Activating Captions – an absorbing demonstration of caption culture from Argos Arts


The starting point of the online exhibition Activating Captions was a question from one of its curators to the other: ‘Do you like captions?’ Gill Crawshaw finds that her own appreciation of captions has been enhanced by exploring this collection of artists’ films and texts.

Screenshot of the inside of a tropical greenhouse

Screenshot from Alison O’Daniel’s film The Tuba Thieves – Scene 55: The Plants Are Protected (2015).

YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS FILM SIMPLY, reads one of the captions in Alison O’Daniel’s film The Tuba Thieves – Scene 55: The Plants Are Protected (2015). With this instruction in mind, I found O’Daniels’s video of twitching and humming plants delightful and entertaining. It would be wrong, however, to say that this film is simple and shallow. The captions are poetic and enigmatic. Many of the words are broken by gaps in unexpected places, so that reading them isn’t a straightforward task.

This is one of the films presented in Activating Captions, an online platform of artists’ videos and newly commissioned texts that engage with captions and the culture around them. This culture embraces signed, written and spoken language. It recognises that words and sound are understood in many different ways. The project has been curated by the artist Christine Sun Kim, whose work considers how sound operates in society, along with Neils Van Tomme, of ARGOS centre for audiovisual arts, Brussels.

Each week a different film is on show, eight in total. But don’t worry that you’ve missed some, the final week will be a reprise of all the works. And you can generally find the films on the artists’ websites if you go exploring, which I would urge you to do, as there are some fascinating artists to discover.

The majority of the artists and contributors in Activating Captions are d/Deaf and disabled people. They are predominantly American, as is Christine Sun Kim. The UK is represented by poet Raymond Antrobus, whose prose tackles colonialism and corporate greed. Stage captions interrupt the narrative with soundless sounds: of speechless poverty, mirror refusing reflection, blood in the air.

Like the overall project, the films and texts in Activating Captions are themselves multi-layered. They delve beneath the surface of the written caption to reveal tangles of meaning – or confusion. Emily Watlington writes about using art as a tool for ‘pointing out the effects of the all-too-common lack of captions’ and for ‘critiquing their insufficiency’. She often uses humour to do this, but that doesn’t detract from the activism of her work. Using humour makes sense when highlighting the absurdity that can arise from ill-thought out or automated captions.

Aline Remael takes a playful approach with her essay, ‘WE ARE SUBTITLES, CAPTIONS. We enlighten you. Sometimes.’ Mischievous captions ‘…create meaning, recreate meaning, add meaning, substract meaning, interact with images and sounds and your gaze or your ear.’

screenshot from a film show a middle-aged white woman overlayed with yellow text

Screenshot from Carolyn Lazard’s ‘Recipe for Disaster’

Captions work particularly hard in Carolyn Lazard’s film, Recipe for Disaster (2018). Taking the first television programme, a cookery show, to use open captioning (visible to everyone) on public broadcasting in the United States, Lazard augments it by adding audio description, plus a written critique that covers most of the screen, with a further vocal track which reads out these observations. As the words, spoken and written, pile on top of each other, the captions dominate the film. At times impossible to understand, they make the point that accessibility isn’t effective when added as an afterthought.

Activating Captions is an absorbing demonstration of caption culture, an art movement that elevates captions and the needs of people who regularly use them. Informed by their own experience, these artists understand the creative possibilities that captions provide. Their work is innovative, critical and complex, showing that captions can be much more than a simple transcription of audio visual media.

Activating Captions runs until 7 June 2021, on the ARGOS website.