Alexandra Le Faou

A Linguistic Alchemist in the Laboratory of Meaning

Your Brain is Your Brain · Big Ideas


Adib Fricke is a linguist alchemist in the laboratory of meaning. When I first got to know his work almost twenty years ago, I encountered words, so-called protonyms, such as MIPSEL, QUIX, FLOGO, or—my favorite—SMORP. Fricke invented them under the umbrella of The Word Company, which he founded in 1994, and offered them for sale complete with detailed business conditions. Numerous projects to do with word and text have been undertaken, published, and exhibited since then. Projects with titles such as Words to Go II, ONTOM, QUOBO, or Marmelade aus Mexiko, an installation of other people’s requests on search engines.

As early as 1990 Fricke developed Leonardo da Vinci’s Smile, a random generator that produces sentences on visual art, and he was already using the new technologies in order to explore new formats and thus also new avenues in the creative process. On computer monitors in exhibitions, fantastical real-time combinations were generated, such as “I was fired because I think art is basically pointless,” “My research has shown that Joseph Beuys wasn’t so good after all,” or “Is it true that Marcel Duchamp bit his fingernails?”

With the Bedeutungslabor, Fricke has entered the complex area of neuroscience. Founded to accompany the project Your Brain is Your Brain (2013), this “laboratory of meaning” extends the artist’s field of experimentation and creates a platform for his involvement with questions about the functioning of the human brain.


The Bedeutungslabor as an extension of the field of experimentation

Adib Fricke has established this platform as a laboratory, not as a studio. He firmly distances himself from the models of the artistic atelier that we usually associate with the place where art is created—be it the Renaissance studio with the master and his disciples or Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York; be it Marcel Broodthaers’ atelier as decorum or Francis Bacon’s chaotic cave of inspiration.

Nothing of the kind is to be found on a visit to Fricke’s studio or lab in Berlin. Instead, there is a desk, a computer, lots of dictionaries, scientific studies, odd how-to manuals on creativity—and the artist himself. The workshop is virtual, sited in the brain of the artist. The raw materials are language and the experiments on how language creates and conveys meaning.

In his Bedeutungslabor, Fricke handles language and observes how meaning is constituted. The linguistic alchemist cooks, stirs, mixes, surprises himself, discards, reduces, fragments, extracts. And condenses his findings for the public: a visible, comprehensible result that articulates the research process in reduced form. With the Bedeutungslabor, Fricke creates a space in which creativity and art can come about and be explored, a space in which the creative process becomes the subject matter of the artwork and assumes a form.

Since the late eighties, Adib Fricke has been concerned with the visualization of word and text, with their physical presence in space—in both exhibition contexts and in public space. What is fascinating about his work is its balancing act between formal strictness and playful manipulation of the forms. You can feel a true pleasure in the malleability of language and its endless configurative potential. When the artist addresses the viewer with “SHARE YOUR ENTHUSIASM” in the project Big Ideas, which is being presented for the first time at the Kunstverein Ingolstadt, he also addresses himself.


The exhibition space as thinking space

The twelve sentences in the installation Big Ideas sound like twelve commandments of creative genius. Not without irony does the artist give us an impulse and show us the way to an idea: if we follow these dictates, the genius that lies in us all will be truly awakened.

The art of Adib Fricke is meant to trigger the viewer’s thinking process directly. The exhibition space becomes a thinking space. The Bedeutungslabor’s field of experimentation is extended to the viewers, who are invited, even challenged to allow their creativity a free run.

From the meanderings of the creative spirit, Fricke extracts the quintessence of what creativity is and gives it a physical presence. Linguistically reduced to the essential—as in “COLLECT AND CONNECT,” “IMAGINE SOMETHING THAT CAN’T BE DONE,” or the wonderful “DO SOMETHING INTERESTING”—Fricke’s messages are also perceived sensorially.

In Fricke’s earlier projects, the use of color was already an effective means of underlining the material presence of language and of presenting the malleability of words with force and dynamism. In Your Brain is Your Brain, and all the more in Big Ideas, the range of colors has been considerably extended. The colors recall the first depictions of the brain, in which its areas and the functions attributed to them were marked by particular colors. The veritable yet controlled explosion of color in Big Ideas also reflects the multicolored image world of today’s brain scans.

The intensity of the selection and combination of colors, together with the changing dimensions of the sentences, which gain depth and come towards us in the light boxes, causes unavoidable, spontaneous reactions in the mind of the viewer. We are addressed, we are invited, we are seduced, we are encouraged. Our mindful enthusiasm is intended to be sparked off and shared.


A collaborative field of experimentation

Active thinking and participation—the collaborative—is an essential element of the creative processes within the Bedeutungslabor. Here Fricke ties in to the traditional work models of the scientific laboratory both then and now. The linguistic alchemist is no lonely researcher but a facilitator who reveals and questions thinking about thinking.

Your Brain is Your Brain is the second part of Fricke’s exhibition at the Kunstverein Ingolstadt. It was first shown in 2013 in Berlin, where ten headlines on the human brain were presented on large billboards around the city. In Ingolstadt, where the posters are also being shown in busses, the field of experimentation has not only been extended spatially but also virtually; the public are invited to respond to the work and share their photographs on

The alienation or appropriation of public surfaces as an exhibition space is not a new concept in the work of Adib Fricke, and not in contemporary art either. However, Fricke doesn’t carry out guerilla actions but collaborative projects that are strictly organized as a system. In Words to Go II, in 2000, he had three protonyms—MIPSEL, RITOB, and SMORP—printed singly on the backs of 200,000 regularly usable tickets of the Nuremberg linked transport system.

Fricke always provokes an irritation, a latent confrontation—through the reduced form, which is also the essence of advertising, and through the unexpected nature of the message. You unavoidably think of the billboards along the freeways in the US, where travelers are directly addressed by a higher being: “We need to talk. I will meet you at church on Sunday,” signed “God.” With Fricke we have to do with a much more subtle demiurge (derived from the ancient Greek dēmios for “public” and érgon for “work”), whose true identity lies in a fruitful collaboration between neuroscientists and the artist, and is indicated somewhat enigmatically for the anonymous viewer on the street as A demiurge who has committed himself to words, as in the 1994 motto of The Word Company: “In Words We Trust.”

The zone of experimentation has been infinitely extended by the exhibition in Ingolstadt. The collaborative element is concretely expressed in the title of the project: your brain is your brain; the universal experience could also be expressed in my brain is your brain or your brain is my brain—not as the adoption of third-party thought processes, but as the expression of a shared, connecting experience.

In the late nineteenth century, the American education reformer Daniel C. Gilman observed the transformation of the laboratory from a closed space to an open sphere of experimentation, and wrote: “The whole world is a great laboratory, in which human society is busy experimenting.”


Alexandra Le Faou lives and works in Paris.
You can find the text also in the catalogue “Big Ideas”.

© 2014 by the author, translation by Michael Turnbull