interpretation matters iconI’ve always believed that writing matters. Words are important; the ones you choose, the order you put them in, the subtle effects they have… and I seek out allies who feel the same way. That’s why I recently spoke to Dany Louise about her Arts Council funded project Interpretation Matters.

The project is all about written interpretation in art galleries; the indispensible interface between audience and artwork. Whatever live events and interactives you offer, the majority of your visitors will come into contact with labels, text panels and booklets.

As a writer Dany understands the skill involved in writing about art in a way that is accessible and enlightening for a broad audience. But it was her personal experience as an audience member that sowed the seeds of the Interpretation Matters project:

‘I’ve been visiting exhibitions for years, and I’m someone who is drawn to the writing as well as the artwork. I look at the art, then I look at the writing, then I look back at the art, then I think about it. But what I’ve noticed… not every time; there is a lot of really good writing out there… but often enough I’ve noticed myself thinking; oh, that’s not really worked for me.’

Dany was quick to point out that what she wants from written interpretation – insight into key concepts and artists’ thought processes – won’t be the same for everyone; we all have different preferences and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But then it’s even more surprising that written interpretation is virtually absent from national discourses on gallery practice.

‘I’ve also been involved in the arts funding system and arts management for 20 years, and my overwhelming impression is that written interpretation has been overlooked in favour of other interpretation techniques. And that’s partly to do with the way national policy and funding has been emphasised, but I’ve never seen a funding bid that said; ‘we want to look at how we do our written interpretation, and find out if we’re doing it the best way, and talk to our audiences about how they find it’ etc.’

So, why is it so difficult to get right? Why do we see so much ‘artspeak’ on the gallery wall?

‘I’m aware of how difficult it is when you’re immersed in the artworld to put yourself in the position of the audience member – any audience member, old, young, educated in art,  or not – it’s difficult to find ways of talking about art that doesn’t use that kind of insider language.’

As Dany enumerated all the different professional interests involved, it became apparent to me what a contested site the little interpretation label is. Traditionally it’s been the domain of curators, whose job it is to think and write about art in quite intellectual ways; problematising, juxtaposing and opening up new and unexpected insights. Education departments come from the opposite end of the spectrum, with an audience-focused, pedagogically-driven approach to writing about art. Marketing writing is different again, aiming to bring new people into the gallery. And of course there is the artist: ‘They’ve put however many years’ work into refining and defining their creative ideas, they want those ideas to be properly represented– but it can be very specialist stuff.’

‘It’s a matter of negotiating all these different perspectives to come up with a final text. And that’s really hard. I think probably a lot of teams don’t have the time and resources to really bottom it out.’

This is where Interpretation Matters comes in; the project aims to provide spaces for professionals, audiences and artists to share what works for them, to start talking about written interpretation. For example, the professional workshops Dany will be undertaking with her project partners, including the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool, and De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

‘We’ll be taking some time out to look at all of these issues. We’re going to sit in a room, we’ve got four hours, let’s talk about your current process and what you want to achieve, and figure out how best to do it.  Of course we won’t work it out in one session, but it’s about starting a process.’

And this is much wider than agreeing how to write text panels; it’s about defining ‘organisational voice’.

‘So, it’s not about putting any one professional perspective on the spot, it’s about asking; how do you want your organisation to be perceived through the written word? And how is that expressed in very specific language? What phrases do you think represent the ethos of the organisation? And what phrases work against it?’

This really struck chord with me; the apparent minutiae of the words you choose to include on a descriptive label has a direct relationship with much wider organisational mission and values. It reminds me of the organisation-wide ‘letting the story lead’ strategy at MOSI that I wrote about here. But what speaking to Dany really emphasised was the importance of seeing the issue of interpretation in the round, acknowledging the different, even opposing, viewpoints and objectives, and taking the time to reconcile them into a public interface that works for everyone.

After a year of research and development, the Interpretation Matters project will be kicking off in a big way over the next few months, with an art-text exhibition at the Bluecoat, publication of the Interpretation Matters Handbook and workshops to explore written interpretation through organisational voice and audience need.  Plus development of the website into a dynamic and collaborative discussion space for audiences, artists and professionals.  There are a number of useful resources already available there – I especially like Writing Matters; five common pitfalls to avoid when writing about art for the public!

Dany would love contributions, comments and involvement from anybody, individuals or organisations, interested in the visual arts. Interpretation matters, doesn’t it? Let’s kick-start a national conversation about those little words with big meanings.

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