Screengrab of ‘art speak’ as a search term using Google
The role of the exhibition, or gallery, text is being put under the spotlight by Dany Louise in a new website project, Interpretation Matters, and she wants arts institutions and audiences to have their say.
The project Interpretation Matters starts from recognising that gallery texts are a highly visible interface between the art and the public. They can draw visitors in, enhancing understanding and adding to the experience; they can be inconsequential; and they can alienate – and any other position in between. Yet paradoxically, interpretative text is often underneath the radar in terms of sector discourse. The aim is to kick start a national conversation about what written interpretation seeks to achieve and how it does this.
This is a random example of web-writing about a forthcoming art performance piece:
“Activating alternative readings of X’s work, Y engages the exhibition space… a participatory performance concerned with reconfiguring how one reads and writes both the text accompanying an exhibition, and the experience of work within a particular setting. The performance investigates forms of knowledge that could be regarded as tangential or superseded, to co-create a new fictional force at play…”
It’s trying to do four things. First, it appears in a place that suggests it wants to publicise the performance and entice an audience to witness it. Second, it wants to communicate the critical framework of the work, to inform, but also provide status and credibility. Third, it wants to publicise the very specific practice of the artist. Fourth, the curators who wrote it want to promote their work and advertise their aesthetic values and critical credentials.
The interesting questions, for me, are:
How many of these objectives are successfully achieved?
Are the writers aware of wanting to do all these things with this one short piece of writing?
And how effective is it as a piece of art writing and on what terms?
These are the types of questions I’m exploring with the project Interpretation Matters. I’ve used an example of a very particular type of arts writing, a style which has its own role and place – if you’re interested, you can read a longer discussion about it here. I am not advocating dumbing down or denying the considerable academic discipline that underpins much of contemporary fine art. The performance referred to is not taking place in a publicly-funded gallery, and it is very unlikely that any publicly-funded gallery would publish writing of this nature as publicity or interpretative material. However, it illustrates the ongoing unevenness in writing about art within the exhibition context, and it is in this area that Interpretation Matters operates.
The Bluecoat, Liverpool
Interpretation Matters is an Arts Council England funded project, nearing the end of its Research & Development stage. The first of four strands, the Interpretation Matters website, is live and thriving. A resource for the sector that will be developed over a two-year period, it has begun to explore the debates around written interpretation practice from a variety of perspectives – that of curator, artist, gallery educator, and the gallery-going public. Simon Martin, Head Curator at Pallant House Gallery, has written a comprehensive account of how they produce interpretation; educators Bridget McKenzie and Jessica Hoare give alternate readings of the new “tombstone text” re-hang at Tate Britain; and Alistair Gentry writes from an artist’s perspective.
But behind the scenes, other work is taking place. Both Arnolfini and the Bluecoat are partners in the workshop strand of the project. Originally conceived to consult with audiences about the language used in each venue, both organisations have independently decided they want to take a strategic, whole organisation approach. Using a two stage process, we will work together, across departments, to review the process of how interpretive text is produced. We’ll start clarifying what the “organisational voice” could be – identifying how that is specifically expressed in tone and words. Following implementation, two workshops with audiences will take place, testing out in very practical and participative ways how they respond to art texts, and what language they are comfortable and uncomfortable with.
The Arnolfini, Bristol
“We think this project is extremely relevant and timely,” says Tom Trevor, Director of Arnolfini. “It will be very helpful in terms of shifting the language and opening up our institution to enable more people to find our programme meaningful and engaging. With the funding challenges ahead, the visual sector urgently needs to evidence quality of engagement.”
The third strand is an interactive text exhibition, taking place in The Video space at the Bluecoat – offering visitors the opportunity to re-write “artspeak”, or otherwise comment and discuss. Again, the aim is to stimulate engagement – to hear, gather and understand the public perspective. “We hope that our participation will give us a valuable insight into how our visitors respond to art writing,” says Sara-Jayne Parsons, exhibitions curator at the Bluecoat. “This project is an opportunity for us to review and refresh our written interpretation policy and practice. There’s a lot for us to sink our teeth into, and it will be incredibly useful to gain empirical evidence, which can directly feed into our consideration and decisions.”
Interpretation Matters is, I think, potentially challenging for the sector, particularly in insecure times. But this research period has confirmed that it can have real value for visual arts organisations, with a model that can be both replicated and scaled up. “The website is very interesting and timely” the Arts Council’s new Director of Visual Arts, Peter Heslip, told me, “but you have to be very confident as a curator to engage with the project”. He may be right, but there isn’t any hidden agenda.
There is much else to read and explore on the site, with new content added regularly. The Hepworth Wakefield will shortly be contributing a case study detailing how they undertook a year-long review of their entire interpretation practice. Sharing this information freely is one of the reasons I set-up the site – it’s a major point of entry for engagement and I actively welcome guest blogs and other contributions.
If you have something to say or share, get in touch. The aim really is to bring audiences and institutions into a closer understanding of each other, for mutual benefit. As a writer and arts professional, I care deeply about this area of work. I want South-East organisations to be aware of the scope of the project (there is a book in the pipeline as well) but also to invite them – you – to get involved.
How can you use Interpretation Matters to your best advantage?
If you would like to discuss further, contact Dany Louise on firstname.lastname@example.org