The Activating Captions magazine features texts by art writers, scholars, and poets that reflect on captioning from a range of personal perspectives and experiences. Read more.
Alison O’Daniel on captioning strategies to honour the Deaf and Hard of Hearing experience and reimagine the aural world
Sound is the main character of Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves, a slowly unfolding feature-length film that has been produced and presented in fragments since 2013. It begins with tuba robberies from Los Angeles schools, and intertwines stories where musicians and concerts are recurring figures. These stories directly reference Deaf and Hard of Hearing people’s experiences with sound, which include hypersensitivity toward social norms, variations around volume, heightening of other senses, invention of languages, delays in comprehension, frustration, disorientation, humor, and misinterpretation. In this interview run for the exhibition Activating Captions at ARGOS in Brussels, curator Grégory Castéra and artist Alison O’Daniel discuss captioning strategies to honor the Deaf and Hard of Hearing experience and reimagine the aural world.
Grégory Castéra: Captions are as instrumental as sound and image in your film. For example, you use them in ways that defy traditional conceptions of 'accessibility'. They don't transcribe all sounds and conversations, yet they can tell other parallel stories to those told through image and sound. How did you develop this practice?
Alison O’Daniel: I’m endlessly moved by the value of my personal experiences with sound, as well as stories and anecdotes I learn about from other Deaf and Hard of Hearing friends. I struggle with this internal debate about what captions often do and what I feel they can do. Many times, I feel captions are intended to ‘raise’ a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person’s understanding of sound ‘up to’ a hearing person’s experience and that feels incredibly limiting to me precisely because I don’t know many hearing people who think about sound in as profound and imaginative ways as Deaf and Hard of Hearing people must.
In The Tuba Thieves, my relationship with captioning the film began after my own failed attempts to figure out how to bypass captions through visually showing the source of a sound. In the first film I made, The Plants are Protected, which is included in this ARGOS exhibition, I sent an early draft to Christine Sun Kim who made the musical score. She was pretty unenthusiastic :) about it and I realized my experiment wasn’t working. At the same `time, I thought I needed a separate vocal track of her score, which combines field recordings and her voice. Christine didn’t have a separate track, so I thought she might need to re-record the vocals. (Now this seems like such an obvious outlandish and offensive track of thinking, but I was determined). So, I listened to her vocals, recreated them and wrote out what was happening in my throat. As I read the descriptions I had written, it opened the floodgates for me. The detail was so pleasurable to read and the process of writing them made me access sounds I was making through touch, sound and language, since I was describing tongue placement and vibrations. The description of sound existed both in and outside of the ears, and this felt to me like a world opening up. It was empowering because I saw a way that I could create what I need, and the space of captioning started to feel like a third narrative space within my films.
GC: You said that not having captions for certain sounds or for certain sequences in sign language can “leave space for imagination”. This important statement critically reflects on art institutions’ politics of accessibility that often confuse the need to contextualize a work and the impossible promise of a “total” experience. How does the role of captions in your films reflect on your own position in the hearing spectrum and your relationship to Deaf culture?
AOD: I grew up fully immersed in hearing culture, reliant on lip-reading, hearing aids, and self-advocating. It was a deeply painful and isolating experience, even though I ‘did so well’ according to others. I struggled with the ‘not Deaf enough’ mentality. I still struggle with this when I need accommodations that I know will be costly or inconvenient. In my late 20’s I sought out the Deaf community and have been on a long, beautiful journey into the spectrum of Deaf and Hard of Hearing experiences. Included in that experience is obviously a lack of access that we all fight against. But it’s so much more than just not having a single experience in a specific place. The built world prioritizes non-disabled bodies and interventions into that normalcy are intended toward a form of equity. But inevitably, what gets created intentionally or not, are new spaces in between. Equity is crucial, AND there is also a privacy and intimacy in our individual experiences that have a flavour and texture that I refuse to reject. What it feels like in the moment to not know what is happening can be infuriating or sad, and I didn’t choose it, but it’s mine. When I started working on The Tuba Thieves, I made a basic list of what it feels like to be inside of my experience. Sometimes it’s funny, psychedelic, confusing, isolating, etc. I decided all of these experiences needed to be allowed into my work for me to find some inner peace, and also because they exist. I didn’t want to reject them. Somehow, I needed to reflect, honour, and acknowledge the value and potential within these experiences. So, I chose to make segments inaccessible: to ask a hearing audience to sit in that, not intentionally as an empathy building tool, but rather because it’s one of the experiences/materials I know intimately. On the flipside, I also ask Deaf and Hard of Hearing people to sit in it, but this feels more obviously tenuous because nothing about inaccessibility is taken for granted, and it can recreate the daily violence. I’ve wrestled with that. I can hear and must acknowledge the privilege I therefore have. On one level, I hope that including moments that are inaccessible to both audiences at different times, encourages consideration of not just the other person’s experience, which honestly feels a little basic to me, but rather the simplicity that this texture that exists in our lives has the potential to hold entire languages of observation and thoughtfulness, a way of knowing that’s shaped by waiting and wondering and cultural minimizing. I would love to chip away at the power that non-disabled people have over access to information. This doesn’t forgive a lack of access in the rest of life. This isn’t a contradiction to me, and I hope it isn’t to others.
GC: Captions reduce action to text. In addition to giving the illusion that people talk like in a book, they don’t transcribe the form of the voice and the nonverbal conducts, which makes it more complicated to understand the nuances of intentions and emotions. In linguistics, this problem was addressed in Conversational Analysis, and I believe this is one of the reasons why emoji became so popular in digital culture. Are you interested in experimenting with forms of captioning that would preserve nonverbal dimensions of interactions?
AOD: At a certain point, I thought I might be interested in playing with non-linguistic captions, but when I tried it felt really forced. As I learn more American Sign Language (ASL), I realize ASL’s spatial and visual complexity and thoroughness satisfies every non-verbal dimension of interaction that I crave, and in ways that consistently expand my thinking and awareness of sound and communication. Captions are a tool that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people (and Generation Z apparently--shoutout to our future) utilize and I’m endlessly fascinated by how rich and limited written descriptions are. While I’m seeing lots of experimentation happening now with captioning, I’m still really invested in its potential and want to keep wrestling with it for a bit. Or at least through the end of The Tuba Thieves, which I finally can see on the horizon.
Grégory Castéra presented Alison O’Daniel’s work in the exhibition Infinite Ear at Bergen Assembly (2016), Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow (2018) and CentroCentro in Madrid (2019).
Alison O’Daniel is a visual artist and filmmaker. Read her full bio here.
Grégory Castéra is a curator, educator, and editor working in the field of contemporary art; co-founder (along with Sandra Terdjman, 2013—) and director of Council, Paris; guest professor of collective practices at The Royal Institute of Arts, Stockholm; co-editor of The Against Nature Journal (along with Aimar Arriola and Giulia Tognon, 2020—).