I arrived at Tate Liverpool in 2013 with the esoteric job title of Content Editor. What this means is that, when words are produced by and for Tate Liverpool, I will almost certainly be involved in the reading, writing or editing of them at some stage. From the internal exhibition rationales to external press releases, a multitude of copy crosses my desk. A fundamental part of the role, and perhaps the most crucial, is gallery interpretation.
This is the method by which we talk to visitors about an exhibition via the wall texts and the accompanying captions for works. Whether you read them or not, our aim is that they should provide context and depth for exhibitions and their constituent works.
Previously I had approached art from the perspective of an interested and engaged viewer. I read gallery text more often than not, and came to the role having co-founded and edited an online arts magazine The Double Negative. Without an art history background there were times – less so now – when I’d need to resort to google to define a particular art-historical term. This experience helped inform the approach to interpretation that I wanted to instil at Tate Liverpool. I wanted us to provide context and depth of understanding through clear and meaningful language, without diluting the messages that often accompany the modern and contemporary art that forms our exhibitions. I wouldn’t use the word evangelical but I was, and remain, serious about providing a bridge between curatorial intent and the viewer’s experience and enjoyment.
It’s important, because there’s nothing worse than feeling like you don’t belong. Art galleries can be chilly and aloof at the best of times – institutional spaces where jargon serves to promote not only a deficit in understanding but also alienation. I’m not alone in having had, at some point or another, a nagging sense that “actually, this isn’t for me”.
In the past few years discontent about the kind of language used to talk about artists, artwork and attendant artistic movements has grown from a murmur of discontent to a definite rumble. This rumble spiked with the publishing of David Levine and Alix Rule’s 2012 essay, “International Art English: On the rise – and the space – of the art-world press release” (and also with the publication of The Interpretation Matters Handbook by Dany Louise in 2015). The authors set out to dissect the language used to discuss exhibitions. Their essay is introduced with a quote:
“Of this English upper-middle class speech we may note (a) that it is not localised in any one place, (b) that though the people who use this speech are not all acquainted with one another, they can easily recognise each other’s status by this index alone, (c) that this elite speech form tends to be imitated by those who are not of the elite, so that other dialect forms are gradually eliminated, (d) that the elite, recognising this imitation, is constantly creating new linguistic elaborations to mark itself off from the common herd.”
For me, this quote is cautionary. Although there are certainly exceptions, I don’t believe in general that IAE – or artspeak – is a tool wielded with malicious intent to exclude and alienate people unschooled in its nuances.
The fact is, however, that its use regularly results in exactly that consequence. And therein lies a peculiarity faced by even the most vigilant of those working in the arts, writers of interpretation included. As the essay’s co-author Rule pointed out when speaking to the Guardian newspaper in 2013, “In one draft of our IAE piece, I had quoted my own use of IAE. It becomes extremely hard not to speak in the language in which you are being spoken to.” Just reading their essay again reminds me that both are well versed in, indeed often slip into using IAE.
Which brings me back to my role as Content Editor. I work closely with the exhibitions team, and as such my knowledge and understanding of art has increased significantly. With it my capacity to converse in artspeak has increased, which leaves me prone to falling into the same trap. Approaching two years in the role, my rule of thumb is that, if I’m unsure about whether I’m veering too closely into unnecessarily difficult or convoluted language, it probably means I already have. At that point I try to remember my former self, covering art shows, and wonder whether or not I would have had to google this or that term.
Conversely it’s just as important to guard against dumbing down and the spoon-feeding of information. It’s critical that audiences be able to use interpretation to form an opinion, as opposed to accepting any authorial voice without question. It’s a fine line to tread – audience feedback regularly reflects quite different points of view regarding the success, or otherwise, of an exhibition’s interpretation.
Meanwhile, the discussion around what constitutes good interpretation rages on, with some arguing for more, some for much (much!) less. It is always a fascinating conversation to be party to. The important thing is that we listen to the debate, are actively part of it and remember that, in the end, we are writing for our public rather than simply for ourselves.
Mike Pinnington is co-founder and former editor of The Double Negative and is currently the Content Editor at Tate Liverpool.
Good news! Following last year’s period of planning and development, it’s a tremendous pleasure to announce that Interpretation Matters has been awarded project funding from Arts Council England!
This means that over the next two years, we can further develop and animate this website, work more closely with galleries and their audiences, and continue to facilitate discussion and debate about written interpretation produced by galleries.
In the summer months, you should see a presence for Interpretation Matters in many galleries across the country and on many more websites, as we reach out to gallery visitors and ask them to feedback on their textual experiences in the country’s galleries. This site will provide a neutral platform for that feedback and discussion to take place between galleries and their visitors. Do you have something to say about your gallery experience? Comment on any page on this site, or email email@example.com
With the help of artist Alistair Gentry, I will be working with project partners the De La Warr Pavilion and the Bluecoat to run a series of workshops with staff and visitors looking in detail at how their written interpretation is produced and received. There will also be an interactive text-exhibition at the Bluecoat, to further stimulate discussion with their visitors.
Around autumn, watch out for The Interpretation Matters Handbook, which will be published by Black Dog Publishing. Aimed at a general interested-in-art audience, it will be packed with contributions from a very interesting range of artists, curators, academics and, er, me. It will include audience voxpops, so if you are a gallery keen to facilitate this, or a gallery visitor and fancy getting your quote and picture in the book, please do contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you work at a gallery and want to get involved? There are two ways to do this:
First, if you are interested in gathering honest and unselfconscious feedback from your visitors, please do contact me for a display poster, and the Interpretation Matters Call to Action for your website.
Second, if you want to review your own process of producing written interpretation, Alistair and I have developed a workshop programme that facilitates this in an effective and painfree way!
We’re also looking for destination marketing and local authority websites who would like to upload the Interpretation Matters Call to Action on their visual arts page.
Finally, we are always looking for more resources, whether in the form of guides, discussion of models, personal or organisational experience, or simply an interest and informed knowledge in this area. Again, if you would like to contribute, don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com
I hope to hear from a lot of you over the coming weeks and months, and I thank you for your continued support and interest.
Interpretation Matters is all about the written material found in galleries - the text panels on the walls, providing context for the work on show, and the printed booklets that describe the works or overall programme. Usually "under-the-radar", the aim of this site is to highlight this important area of gallery practice.
Interpretation Matters is conceived and directed by arts writer Dany Louise.>