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Artist-Made App Finds the Hidden Body Language in Words

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A body part rebus alphabet. (Courtesy of BlabberLab)

Ever wonder how certain words came into being? Why are there “ears” in wears, “hips” in ships, and “abs” in jabs? Karma, flips, climbs and shine — the English language is full of words containing body parts that seemingly have nothing to do with those arms, lips, limbs or shins.

Leaving those questions for the etymologists, Los Angeles-based poet Tom Comitta and San Francisco-based artist George Pfau instead chose to focus on the opportunity for wordplay within this found “body language.” And rebuses — puzzles where words are represented by combinations of letters and pictures — prove an ideal format for their collaborative interest in word and image.

With the help of app developer Franky Aguilar, Comitta and Pfau created BlabberLab, available Tuesday in Apple’s App Store. Its functionality should be familiar to anyone who’s used a sticker app before: toggle through two sliding bars of rebus options, then position, resize and select their colors, and publish the finished product via social media or a messaging service of your choice.

How it works.
How it works. (Courtesy of BlabberLab)

The resulting “BlabberLabs,” as the two creators call them, are visual and linguistic puzzles, strange attempts at communication with a limited vocabulary of about 400 hand-drawn symbols. The graphic elements of each design — the opportunity for surprising color choices, humorous photo overlays and nonsensical combinations — make the app as much about art as it is about language.


This combination of image and text is a direct result of Comitta and Pfau’s individual interests. “When we came into this project,” Comitta says, “I’d been studying visual poetry for like six years and George had been studying zombies.”

For Pfau, zombie-focused narratives show us a society’s fears, whether they are based on race, infection, or the separation between individual and collective identity. Zombies represent a permeability that often makes us uncomfortable; they wear their insides on their outsides. (And they eat brains.)

Example BlabberLabs. Note "climb" heading up the stairs at right.
Example BlabberLabs. Note “climb” heading up the stairs at right. (Courtesy of BlabberLab)

Similarly, BlabberLab rebuses show not just ears and eyes, but drawings of colons, veins and layers of skin. It makes sense that Comitta and Pfau met in a California College of the Arts graduate course on the grotesque.

“All this grotesque stuff is about being more comfortable with your body,” Comitta says.

"Mass army eyed napalm nosy backer warms cellar"
“Mass army eyed napalm nosy backer warms cellar” (Courtesy of BlabberLab)

This point is ironic considering the setbacks the collaborators faced when trying to get their app into Apple’s store. “We hit a little bump in the road regarding nudity when we uploaded a beta test,” Pfau wrote in an email. “They objected to our attempt to be all-inclusive body-wise in our rebus vocabulary.”

So Pfau, who drew each of the rebuses, went back to the drawing board to add various forms of underwear to the offending body parts. Now, especially compared to something like Kimoji, the Kim Kardashian-themed emoji app, BlabberLab’s rumps and butts (for words like “trump,” “frump” and “butter”) are chastely covered.

"Army scare nobody" and "chair."
“Army scare nobody” and “chair.” (Courtesy of BlabberLab)

Pfau and Comitta laugh about the changes, but the retouched BlabberLab becomes available at a time when conversations about bodies, art and censorship are in the spotlight. Last November, Stephen Colbert had some fun poking holes in CBS’ standards for displaying nudity in fine artworks on The Late Show. And in February, Illma Gore’s pastel portrait of a nude Donald Trump got the artist banned from both Facebook and eBay.

Now that BlabberLab is safely ensconced in the App Store, Pfau and Comitta are excited to see how other people use it. “It makes writing much stranger than how we usually do it. If you’re texting, you have this set keyboard provided to you by Apple or Android,” Comitta says. “I just hope people will expand their way of expressing themselves verbally.”

BlabberLab is available for free in the Apple Store. For more information visit blabberlab.com.

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