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Accent Elimination

An Exhibition by Nina Katchadourian
March 16 - April 29, 2016

About the Exhibit

Nina Katchadourian’s work Accent Elimination, the last installation in the Institute’s Year of Conversions, meanders and parses through our notions of identity. Katchadourian considers the ongoing quandary of where we really come from, who we are, trying to isolate our sense of ourselves in counterpoint with the way people define or judge us based upon their assumptions. It is, of course, the unique combination of things that offers our most comprehensive and authentic self-reflection, not one thing or another, and this amalgamation is to some degree indecipherable.

Although they have lived in the United States for over 45 years, Katchadourian’s foreign-born parents both have distinctive but hard-to-place accents that the artist has never been able to imitate correctly. Inspired by posters around New York advertising courses in “accent elimination,” Katchadourian decided to hire a professional who could teach her to speak in each of her parents’ accents and teach them to speak with a so-called “standard American accent.” Katchadourian and her parents took intensive lessons with accent coach Sam Chwat at his office every other day for several weeks, and also practiced in the artist’s studio between lessons. They worked with two scripts: one written by her mother and the other by her father, both modeled on the typical conversation that each of them has when talking with a stranger who notices an accent and is curious about its origins.

Katchadourian plays the part of the stranger. The dialogues are first performed in everyone’s natural accents, then at the end of the piece, after much practice and struggle, they attempt to perform the same scripts—in the best version they can muster—of their new accents.

In light of recent and all-too-familiar seismic political shifts consumed with “otherness,” and building walls rather than bringing them down, Accent Elimination feels especially prescient. It reminds us there are so many layers that comprise our cultural identities, stacked up like markers, artifacts of our points of origin as well as our extraordinary journeys. It is an ongoing and painstaking process as to what we save and what we lose along the way by choice, necessity, or circumstance. And in all of this, perhaps we discover ourselves on common ground.

Accent Elimination was included at the 2015 Venice Biennale in the Armenian pavilion, which won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Nina Katchadourian is represented by Catharine Clark Gallery.

Nina Katchadourian’s University of Michigan visit is the result of a collaboration between the Institute for the Humanities and the Armenian Studies Program.