mural was really quite lovely artistically, but as a designer who doesn’t make anything just for the sake of it looking good and has seen plenty of shitty designers try to defend non-functional pieces because it looks “cool” regardless of whether it fulfills the need expressed by those who commissioned the work: fuck the artist’s condescending “apology” all the way to outer space.

Overall, what a disgrace for all involved. To not commission a d/Deaf artist? It’s as condescending as the artist’s statement.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 4:27 PM on October 27, 2018 [7 favorites]


Typical Idaho.

Idaho Falls, aka Idiot Flats, is well known for dragging their feet to move into the new century. It's very strongly old fashioned Mormon, and you can even find pockets in that part of the state where they marry girls at 15 and are still pissed the Mormon church* backed off plural marriage.

I love my state, but sometimes we can sure screw up. On the bright side, at least things are changing. We've got a long way before we finally get our feces in a pile, but it's slowly moving out of the 1960s.

* It's not just the Mormons that get all pissy when you call 'em Mormons. They say they know that even God gets offended when I don't call it the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm all about respect and being politically correct, but I'm not about to waste my breath calling it the CoJCoL-dS until they get their heads out of their asses and change their totally racist and misogynist beliefs. They wallow in their patriarchy, and they suck.

They ought to be damn grateful I don't write mormon, but that's only because its a proper noun, and I try use gooder English.

Hopefully the 'Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation' will make good on the mural.

posted by BlueHorse at 7:14 PM on October 27, 2018


Yeah… this is just painful. Who are these people who appear to have good intentions, but who have also been living under a rock for the last thirty years?

Hey mainstream white liberals, if you're thinking of doing something like this and want to know if it's going to be unintentionally offensive, call me. My rates are very reasonable.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:18 PM on October 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


the thorn bushes have roses: To not commission a d/Deaf artist? It’s as condescending as the artist’s statement.

As a signwriter, I disagree. A good artist must be able to work for groups they are not themselves a part of. We do this by communicating with people in these groups, getting their input and opinions, and making good use of that so that they can feel represented by the final work. It should not be that hard.

I'm not a man, or a person of colour, or a wheelchair user. I have painted men, black people, and people in wheelchairs. If one of them told me I was doing it wrong, I should damn well listen and take their feedback into account, and make adjustments... not excuses.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:43 AM on October 28, 2018 [4 favorites]


It was the ACLU of Idaho that commissioned the mural. https://www.acluidaho.org/en/news/call-artists-aclu-idaho-25th-anniversary-murals

Amused by comments saying "who are these people?" and identifying the Mormon influence on Idaho, when both the post and the article identify the ACLU of Idaho as the group that commissioned the mural, and the ACLU is at odds with the Mormon church at least as often as it teams up with or defends Mormons.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 5:19 AM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm not about to waste my breath calling it the CoJCoL-dS

Could you compromise and use this as an acronym? Pronounce it ‘codge-colds’ or something?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:05 AM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


Too-Ticky: one of the projects I worked on this last year was an exhibit for an organization that advocates and educates on accessibility, with their focus ranging broadly from neurodivergence to people with physical disabilities to deaf/Deaf folks. I identify as none those things. I solicited a lot of input on making the exhibit itself accessible and learned a lot and am grateful I was given so much helpful feedback. My words were imprecise: yes, I think artists (or in my case, designers) can do thoughtful work with input from groups their work will represent!

To me, this is not that. I do strongly believe the ACLU should have commissioned a d/Deaf artist if they wanted to use ASL in the mural, this was not an organization of people in the d/Deaf communities hiring an artist to communicate using ASL. I agree with the blogger quoted above: it’s appropiative and it’s inspiration porn. And the artist failed to do proper research start to finish. There’s a lot of failures in the entire process but you and I both know that it’s our job to communicate and when we fail to do that, getting defensive and insisting other people just are failing to understand it is bullshit. I really rail against anyone who insists artists/designers working for others are nothing more than people who make things look pretty. I don’t think you were saying that at all, but I think the artist here is failing to understand her responsibility.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:29 AM on October 28, 2018 [5 favorites]


Yeesh, it's kinda fucked when I can recognize some of the signs as just wrong with only the barest familiarity with ASL (like, I can get through the alphabet, but not quickly). Is there a big Deaf community in Idaho? It seems like this would be an opportunity to get a local Deaf artist in there to do a new mural. I don't think it's necessarily outside of the realm of possibility to have a hearing artist do a mural that incorporates or highlights ASL, but it kinda feels like you gotta bring your A game and if you fuck it up, paying a Deaf artist to execute their own vision seems like an appropriate penalty/restitution.
posted by klangklangston at 4:37 PM on October 28, 2018


For those wondering, ASL and BSL differ significantly. BSL has a two-handed manual alphabet while ASL uses only one hand.
posted by childofTethys at 11:13 AM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


So if you do "additional research," which I take to mean "google it," this site pops up high the results: ask, understand, listen, look.
posted by factory123 at 12:17 PM on October 29, 2018


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