Melissa: You’ve described yourself as a compulsive collaborator. I see that. Tell me more…

Marisa: Well, creating a tool for a specific constituency demands working with them closely to ensure it meets their needs. And I see the process of making art as a way to share a conversation with others. What comes to mind is the philosopher Michel Serres who describes participation — and subjectivity — as a game of ball passed between players. In The Parasite, he writes, “The ‘we’ is less a set of ‘I’s than a set of the sets of its transmissions. It appears brutally in drunkenness and ecstasy, both annihilations of the principle of individuation. . .The speed accelerates him and causes him to exist. Participation is just that and has nothing to do with sharing, at least when it is thought of as a division of parts. Participation is the passing of the ‘I’ by passing.” [2]

Melissa: So creation as dialogue.

Marisa: Right — creation as dialogue. And dialogue as documentary.

Melissa: Like the Socratic and Platonic dialogues.

Marisa: Or Gregory Bateson’s Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind in which philosophical tenets are expounded upon through dialogues between himself and his young daughter, Mary Catherine Bates. She’s written about how the daughter became a fictionalized version of herself the real person, and indeed, what a clever literary device. Because not only can she ask basic questions like “What’s a muddle?” but she can also restate things in different words to further clarify or reinforce what was stated before. [3] And as the reader, you’re drawn into that dialogue because of its narrative hook and the agonistic elements that pull you along.

What I also like about dialogue is that different positions and voices preserved instead of being assimilated into a single unitary perspective. Tullio Maranhao writes that, “Dialogical knowledge is a game of instances of understanding conditioned not by the logic of the categories of knowledge, but by shifts along a spiral line traced through the subject speakers. Knowledge thus produced is shrouded in skepticism and emphasizes process over essence.”[4] In other words, by situating knowledge within speakers, we understand knowledge as something that’s mutable and conditional, never universal. Dialogue allows for more difference.

Melissa: Right. I was reading some of the other things you’ve written and see that you’ve written them as a bunch of different voices. As examples, a pair of pesky footnotes that interrupt and take over the main academic narrator; “Black” and “Blue” whom you write are the colors of a good bruise and are two characters that are trying to have a duke it out; yourself characterized as an ecstatic Victorian pervert; etc. Ah, ahem… [pauses, lowers voice] Marisa, what’s going on here?


Marisa: Well this kind of dialogue — or “macaronic language” (after maccarona, a kind of pasta eaten by peasants in the Roman Empire) — allows the conversation presents the  to be multi-tongued, with characters embodying types and preserving local flavors, idioms, etc.

Melissa: [A bit testy]. Hah! And what kind of type am I for you, here, Marisa?

Marisa: No, no! You’re not a type. I mean, I wanted to have this conversation with you in particular because you ask questions that I wouldn’t normally ask, and I think that’s a good thing. You give good push back.

Melissa: Well, you certainly say some things that… [trails off. Then takes in a breath, sits up straight slowly, then continues, smiling.] Where were we?

Marisa: [relieved a bit, back pedaling a bit to save face.] We were talking about dialogue… how dialogic communication introduces parody and self-reflexive humor. Macaronic parody and literature, according to Mikhail Bakhtin in The Dialogic Imagination, develops during a time when Latin was being canonized. What simulaneously arises are poems and literature in which snippets of Latin text are accompanied by French colloquialisms — so essentially preserving the forms of each [6]. I am often offsetting academic written forms or the ‘official’ language of policies or laws with everyday conversations that double back on each other, allowing for parody and position.

Melissa: [pauses again]. Okay. I see. So I’m being mocked —

Marisa: [Trying now to see whether if she assumes a tone of slight annoyance will stop Melissa from feeling offended.] No, no, no… [now in an assertive voice, emphatic, trying to be positive] Well listen. This has been a really wonderful conversation and I want to thank you so much for taking so much time out of your busy day to make it down here.

Melissa: [Now cheered up and mollified] No, Marisa, thank you. This has been great and I look forward to our next chat.


[2] Serres, Michel. Parasite.

[3] Bateson, Gregory. Steps Towards An Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1972.

[4] Mecke, Jochen. “Dialogue in Narration (The Narrative Principle),” in In The Interpretation of Dialogue. Edited by Tullio Maranhao. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 196-7.

[5] Maranhao, Tullio. “Introduction.” The Interpretation of Dialogue. Edited by Tullio Maranhao. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 1.

[6] Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. pp. 77-83.

About the author

Of Chinese and Ecuadorian descent, Marisa Jahn is an artist, writer, and activist. Jahn is the Executive Director of REV-, a New York based team of artists, journalists, technologists, low-wage workers, immigrants, and teens whose public art and creative campaigns accelerate social change. A former graduate and Visiting Scientist at MIT, her work has been presented at venues such as The White House, Studio Museum of Harlem, Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center; received grants and awards such as Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund, Rockefeller Cultural Innovation Fund; and received reviews in media such as ArtForum, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, and more.