A convex, minutely puckered surface could be called a vertical sea* by Aislinn Thomas, Alternative Audio Description by Anna Bowen
by Daniella Sanader
*Anna Bowen describes an abstract video—a close-up of a blue foam roller with a piece of acetate moving in front of it crinkling loudly and reflecting white and, at times, iridescent light
What else can I describe to help create a more complete picture?1
There are approximately 11 seconds of silence before her voice begins, a silence that is loud and grainy when the volume is maxed out on my laptop—punctuated with a few disembodied clicks and what I imagine to be a slow intake of the speaker’s breath. Then, that particular unfolding, wet sound of a mouth as it prepares for speech: “a convex, minutely puckered surface could be called a vertical sea,” she says. Throughout her sentence she leaves small beats after certain words— convex, surface, could be called —pauses for emphasis and an additional breath.
The title for Aislinn Thomas’s video is pulled from Guelph-based poet Anna Bowen’s first attempt to describe what she is seeing: to translate her visual field into a linguistic one. It’s a practice commonly referred to as audio or image description: when tracks of recorded speech are designed to accompany visual media—movies, TV shows, art objects—providing further information on visual details for those who are blind or have low vision. In her book More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, Georgina Kleege discusses the standardized frameworks for composing audio descriptions: to maintain as much objectivity as possible, avoiding personal interpretation, speaking in a flatly pleasant tone. As she explains, audio descriptions are texts that are typically left unauthored, compounding the assumption that they are neutral parcels of data to be accessed by those who need them: “if the describer simply chooses the correct words, an image will be transmitted directly to the blind person’s mind’s eye where she can form an independent, aesthetic judgement about it.”2 As a blind person herself, Kleege adds, “I am not sure if I have a mind’s eye, or if I do, its vision is impaired precisely to the same degree as my physical eyes.”3
Instead, Kleege wonders how audio description could be recognized as “a literary/interpretive form with infinite possibilities,”4 one that understands that any individual description is as active and mutable as access itself—there are no universal perspectives, no one-size-fits-all approaches, no neutral stances. While people who are blind or have low vision can make use of audio description, so too can those who have sensory sensitivities, those who are neurodivergent or non-visual learners, those who appreciate the guides for their attention, those who love the possibilities of language, or those who reject the compartmentalization of these very categories. When it comes to audio description, perhaps instead, as Kleege explains, there is simply conversation. A gathering of three equally relational, contingent voices—a describer, a listener, an artwork—an ongoing and active collaboration between what is seen, what is said, what is heard.
What else can I describe?
What Bowen says “could be called a vertical sea” is in fact a closeup of Thomas’s blue plastic foam roller, filmed behind a wrinkled sheet of acetate that wiggles hazily in front of the camera, producing what Bowen describes as “clouds in long white streams overhead.” Occasionally the plastic refracts in such a way that there’s a quick hint of the body holding it—flickers of a green shirt or pink-white skin—but they don’t last long. The vertical sea’s upended horizon line falls to the right of the screen, beyond which are the blurry-yet-quotidian signs of Thomas’s home: maybe it’s a coffee table, maybe a stack of books. The first in a series of short videos, vertical sea was produced by Thomas with intentionally limited means—the available objects within her apartment—as the artist learned to adapt to her own barriers of access to public space, brought on through chronic illness and disability. When the video was completed, Bowen was invited to write a poetic description to accompany it. As Thomas explains, the video component of vertical sea had been made in anticipation of this subsequent description; it moves slowly, it’s repetitious and partially abstract. In other words, vertical sea is spacious, and it invites Bowen’s language to stretch out and wander in different directions. The vocal description is not secondary to Thomas’s video—not a reactive measure or a quick attempt at compliance—but rather, the two formats are deeply entwined. They grow and adapt; it’s an ongoing conversation.
“A convex stippled surface is a landscape of white peaks and shadowed, indigo-blue puckered valleys,” Bowen describes, and the topography shifts again underneath my feet. She returns again and again to these starting points—Thomas’s blue foam roller, Thomas’s acetate sheet—and gives them language, a little bit different each time. Each description is partial, temporary, grazing gently against its subject before retreating again. Taken individually, they cannot build a complete picture—nor do they attempt it. Instead of vying for completeness, they produce something different from an accumulation of oblique angles: the acetate is at once a range of wispy-thin clouds, a slow waterfall, a transparent mask, an invisible cloak, a twitching eyelid, triangular pools of light, a crease and a wrinkle.
What else can I describe?
I watch again and listen again. “And in this movement of clear thin cloud plastic, you might catch the things your mind imagines.” I track on how often Bowen relies on conditionals, on questions— you might, if you, could be, do we —and I start to grow cozy in the space they leave behind. After all, like any form of translation, description is always already a speculative process, an exercise in making choices: it produces new gaps as it tries to fill existing ones. Description and art writing are old, reliable companions, yet I wonder why the former is routinely considered insufficient for the latter. “That text doesn’t go far enough,” I hear people say, “It only describes the artwork”—as if the work of description is fundamentally neutral, voiceless, and apolitical. As if there isn’t a long literary and poetic history of ekphrastic writing, of texts that revel in the interpretive, critical possibilities of committing visual works of art to language. Ultimately, vertical sea stands as a reminder that description is never as simple as it seems; it can open up any artwork to a sensory field beyond itself, inviting new forms of access and imaginative potential.
“We see a rich, ocean blue,” Bowen says. I’m nearing the end of Thomas’s video now, the sounds of crinkles reaching a muffled crescendo before receding in favour of another patch of dusty silence. I count myself among Bowen’s “we,” but I understand the collectivity of that statement to be increasingly malleable, complex. Of course, Thomas recognizes that this experimental approach to audio description will never fulfill everyone’s needs. There are no complete pictures here, no sweeping promises of universal access—acknowledging that such a thing was simply never possible in the first place. Instead, this “we” that sees the ocean blue is a pronoun that unfurls with as many interpretive possibilities as Bowen finds for a simple sheet of acetate. In Thomas’s work, access is exactly that: simultaneously specific, incomplete, loving, and potentially endless.
What else can I describe?
Anna Bowen is a Guelph, ON-based poet and writer. She has collaborated with visual artists on projects related to space, care labour, landscape, and access.
Daniella Sanader is a writer and reader that lives in Toronto. desanader.com
Aislinn Thomas is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice includes video, audio, performance, sculpture, installation, and text. Her recent projects explore the generative nature of disability while pushing up against conventional access measures, treating access as an art-form in itself.
The artist gratefully acknowledges the support of the Ontario Arts Council, and the generous work of consultants Ramya Amuthan and Michael Arnowitt in the creation of this piece.
ERRATUM Re: C Magazine Issue 147, pgs 56-59.
The booklet pertaining to Aislinn Thomas’s Artist Project was incorrectly inserted and bound between pages 58-59; the intended location was between pages 56-57. For this inaccuracy, we heartily apologize to: the artist; the author of the accompanying text, Daniella Sanader; and, to readers for any confusion experienced while viewing the work.