Above: Video documentation of Epic Tales, commissioned by CCA Glasgow in 2003 with a text by curator Francis McKee
EpicTales is a php based online engine translating and substituting Modern English words with Old English words using a 2500 entries vocabulary taken from the “Beowulf” manuscript. Users are invited to submit a URL. The displayed page contains the same layout of the original one but with changed texts, a new font called “beowulf” derived from the original manuscript and also with all the images saved in gray scale tones. “fight for the standards” (the sentence on the “submit” button) is a title of a “war machine and/or tactics” drawing by Leonardo.
Carlo Zanni’s EpicTales offers us a prism through which we can view our own society and its’ militaristic tendencies. Using a php based online engine, EpicTales translates and substitutes English words with Old English words drawn from the Beowulf manuscript. When a user types in a url (www.cnn.com <http://www.cnn.com> for instance) the page is displayed in a disconcerting combination of modern English and the Anglo-Saxon of an ancient warrior culture.
The work recognizes the ephemerality and ghostliness of the webpage and employs it to expose the old mankilling currents that run beneath the gloss of contemporary language. This is most striking when Zanni’s engine is used to scan news sites and reportage of current events. The cosmetic sheen of political spin doctors and compliant journalists is stripped back, baring the raw violence of war that is so carefully packaged for consumers.
At the same this process makes us aware of the gap between the terrible banality of war today and the way in which we glamourise the act with hindsight. Beowulf raises the act of a warrior to ‘epic’ status, granting authority and dignity to a culture that lives by the sword – a high culture propaganda vehicle for a ruthless ideology.
Zanni’s choice of poetic vocabulary has other consequences. The Beowulf poet often confers a dream quality on his narrative, rendering it a hallucinatory internal experience for his audience. Making strange the world around us, we gain a new perspective on our language and culture.
Recently the Irish poet Seamus Heaney prefaced his translation of Beowulf by pointing out that there is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world that gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life that are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called ‘moralizing’
This honesty that Heaney describes brings us back to EpicTales and its’ logo based on a drawing by Leonardo entitled ‘fight for the standards’. It may be likely that Leonardo was suggesting soldiers should rally to their flags and regimental standards. It is tempting though to misread the title as a call to defend other standards in society – a realistic awareness of the implications of military power, a clear appraisal of the glamourisation of past wars and recognition of the value of plain speaking.