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:

Niels Van Tomme

From Subtitles to Captions to Something More

Growing up in Belgium, an officially trilingual context, Dutch and French were the predominant languages throughout clearly demarcated yet artificially constructed linguistic regions, roughly speaking Dutch in Flanders vs. French in Wallonia. It is partially via this complicated multilingual reality that I felt intimately entangled with subtitling from an early age. As a young child growing up in Flanders, I of course depended – like anyone else in my age group – on original (or dubbed) Dutch language TV shows.

And then I was able to read fast enough to experience subtitles.

A whole new world opened up. Although Dutch language media could sometimes (though rarely) be acceptable, foreign productions in their original language shown with subtitles became my almost compulsive preference. I deemed anything domestically produced suspicious, subjecting it to much harsher scrutiny. That's how a kind of DIY cosmopolitan sensibility played out for me via TV, and I imagine numerous teens and young adults across Flanders, even within a strictly stay-at-home middle class context.

And then came cinephilia.

The discovery of film as art was another decisive moment. Some art films considered subtitling, or rather text displayed on images an intrinsic part of their filmic language, Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998) perhaps being the most obvious example. But even more casually, subtitles and text on film embodied the linguistic complexity of my national context. If you went to the cinema in Belgium, films were consistently subtitled in Dutch and French simultaneously: subtitles thus became more than conduits of necessary information, they also produced visual clutter you had to look beyond. In short: for me, audiovisual culture and subtitling became inseparable.

And then came life in the U.S.

With my decent but non-native English skills, subtitles became necessary to properly experience audiovisual culture in a homogenous English language context. Unfamiliar with the complexities, subtleties, and specificities of American speech and dialect, I eagerly switched on subtitles with every (DVD) viewing occasion. I soon discovered that in the U.S., subtitles weren't necessarily there to translate languages but to make audiovisual culture accessible to those who are excluded from it. These include Deaf and Hard of Hearing viewers or people who experience difficulties following spoken dialogue, like me. I also learned that subtitles were called captions in the U.S., which demarcates a shift from translating speech to making audiovisual media accessible by adding sound effect descriptions, such as (phone rings). I soon started to get attached to these captions, as they became an intrinsic part of a more qualitative, conscious, and complete audiovisual media experience.

And then came my collaboration with Christine.

The projects I worked on with Christine Sun Kim significantly disrupted my nostalgic relationship with subtitles and captions. While Christine and I share a fondness for captioning, from the very onset we realised our experience of this medium differed significantly, both on an experiential and contextual level. Obviously, Christine's non-hearing and my hearing were decisive factors in this. She introduced me to a group of predominantly American artists, whose progressive use of captions is importantly formed by first-hand experiences of disability. Engaged with captioning as a site for conceptual, imagined, or even poetic expression, they consider it an intrinsic part of artist film production.

Further prompted by a 2018 article on artists using captions by Emily Watlington – who participates in this project with a new text – we decided to organise Activating Captions to bring attention to these unique practices. We wanted to look at them from within a European (subtitling) context and to see how they resonate here in order to facilitate a discussion on their artistic uses. Foremost interested in curatorial practice endorsing cultural change, we hope to challenge the limits of official subtitling and captioning culture, as well as advance artist film and video towards something decisively more inclusive and creative.

Niels Van Tomme (he/him/his) is director at ARGOS in Brussels and co-curator of Activating Captions with Christine Sun Kim. He would like to thank Sonja Simonyi for her input throughout the writing process of this text.