Some Notes on Access, Art, and Writing

Audio version of this blog post can be listened to here:

‘Not only is the language we access, and which accesses us, already charged with experience and time, it is also true that the stories told with that language (or, better put, embodied by it) are the stories of others.’ (Rivera Garza, 2021)

Arts websites such as AEMI online, CCA Annex and Wysing Broadcasts, their development  accelerated by the inaccessibility of in-person events and exhibitions during 2020, are spaces cohabited by art and writing. Artist moving-image and accompanying textual responses, recordings, live streams of events, talks and readings, performances, podcasts and more, are housed together where the audience or visitor can scroll and pause, hover, and enter according to their own rhythms and impulses.

Described by the organisations as ‘exhibition space,’ ‘project space’ and ‘platform’ respectively, I’m finding it challenging also, in writing this text, to avoid spatial and physical vocabulary.

The consideration of access requirements for audiences interacting with these spaces is foregrounded in a more obvious way than it appears for physical exhibitions or screenings. With access statements and documents available to read on the sites, there are details around captioning, audio description and transcripts, as well as discussion about screen readers and screen recognition software, among other points. Organisations are reallocating funding as part of existing budgets, or making separate applications for accessibility funding, while conversations around access pick up speed within the arts and humanities in general. This is partly fed by the spaces themselves, hosting discussions and workshops, such as  ‘Making Access Work’ and ‘Starting to Think About Access and the Moving Image.’

Commonplace within these spaces are captions – the text usually at the bottom of the screen – which describes speech and/or sounds within a work or recording of a past event. Reasons for captioning’s proliferation throughout online spaces in the arts may be because it’s one of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to make a work more accessible. Captions not only benefit deaf audiences, but also those who might not experience English as their first language, or who are neurodivergent.

The length in-person exhibitions are open usually varies between a few weeks or months. Some of the online spaces discussed here similarly screen works for a limited period of time. However, much of the content is available indefinitely, with recordings of talks and events or contextualising and commissioned texts remaining to orbit the work, even as it slips off the site.

 Fred Moten talks about ‘the indigeneity and exotericism of the archive’ in the monograph Zoe Leonard: Survey (2018) written by Moten and Douglas Crimp. If we consider the work on these sites as forming an archive of activity, practice and discussion, the forms feel indigenous to online space. The sites collect materials, usually sequentially (like some writing practices might also do) and place them in relation to each other. As the art writing featured on these sites may attempt to write around a film being screened, the writing will form part of the archive of the screening and its role in the moment of delivery looking outwards from the work it orbits. Caption writing, in contrast, comes from inside a work itself. The exotericism of the archive, relating to the outside where the work meets the public (as opposed to the ‘esoteric’) is activated through the combined effort of writing practices and processes of collection.

 These sites are generating new modes of discussion and artistic research by hosting work that may lend itself to digital delivery or be too formally experimental to fit neatly within standard programming. If these sites are aiming for diverse audiences, we might consider their position as archives to also ask, ‘[…]how can such work place pressure on conventional modes of data and evidence?’ (Cvetkovich, 2021)

Detailed indexes, key word tags and search bars make up part of the method of engaging with the sites from the smudgy surface of your phone screen to the laptop lined with biscuit crumbs threatening to fall under the keys as you type. The place where you meet the work doesn’t feel precious, while still being valuable. By being presented on these sites, the process of captioning works has become a minimum requirement to aid the accessibility for current and future audiences. Creating captions of filmed events after they’ve happened or consulting with artists to caption moving-image works already at a fixed point of resolution imposes limitations on the process, accessibility and story-building that can take place. A moving-image work might not have enough space within shots to describe sounds that are happening in quick succession. Discussions around best practice admit that ideally captions or other forms of access building should be integrated from the inception of a project so that it is not just an add-on at the end, ensuring enough funding to consult with disabled people, and gain feedback throughout the process in order to develop all aspects in tandem with each other. The large number of resources needed to fulfil these aims while working with artists often on low-budgets, means there is still a way to go in the conversation between organisation, artist and access. Tensions arise around ideas of standardised approaches to access when this comes into contact with the hugely varied methods and methodologies of artistic practice itself.

[Image 2 description: A screenshot from a website where four distinct zones, arranged on top of and beside each other, meet towards the top left corner, outlined in thin black borders. Inside the top two blocks there are fragments of images in monochrome and blue-black, too zoomed in to make sense of. The bottom blocks are blue and pink respectively, the left holding cut off words so only the end letters are visible, ‘ds’ and ‘d.’ The pink block says, ‘Conversation Activism Health.’]
Creative captioning is captioning via expressions of subjectivity, humour and creativity to subvert standard models of caption writing and is a manifold form that in its practice asks questionsat the level of both sentence and structure’ (Cvetkovich, 2021) about how to represent, describe, or remediate artists’ work, and people’s speech and interaction.

Writing creative captions to describe sounds and speech can be thought of in relation to modes of writing practice such as ekphrasis and translation. When creating captions collaboratively, trying to strike a balance between artistic expression, the tone of a work and accessibility allows space for poetic intervention and intuitive ways of working. Meanwhile, critical distance is essential to ensure devices such as onomatopoeia are not excluding audiences who don’t have the same aural experience. In Ann Cvetkovich’s text on Lauren Berlant, ‘Format as Infrastructure, Writing as Archival Practice’ in Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry (2021), she describes a workshop, co-developed with Berlant, inviting ekphrastic writing questioning ‘what happens if the object [you are trying to describe] refuses description, or turns away from you?’ This is a fitting articulation of some of the challenges in writing creative captions, especially with a work already completed. Yet, the movement required to overcome these challenges and deepen access to a work (in whatever multiple ways the word ‘access’ can be interpreted) may open new ideas for artists and writers alike.

 The relationship between art and writing is often discussed in terms of translation. New and experimental forms of writing with, to and as art allows the csites that we make from (to borrow Daniela Casella’s neologism, combining ‘cite’ and ‘site’) to become more speculative, with methods of citation and appropriation maybe returning ‘all writing to its plural origin.’ (Rivera Garza 2021)

 A creative turn in captioning may also echo, inhabit, and reflect multiple modes and positionalities. In her text On Access Via Versioning Sarah Hayden describes the connection between an artist’s sound work and a captioner’s writing for that work’s exhibition as being a translation that is ‘loose, quasi abstract.’ The creative processes of caption writing in this case leading to a ‘versioning’ of the original work ‘eschewing anything like explication to instead solicit interpretation and speculation.’

[Image 3 description: screenshot from a website with most of the image taken up by a black background, ‘Q and A with’ is typed in a large white font, floating near the side. On the right is a fragment of a close-up colour fuzzy photograph, old and analogue, with a retro patterned cushion or sofa in the foreground and a line of tatty looking spines in the background that might be magazines, books, or records.]
For the captioner spending time with a recording of a live event or panel discussion full of clear sentences but also half-formed thoughts, interruptions and pauses, the particular subjectivities at play between their position and the work becomes part of its translation into words. The work of captioning pays attention to dialect and researching colloquialisms as it produces a particular translation of speech from a subjective position. The captioned recording will have the potential to position language beside socio-economic background and class, among other nuances of identity, influencing what’s included and not included, for future visitors to the archive. In this way, pausing to spend time thinking about the subjectivities of captioner and speaker is vitally important, as is paying attention to ethics and authorship and embedding it all into artistic and accessible work, while trying to presuppose less about where it sits.

 I have heard criticisms where captions were discussed in relation to performative politics, like      access-related virtue signalling, especially when other methods of digital inclusivity weren’t available, such as audio description. Despite all the many limitations, fumbles, and failures, we have to hope for audiences, practitioners, and future researchers that the learning around access being done now by organisations and individuals forms substantive and realistic movement in the right direction towards best practice and inclusivity. Writing from my subjective position (as I have done throughout this text) the art and writing that engages me most, attends to a desire not to answer questions, but to ‘ask better questions.’ [1]

[1] Ways of approach, and asking better questions were topics discussed at a Quiplash workshop I attended on audio description, facilitated by Lux Scotland in May 2022. ‘Quiplash is queer crip (power) couple Amelia and Al Lander-Cavallo. They consult, run workshops, run training, and make performances.’

Cascella, D. (2021)  ‘Editorial #64 something more and something else than words – A Year of Carte Blanche & Other Chimeras – November 2021’ Map Magazine, online []

Rivera Garza, C. (2021) translated by Robin Myers, ‘Disappropriation for Beginners’ Manifold: Experimental Criticism, Issue 1 (US: 2021)

Cvetkovich, A. (2021)  ‘Format as Infrastructure: Ann Cvetkovich on Lauren Berlant,’ Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, 2021, 2(3) 

Hayden, S. On Access Via Versioning, Wysing Broadcasts []

Moten, F. (2018)  ‘Photopos: film, book, archive, music, sculpture,’ Zoe Leonard: Survey, Douglas Crimp and Fred Moten (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2018)


Lucie McLaughlin is an artist and writer from Belfast. She is a research associate at CCA Derry~Londonderry and her book, Suppose A Collapse, was released in May 2021 with JOAN, a new publishing project for interdisciplinary artists’ writing. She runs Eat The Pips, which works with artists and institutions to provide captions, consultation, and transcription.

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