Making closed captions for new work

Published October 2022

Seo Hye Lee, Rory Pilgrim and Nina Thomas respond to five set questions on the subject of Making closed captions for new work’. Captions provide access for d/​Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences to the dialogue and soundscape of a film or moving image artwork in the form of text on screen.


Seo Hye Lee defines herself as an artist that uses the mediums of sound, illustration and video to experiment with new forms of narrative, creating playful pieces that challenge the idea of listening. Drawing inspiration from her hearing loss experience, Seo Hye aims to show the difference between hearing and listening; regardless of your hearing skill, one can always listen in a variety of ways.

Recent exhibitions include: Brighton and Hove Museums (2022); ZÖNOTÉKA, Berlin (2019); Tate Exchange (2019) and Grundy Art Gallery (2020). Seo Hye participated in an online residency with Vital Capacities in 2021. Her film [sound of subtitles] is part of Selected 12 which is currently on tour in the UK which includes screenings at Nottingham Contemporary, The Royal College of Art, G39, Fabrica Gallery, John Hansard Gallery and CCA Glasgow.

Rory Pilgrim works in a wide range of media including songwriting, composing music, film, music video, text, drawing and live performances. Centred on emancipatory concerns, Rory aims to challenge the nature of how we come together, speak, listen and strive for social change through sharing and voicing personal experience. Strongly influenced by the origins of activist, feminist and socially engaged art, Rory works with others through a different methods of dialogue, collaboration and workshops. In an age of increasing technological interaction, Rory’s work creates connections between activism, spirituality, music and how we form community locally and globally from both beyond and behind our screens.

Recent solo shows include: Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe (2020); Between Bridges, Berlin (2019) and Ming Studios, Boise (2019). Rory has also made commissions, screenings and performances for Serpentine Galleries, London (2022); MoMA, New York (2022); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2021); Glasgow Film Festival (2020); Images Festival, Toronto (2019) and Transmediale Festival, Berlin (2019). In 2019, Pilgrim was the winner of the Prix de Rome.

Nina Thomas is an artist based in London. Much of her recent work has focused on her experience of becoming deaf and subsequently seeking to understand other deaf experiences and histories. She has exhibited at venues such as The Crypt Gallery (NW1), LUX (online) and OVADA (Oxford). She is a founding member of The Film Bunch. Within her role with The Film Bunch, she curated the online screening Deaf Experience’. She has worked on access and advisory projects at the V&A, British Ceramics Biennial, The Wallace Collection and The British Museum. She is also a trustee at Stagetext.

Seo Hye Lee: My first moving image commission (from The University of Salford’s Arts Collection) through a Vital Capacities residency was the first work I made that made me think about the infinite potential of captions. I enjoyed the process of exploring creating captions in a creative, descriptive and poetic way. The virtual residency was a great opportunity to make me think about how moving image work could be presented in an accessible manner within an online space. This process included breaking down my own film into scenes to include audio descriptions*, along with creating the version with audio description (AD) and subsequently providing the transcript for AD. The experience encouraged me to think more about how my future works could be shown in an approachable manner — particularly as a new moving image artist.

*Audio Description is a form of narration used to provide information surrounding key visual elements in a video artwork (or film, theatrical performance or television programme) as an access measure for blind and visually impaired audiences.

Rory Pilgrim: I made my first captioned work (as a filmmaker) in 2015 because multiple languages were used in the film and subtitles were needed. After this experience, I realised that subtitles made the speech in the film far more comprehensive to everyone, including those for whom English is their first language. At first I saw it as a practical necessity, but over time, since then, I have tried to caption each one of my later works. Music and songwriting are core parts of my work. Making captions for my music video album Software Garden provided a whole other important layer in which people could really take in the words of the songs and poetry. I also found it very natural, providing an almost karaoke quality to the experience of the film.

Over time, I have also learned that it is important not to make any assumptions that everyone in a group (that I might be working with to create a film) can read, write or hear. Therefore it is important to extend this into the final production of the film to make it as accessible as possible. For my last film, RAFTS for Serpentine Gallery, I worked with those who had different access needs for hearing and literacy. I made it for a group show with three other commissioned artists and it was very important that the gallery had already reserved a budget for each film to be transcribed. Therefore, with each film captioned in the exhibition, it gave an overall positive feeling for being accessible for everyone. In addition to this, an audio guide to the exhibition was made in a creative and considered way which was more accessible for those with different literacy needs while also allowing a whole other dimension to experiencing the works.

Nina Thomas: It would be Jenny Brady’s Receiver (2019), for the way it engaged with captioning as a medium, but also because of the conversations it facilitated. The programming included deaf people and thought about access. I appreciated this because I have found myself excluded from the arts in ways that I never expected I would before I became deaf. It’s not just the things you expect, like a film which isn’t captioned, it’s also talks, work opportunities and educational programmes. Deaf people are excluded from so many aspects of life and society. Access is more than a practical consideration, it’s about creating spaces where people feel welcome, heard and valued. Done well it is a long-term change; it provides people with the opportunities that perhaps others take for granted, to engage with work, learn skills and have experiences that are meaningful.

The rise in online events and screenings during the pandemic did improve access. Many opportunities suddenly became more accessible. So, at a time when so many felt isolated, I actually felt more connected and part of the world than I have since I became deaf. I just hope this level of access continues now venues are programming in-person events.

How would you encourage an artist who might be sceptical or unsure about captioning to commit to embedding accessibility within their practice?

Seo Hye Lee: I would encourage artists to consider adding captions to (or within) their work as it opens up artistic practice and capability to a much wider audience. Having embedded accessibility can create either equal or different experiences for audiences with different needs. I always struggled to understand moving image works installed in museums and galleries, as the wall text descriptions didn’t provide enough information for me. Thinking this way, not just as a deaf viewer but also as an artist, has made me open up to how my work can be interpreted by audiences. It doesn’t always have to be dry boring captions that are stuck at the bottom of a moving image! Texts can be embedded in creative ways. Captions can be creative and exciting and can ultimately add to the work and encourage greater engagement.

Rory Pilgrim: At first, captioning may seem intrusive to the image if you are not used to it. However, I feel that it is important to remember that one of the core desires of an artist is to communicate and if something is incommunicable then it is not working. In the UK we are often used to speaking a dominant global language, but if a work is to travel it is very important to be subtitled with a translation. Working with captions is no different for the comprehension of those who might have different access needs, while also allowing a heightened experience and meaning of what is spoken or being communicated by words. In the context of group exhibitions, it is often the case that the audio volume of multiple works in one gallery space can interfere with each other and captions can also help here.

My advice when using captions is to see it as a vital part of your creative process and to enjoy how it enhances your understanding or use of language within your work. For me, what to do visually can be a hard decision. Over time, I have settled on using a signature font that is accessible to be read but also helps give the feel of captions being a considered choice and part of the world/​atmosphere/​feeling’ you are trying to create with your film/​moving image work. I would strongly suggest working with a graphic designer or someone who makes captions/​credits to help you do this.

Nina Thomas: Lately, I’ve been thinking about this question differently – rather than encouraging or persuading’, for me the question now is: why wouldn’t an artist want to make their work accessible to a deaf audience? It makes little sense that any artist would knowingly choose to exclude an audience, particularly an audience that are already marginalised and excluded from so much in society. So, the question should be: why are we are only now beginning these conversations about accessibility? Particularly when you think about the history of artist’s film and the reasons artists have often chosen to work with a medium such as this.

I believe that all concerns or hesitations about captioning can be rethought, challenged and addressed if we decide that we can agree on the principle that we want a fairer, more inclusive and equitable society, one in which marginalised voices are heard and represented and in which everyone has the opportunity to engage with the arts. I think that for the artist too, access work brings new and unexpected insights, or even new ways of working that can really benefit both the artist and the work.

How might artists think about accessibility (for d/​Deaf and Hard of Hearing people) at the point of making a new work rather than adding captions afterwards?

Seo Hye Lee: Adding captions after a work has been made can be daunting as it can make you feel like you are changing your work at the last minute in a potentially unwanted direction. I think it’s definitely worth including audio describers and captioners from the beginning of a project to share your thinking processes and discuss how they can help you to enhance the experience for the audience. It is also important to make sure that you plan enough time to work with audio describers and captioners as they tend to book up fast! I have found it extremely useful to talk about my process and to share edits as I go. Learning different perspectives from accessibility experts has enabled me to experiment in a richer way.

Rory Pilgrim: As someone who works with the moving image, I have the great luxury of working with both the visual and sonic. As an artist, I am already thinking very much about the relationship between image and sound. Thinking through accessibility can add an important creative layer here, to heighten this sensibility and the way a work might be filmed or conceived. For example, creating an image which focuses on the mouth might help someone lip read while also creating a very strongly composed shot, or an image might contain pure caption. Working with those who have different access needs and having a dialogue about their experience is the best way to help guide this process to learn and shape your process in a way that might not be expected.

For thinking about the relationship between speech, captioning and image, the work The Last Silent Movie by artist Susan Hiller has been one of the most powerful works that has allowed me to think through this. I would deeply recommend reading the original exhibition guide accompanying the work when it was exhibited at Matt’s Gallery in 2008.

Nina Thomas: There are lots of interesting ways of exploring captioning work and artists such as Carolyn Lazard, Christine Sun Kim and Liza Sylvestre demonstrate this. I have also recently enjoyed some poetic examples of captioning and audio description that provide extra levels of interpretation to new or existing work.

If an artist thinks about accessibility at the point of planning the work, they can decide how it becomes part of the work. By embedding it at the start and not making it add-on element, it becomes an exciting dimension that can be thought of creatively. Because creative approaches to captioning and access work are still relatively under explored there is so much potential for what it could mean for an artist’s work.

At an early stage, I would encourage the artist to speak to a captioning consultant, who understands the potential of captioning artist’s film and how to make captions that are creative and accessible for deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Remember to include access costs in budgets when writing funding applications. Then you will have a budget to allow you to do it well and to bring in the right people.

How can artists make their work more accessible without disrupting carefully composed images by adding captions retrospectively?

Seo Hye Lee: I think that captions (especially their size and style of text) are misunderstood as disrupting images’. I believe that captions can add a much more meaningful experience to the moving image if they can help d/​Deaf audiences to understand. I have always found that a still from a moving image work with captions is more effective and eye catching than one without captions, as it can instantly deliver what is going on within that scene.

Artists can think about accessible content from the beginning by starting to have conversations with accessibility/​disability experts or even with a friend who has different access needs! It can be a wonderful collaboration to reflect on their feedback and create an unexpected outcome which makes the whole process exciting. Captions can be stylised and presented in so many different ways, whether in the style of a factory setting you see on an old school VHS or warpy playful texts floating around, it could be a new part of your work and create accessible content for audiences to see and understand.

Rory Pilgrim: In making moving image work, I feel that a vast amount of a film’s communication or story is told by the non-verbal elements within a story. This could be the repetition of a visual metaphor, a colour or a sound. Therefore if we experience a dilemma in captioning when it might interfere with an image, it’s important to ask ourselves – what is the best way to communicate or tell the story? It could be that speech or words can be compromised or we might decide that it is very important to involve the linguistic and therefore also captioning to be used.

When we watch films in a language we do not understand, we would not think twice about if it should be captioned with translated subtitles. It is therefore important to think the same with captioning. One of the hardest tasks I have personally found is the composing of images, where the image might interfere with the colour of the caption being legible. Therefore it is very important to work with the right amount of shadow, something that a designer or someone experienced can help you with.

Nina Thomas: One way might be to think what it could add to the image rather than thinking what it disrupts. Another is to think about where to place the captions and how the captions might look.

There is the option to provide closed captions rather than open captions. Open captions cannot be switched off and are part of a film, whereas closed captions can be turned on or off and allow an audience to choose. This approach makes clear that the access is an additional element and not a key part of the work. With online screenings this is a possibility, to provide closed captioning rather than open captioning. However, I would always encourage open captioning because it is the most reliable way to ensure the work is accessible. It also places the responsibility of activating the captions on those sharing the work, rather than on the person who needs the captions.

The best advice I can give is to work with an experienced caption consultant, someone who specialises in working with artist’s film. They can work with the artist to think how the captions could complement the work and still provide access to a deaf audience.

What might some unexpected benefits be for artists who aren’t familiar with the experience/​process?

Seo Hye Lee: My experience of including captions and audio description has encouraged me to think about presenting my work in new ways in terms of narrativity and accessibility and in particular how it can create different experiences for viewers. It has made me think about how my work can be understood by people with different needs. Creating another layer of narrative within my moving image work has made it a much more reflective process. With captioning there can be so much added potential with words and texts which work really well with moving image. It’s not just about adding words but about how these words deliver meanings to help audiences’ understanding.

Rory Pilgrim: An opportunity to rethink the relationship between speech, language, sound and the visual to arrive at something you might not expect. In total, I believe that captioning improves the experience for everyone, whatever their access needs.

Nina Thomas: Becoming deaf and a caption user has given me a different way of thinking about and seeing the world. It’s rare we get opportunities to see things from a new and different perspective. Making work accessible is an opportunity to think about a work differently and how sound is received. We all have different levels of hearing and over the course of our lives this can change. In finding another medium like captioning, in which to explore sound, brings new ways of thinking about both sound and artist’s film. Creative approaches to captioning are still relatively under explored and there is still so much potential to think what it can be.

At The Film Bunch, we worked with student filmmakers and asked them to watch a film available on a streaming platform and provide feedback about the captions. They were encouraged to watch it from different perspectives (with sound, without sound and with and without the captions). I learnt more about that film from their feedback and what they felt were missing from the captions than I did by watching the film alone. This experience demonstrated how conversations about captioning can offer new and unexpected insights that we all might benefit from.

Audio Version

Making closed captions for new work | Seo Hye Lee, Rory Pilgrim and Nina Thomas