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Describing Described Media

by Anne Walaszek

An arm extends into a blue room, shaking salt onto a cloud-like mass. Text on the image says [CRACKLING].

Mika Rottenberg, still from Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019. Single-channel video installation (color, sound), approx. 18 min; dimensions variable.


Bridget Reilly O'Carroll and I first started working together when I joined our web team to manage the MCA website. Whenever we collaborate, I always walk away with a better understanding about myriad initiatives—both digital and interpersonal. The most recent project we worked on together, in part with other MCA staff, was the process of making the artworks in Mika Rottenberg: Easypiecesmore accessible and available. We worked to include not only descriptive captioning, but also visual description for Mika Rottenberg's video works: an entirely new initiative for us and for the museum.

Now that the exhibition is open and these formats are published on our site, I wanted to take a moment and sit down with Bridget to hear what it took to complete this new project—and her hopes for the future of accessibility at the MCA. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Anne Walaszek: First, can you talk a little bit about your role here at the MCA?

Bridget Reilly O’Carroll: I'm the Video Producer, which means I have a hand in all video made by the museum. I want to tell artists' stories through their own words. It's not me, Bridget, speaking on their behalf, it's me shaping the artists words so that their message about their work comes across as clearly as possible for our visitors.

AW: What was your impetus behind this project?

BRO: I have been working for the past year and a half to provide transcripts for all audio and video works that have dialogue in our exhibitions. We provide them physically and online. When the planning for Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces came up, I asked if there were any artworks to transcribe and the curatorial team said, “There are video works, but none have dialogue.” Which to me, presented an interesting challenge. Sure, they don't have dialogue, but the sound in her work is incredibly important to the experience and not providing any sort of guide or accessible offering was a missed opportunity.

AW: Was there a model you looked to? I know you're very connected in the museum community and have your fingertips on updates. Were you working off of inspiration at all?

BRO: There are a couple of experiments coming out of Museums and the Web and MCN, the two big museum tech conferences, but for this project, we really thought about what was reasonable within our own team to provide and what we could manage. That led us to the solution of providing these as separate videos hosted online.

AW: Right, so on each page, there are two offerings. Can you talk about the difference between the two?

BRO: It can be confusing to talk through the names of these. For the works in Easypieces, we've provided a version of the video that has descriptive captioning, which is descriptive text on screen that describes the sounds in the video.

Visual description, or audio description, is an audio track describing the visuals on screen.

AW: And who is the intended audience for each of these formats?

BRO: Descriptive captioning is for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Visual Descriptions are for people who are blind or have low vision.

An arm extends into a lime-green room. A pink, gelatinous cylinder appears to have been slapped by the hand. Text on the image says [SLAPPING AND BOUNCING].

Mika Rottenberg, still from Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019. Single-channel video installation (color, sound), approx. 18 min; dimensions variable.

AW: Do you think there are benefits to watching these formats for people who don't identify in those ways?

BRO: Having put in, manually, all of the captioning, I really found in myself, a hearing person, a deeper knowledge and appreciation for the sound crafted in these artworks. There's nuances that I hadn't picked up on—or was lazy and didn't listen to as closely as you have to when you're creating and describing the sounds. That really deepened my understanding and appreciation of these works.

AW: How big was your team on this project?

BRO: Myself and Bonnie Rosenberg, the manager of rights and images, really led the project management and contractor management. We used three outside vendors to do a lot of the work, in collaboration with me on the technical video side of putting things together and making sure they were accurate. Sheila Majumdar, our former senior editor, worked as the editorial project manager and worked with our external editor, Shauna Skalitzky, to keep her in the loop. And then of course, Bana Kattan, the former Barjeel Global Fellow and curator, and the artist. Without Mika's approval, nothing would have happened.

AW: In thinking about starting other accessible initiatives in other museums, it's really about that—about partnering with an artist—isn't it?

BRO: I think you have to have staff buy-in, and that translates to artist buy-in. And it doesn't mean all staff, and it doesn't mean all artists, but in this case in particular we had one curator who was very dedicated to making this happen and we had staff who were dedicated to seeing it through.

AW: I'm very curious about what it took to make a video and the technical aspects of it.

BRO: Sure. You're gonna wanna flip over the page.


For descriptive captioning, we worked with an outside vendor to describe the sounds. They did most of the “grunt work” of purely writing down what is happening in which parts of the video. What they handed off to me is called an SRT, or a caption file. This is what you use on web players like YouTube or Vimeo. It’s a file that when you open it outside of those players, looks like a text file with time codes built into it. You can see what time the words are programmed to show on the screen. I pulled it into an actual video and shared it with Shauna, who went through and made changes for clarity, spelling, and accuracy, both in timing and in text.

At that point, it comes back to me and I implement those changes from her. Another funny thing I learned in this process was that the files they provided were in all caps. There is not a good way to take text out of all caps in SRT files.

AW: Oh no.

BRO: That was all manually done by me.

AW: Oh, Bridget.

BRO: I had a moment where I was like, “Maybe it's fine.” I did research on caption standards— of which there's not a lot of consistency. I made the call for them to be sentence case.

Again, we’re working in an SRT file, which is important because it’s not burned into the video. It’s in that format so that when we upload it to the site, users who want to make adjustments to make the captions bigger or smaller can, and the captions can be responsive to the request. If they’re open captions, they’re stuck at whatever size I make them, like when you flatten a Word doc into a PDF.

The visual descriptions were made by an audio describer who has worked with us previously on our stage programming, Victor Cole. He went through the videos and recorded descriptions of the visuals to time. This is an audio track that is the same length as the video itself, and it provides another layer of description. As you’re listening to it, you can hear the sounds of the work and his voice. There’s no support currently for audio description on any of the major players like YouTube and Vimeo.

An elaborate, geometric structure in a green room is connected by marshmallows, some of which are on fire. Text on the image says [POTATOES TUMBLING, THUDDING, WITH MACHINERY].

Mika Rottenberg, still from Spaghetti Blockchain, 2019. Single-channel video installation (color, sound), approx. 18 min; dimensions variable.

AW: Why is making Mika's work accessible important to you?

BRO: Contemporary art is hard enough to access and to engage with when you know the subject and you have insider information about how you're supposed to interact with it. Removing barriers to understanding and experiencing works is really important. For me, video is my thing, it's my background, and even though I don't work with exhibition artworks specifically the same way a registrar does, providing this layer of access and opportunity is really important to me.

It’s just the right thing to do. It sounds cheesy, but as a reaction to my moral compass, it is within my ability to do this thing and it feels like a detriment to this museum and to my personal work if I do not.

AW: What do you hope for in the future of these kinds of projects?

BRO: I hope that we get funding, and that it enables us to experiment with other ways we can reach people in more approachable ways. This was the first time we've tried this and there are limitations to the approach we took. I'd love to experiment and have space and time to figure out how to navigate.

My ideal situation is that a visitor who might need or want any of these services, their experience coming to the museum is as equitable as possible, while they’re actually in our galleries. The idea is figuring out ways they can opt in without making themselves uncomfortable. Having to ask the desk for a transcript is a barrier. Having to leave the exhibition and find supplemental materials is a barrier. Watching a smaller version of a video on your phone is not ideal. Working toward a situation where we have exhibitions that are fully accessible is my dream.

Interested in this project? Email [email protected] if you have feedback on our Described Media for Mika Rottenberg: Easypieces.