Tracey Warr: Ecology of Words

08-09/07/2017, HIAP Project Space, Gallery Augusta & Suomenlinna Island


Language is often accused of controlling, dominating, colonising, hierarchising, suppressing. This workshop concentrates on more positive aspects of language. Words and text are material to work with as a sculptor works with stone or wood. Language is our best approximation at articulating our experience to ourselves and attempting to share experience with other humans.

Words can be slippery. What do we each mean when we use the words ‘nature’ or ‘ecology’, for examples? Most words have at least two meanings and many words have considerably more, as James Joyce demonstrated in Finnegans Wake. There may be some words in our vocabulary that we are convinced we know the meaning of but our use of them is, in fact, eccentric. Despite dictionary definitions and a pressure for consensus about meaning, language can be just as subjective as colour, taste or smell. The comprehension of words between us is not precise. Words are labels for boxes that we put tangled complexes of meaning into. We manipulate these word-box-labels between us to approximate shared understanding – but rather than the exchange of words between one person and another being like a definite lock of understanding, nebulous understandings slide between us, comprehension smears rather than clicks into place.

If we extend that inaccurate slide of language to the human-machine interface and the human-animal interface, the potential for disunderstanding is exponentially greater. Algorithms attempt to read and interpret us. We listen to the pulsing of stars, the rhythms of tides, birdsong and dogs barking, watch the kinesthesia of plants and trees.

Language can be expansive, creating, conjuring, fluid. It is alive in the sense that we are making it up and making it mean in our mouths and on the page all of the time.

Are there ways that our use of language might help us move past an impasse in our thinking and acting?

Definitions always have to be at least discursive. In the workshop we extend, invent, and undo definitions. We materialise words, putting them into poetic play, stretching them from the inside.  

Workshop participants suggest a pile of words. Initial reference points include Robert Smithson’s Heap of Language, Georges Bataille’s l’informe or formless in ‘The Critical Dictionary’, and Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, ‘Jabberwocky’.

Bataille argues that it is not what words mean, but what they do/perform/enact that we should focus on. Beyond words, he resorts to images, poetic invective or fiction, for example, the role of the earthworm, the spider and the spit in his definition of formless.


Play with a pile of methods.


word box

Write a word on a small box. Use the other faces of the box to add translations in various languages. Put synonyms and antonyms, etymologies and other information in the box. Add invented definitions. Create a pile of word boxes. Rearrange the boxes. Keep rearranging them.


Check your word in the Oxford English Dictionary. 


Use a blackboard to create a diagram relating to the definitions and/or uses of your word.


What word do you need that doesn’t exist yet? ‘Anthropocene’ was coined by Paul Crutzen in the 1980s. Donna Haraway coined ‘Chthulucene’. Invent a word and write out definitions for it in dictionary-style.

topography typography

Take your word on an outdoor adventure, matching word to topography. Where does your word want to be sited? Mould your word into a grassy hollow. Write it on a beach, or with stones or other found materials. Kick it down a hill, etc.


Stand some distance apart with a view of each other with two flags each. Using semaphore, one of you should send your selected word to the other. The other should reply with a word coming from free association. Continue. 

book cipher

Use a book cipher to send and receive messages.


Contemplate the use of crosshatching, scoring through, bracketing, or of notation languages such as dance writing, proofreading symbols or short-hand.


Take a short text. Erase particular words.


A kenning is a circumlocution used in Old Norse, Old English, and Icelandic poetry, e.g., bane of wood/fire, lip-streams/poetry, whale-road/sea, sky-candle/sun. Invent your own kennings.


Hum your word in a variety of places. Set it into resonance and vibration.

taking a line for a walk

‘A drawing is simply a line going for a walk…. A line is a dot that went for a walk’ (Paul Klee). Go for a walk with your word. Stop at four points, look around, make notes. Turn your notes into a sentence.


The Oulipo group, including Georges Perec, were exponents of constrained writing methods, e.g., Lipogram: a letter (commonly e or o) is outlawed; Anglish, favouring Anglo-Saxon words over Greek and Roman/Latin words. Or you can use length constraints, e.g., Six-Word Memoirs, Drabble: 100 words, Twiction: microfiction where a story or poem is exactly 140 characters long.


Conflate your word with another word. For example, Lewis Carroll’s ‘frumious’ is a conflation of ‘fuming’ and ‘furious’.


Develop your word into a series of portmanteau words. A portmanteau word is a word packed, like a suitcase, with more than one meaning. Some contemporary examples: bionics, brunch, ecocide, emoticon, facsicle, guestimate, humungous, labradoodle, mocumentary, prequel, serendiculous.

field recordings, the language of others

Make field recordings that bear echoes of rocks, water, metals. Foreground the acoustics of different languages. (suggested by Mirko Nikolic)

archaeology of words

What words can you collect from a particular site? (suggested by Hanna Kaljo)

embodied writing

Use parts of your body as writing instruments: foot, elbow, mouth, etc. (Suggested by Niran Baibulat.)

Devil’s dictionary

Egotist (n.) A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Lawyer (n.) One skilled in circumvention of the law.
(Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary)
Invent your own dictionary.


The Ecology of Words Workshop, devised by Tracey Warr, took place at Gallery Augusta, Suomenlinna Island on 8 & 9 July 2017. Thanks to the participants: Annliina Ala-Ruona, Niran Baibulat, Suvi Baloch, Olivia Berkowicz, Owen Duffy, Taru Elfving, Jaana Eskola, Saara Hannula, Hanna Ijas, Hanna Kaljo, Amalia Kasekove, Eeva-Leena Kuusisto, Salla Lahtinen, Tuomas Laitinen, Mirko Nikolic, Jenni Nurmenniemi, Niina Oisalo, Jussi Parikka, Rikka Pelo, Antti Salminen, Niko Tii Nurmi Sipilainen, Hsin-lin Su.