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The Art of Captioning

New for 2022

The Art of Captioning is a research group that explores what creative captioning can bring to art while advancing vital work around access, equality and inclusivity in the sector.

When closures prompted many galleries and museums to shift programmes online, arts professionals and publics alike became newly conscious of accessibility in the digital context. Institutions experimented—many for the first time—with captioning and audio-describing their live-streamed events and screenings. Programmes that had long excluded D/deaf, disabled and blind individuals were made newly, if temporarily, accessible.

While broadcast media has long been required to satisfy minimum (and minimal) legal requirements for access provision, many artists and arts organisations are only now beginning to consider how their work might be made accessible to d/Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent publics. Alternative ways of engaging with audiovisual media are patchily available, and access is often only partially communicated and understood by those organisations providing it. Without clear, shared guidance on how to approach audiovisual works in collections, museums and galleries are often unsure about how to make historic works more accessible. At the same time, artists and activists are developing exciting, expansive new ways that treats access as an ethos and creative act in itself.

In the current landscape of increased awareness and innovative activity, there is both huge opportunity and great need for collaborative research. The Art of Captioning hopes to generate new ideas and approaches, collectively — ideas with tangible, practical implications that will positively affect the way that the production and display of art is considered and resourced.

The Art of Captioning will bring together artists, curators, researchers, activists and access workers to address the state of captioning and access awareness in British Art.

Questions under consideration include:

  • How do we build on the activist histories of experimental moving image practices to galvanise discussions about the politics of access to art?
  • How can we develop new methodologies for retroactively making moving image and sound art works more accessible through captioning and audio description?
  • What can we learn from the artists and access workers developing novel approaches to the translation of sound and image?
  • What have the past two years of programming taught curators and organisations about access and accountability?
  • How can we work together to embed caption-consciousness in commissioning, event-programming, and exhibition-making in British art?

The Art of Captioning is co-led by Hannah Wallis (Artist and Curator; Assistant Curator, Wysing Arts Centre) and Sarah Hayden (Associate Professor in Literature and Culture, University of Southampton, AHRC Innovation Fellow: Voices in the Gallery). The research builds on Wallis and Hayden’s previous programme, Caption-Conscious Ecology, at Nottingham Contemporary in 2021.

Activity in 2022

Membership of The Art of Captioning research group encompasses artists, researchers, curators, arts workers, activists and access workers. Throughout 2022 we came together to consider questions of access awareness, access accountability and access planning across contexts including commissions, exhibitions, performance, collections and live events. Our discussions began with the captioning of sound, and extended to include audio description and BSL interpretation in art. Our aim was to generate space for exchange of knowledge and approaches. A commitment to making all of our sessions maximally accessible shaped all of the decisions we made about the format, structure and management of our events and communications. This commitment, together with a consciousness of the ongoing global pandemic and the recent resurgence of in-person only events across the arts led us to organise an online-only programme of live-captioned, BSL-interpreted research events.  

 The first of these, Making Access Work, explored arts access from the perspective of those who translate, interpret and describe sound and image. Presentations were made by guest panellists, audio-describer Elaine Lillian Joseph, artist and access activist Nina Thomas and BSL-interpreter Natasha Trantom, followed by a lively conversation and q&a. By bringing together those who make access their work, we hoped to enhance understanding of access-making as labour. We spoke about how organisations can develop ways of planning and managing that facilitate this work, and, accordingly, support the development of more accessible, equitable and inclusive communities and contexts in British Art. Making Access Work was live-streamed to members and the public via Zoom and Twitch and subsequently hosted on Wysing Broadcasts, where it has drawn hundreds of new viewers and listeners.  

 Our second event was a closed workshop on caption writing and caption consultation, led by creative captioner Anita Wolska-Kaslow of Care-Fuffle Working Group, and artist-activist Nina Thomas. Participants were introduced to user-led principles of captioning artists’ moving image and experimented with strategies for devising translations of sound. This session was devised in response to members’ requests for opportunities to develop practical skills within a supportive setting. 

 Prompted by ongoing communications with members keen to consider how accessible practices could be maintained in live settings, our last meeting of 2022, Temporalities of Access, was tripartite exploration of access in relation to time, liveness, literary arts and time-based media. First, writer and artist Sandra Alland presented a special preview excerpted from their forthcoming Locked World video essay, and engaged in a discussion of queer disabled hope, Crip Lit, and the Idea of Access in the arts today. After a break, we hosted a conversation on access in time-based and live-art contexts with Tarik Elmoutawakil of Marlborough Productions and Kitty Anderson and Annie Crabtree of Lux Scotland. The day closed with an In-Conversation with artist Liza Sylvestre, focused on the impetus for, and development of, her ongoing Captioned series. This research event was live-streamed via Zoom and will shortly be made available as a suite of videos via Wysing Art Centre’s digital platform.  

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