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.

Selected article:

Emily Watlington

Caption Culture

The last time I took stock of the work that d/Deaf and disabled artists are doing to interrogate captions using video was for my 2018 Mousse essay “Critical Creative Corrective Cacophonous Comical: Closed Captions.” I was (and remain) interested in art as a tool for, first, pointing out the effects of the all-too-common lack of captions, often by putting viewers in the position of d/Deaf audience members who are missing information or left out of the joke. Second, for critiquing their insufficiency—often with a dose of humour—pointing out the absurdity that occurs when trying to translate sounds into words, the errors that arrive from automation, or lamenting the fact that videos usually privilege hearing and sighted people. And third, for gesturing toward or prototyping a form of video that can be accessed in numerous, flexible ways.

Things have changed in 2018, and yet in many ways, they have not. Even more artists have joined the call for more accessible media: I’m particularly excited about Alex Dolores Salerno’s video El Dios Acostado (2020), a video that isn’t only about access in the form of captions, but also in the form of subtitles (while the former translates all sounds, the latter focus on spoken dialogue, and often translating from one language to another). In 2020, Netflix launched a series, Deaf U, which is primarily in American Sign Language (ASL): here, the audience members who don’t know ASL are the ones who rely on captions. Parasite (2019) won an Oscar for best picture: the first movie not in English to do so, meaning the Academy members had to rely on subtitles. And on TikTok, I’m told that captioned videos are more or less the norm—unlike on Instagram and other platforms. It’s becoming increasingly clear that now, we are all content producers responsible for captioning and describing the things we share on social media.

Despite this encouraging shift and the art world’s growing celebration of disability culture, I’m not convinced this has translated to increased accessibility in the arts in the way that it should. I’ve witnessed, among other perplexing occurrences, a caption-less video program titled after a work about captions by a disabled artist, as well as numerous essays that treat disability as if it’s some theoretical quandary, rather than a lived and politicized reality. Though artists have been at the forefront in imagining a future accessible media, this is certainly no instance of the avant-garde trickling into the mainstream: when it comes to access, art is lagging far behind mainstream media. Carolyn Lazard’s A Recipe for Disaster (2018) makes this clear: they appropriate an episode of Julia Child’s WGBH television program “The French Chef,” the first television program to have open captions, which cannot be turned on and off. I struggle to understand how the art world can celebrate disability culture without heeding disabled artists’ calls for more access. So here we are, asking once again.

Emily Watlington is a writer, curator, and assistant editor at Art in America. She writes on topics including art, design, disability justice, and feminism. In 2018, she received the Vera List Writing Prize in the Visual Arts, and in 2020, and in 2020, the Theorist Award from C/O Berlin.

Note de traduction : nous avons traduit le mot anglais « d/Deaf » originalement utilisé dans le texte en « s/Sourds ». En anglais « petit D sourd » désigne les personnes qui sont médicalement sourdes, mais qui ne précisent pas nécessairement qu’elles s’identifient avec la communauté sourde. Le mot « grand D sourd » a une connotation plus activiste et désigne les personnes sourdes qui se reconnaissent dans la culture sourde. Voir par exemple: