The words 'experience art through audio description' in blue hand-crafted letters on a pink background

Alt-Text as Poetry

The words 'experience art through audio description' in blue hand-crafted letters on a pink background

By Shannon Finnegan, an artist living in Brooklyn, New York

In my art practice, I think about how we, as communities, can move towards better and more nuanced approaches to access. Instead of focusing on compliance and doing the minimum, what if we approach access creatively and generously, centering disability culture? How do we make spaces and experiences that disabled people not only can access but want to access? 

I have a physical disability and often I make work that is rooted in my own access needs and desires. Recently, I’ve been working on a series titled Do you want us here or not, a line of furniture pieces designed for exhibition spaces. 

Walking and standing are hard on my body, so I am very attuned to seating options as I move through the world — I’m always looking for spots to stop and rest. I had the idea for this project in 2017 after a particularly painful and tiring museum outing. I was frustrated with the scarcity of seating and realized that making artworks that are also functional benches is one way to get more seating into galleries. 

These pieces use text and say things like, “This exhibition has asked me to stand for too long. Sit if you agree.” or “I’d rather be sitting. Sit if you agree.” The text is a way of channelling some of my frustration and playfully drawing attention to the way that the act of sitting itself is an expression of a need or desire for rest.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Bojana Coklyat on a project called Alt-Text as Poetry. We are both disabled artists and activists. I’m sighted and Bojana lives with low vision. We met in New York through mutual friends. We realized there was a lot of overlap between our interests and decided to jump into this collaborative project. 

Alt-text has existed since the 1990s, but it is often disregarded all together or understood solely through the lens of compliance. The resulting alt-text is often written in a reluctant, perfunctory style, but it has tremendous expressive potential. Our project reframes alt-text as a type of poetry and provides opportunities to talk about it and practise writing it.    

Framing alt-text as a type of poetry allows us to approach it with some of the ideas and strategies that have been developed by poets.

That said, we’re not interested in producing alt-text poetry that exists outside of making the internet more accessible. We recognize that others have used alt-text and code as inspiration and media for poetry, but for us, increasing website accessibility remains the first and most important condition of alt-text’s poetic potential.

Here are three ideas from the world of poetry that we have found to be particularly helpful when writing alt-text:

  1. Attention to Language. Simply by writing alt-text with thought and care, we shift the process. What words are we using? What are their connotations? What is the tone of our writing (the way in which we’re doing the writing)? What is the voice (who the reader hears)? How do these align with, or contrast, the tone and perspective of the image?
  2. Word Economy. People who are new to description have a tendency to over-describe images. While there are times for long and lavish descriptions, alt-text usually aims for brevity. For most images and contexts, one to two sentences will do. Poetry has a lot to teach us about paring down language to create something that is expressive, yet concise.
  3. Experimental Spirit. We have so much to learn from poetry about being more playful and exploratory in how we write alt-text. We are not interested in experimentation for experimentation’s sake — we want a kind of experimentation that moves towards better and more nuanced accessibility for alt-text users. There are lots of complex and interesting questions that come up when translating visual information into text. We need to try out different ways of doing this, learning from each other’s strategies and techniques.

Our project consists of a workbook that includes an introduction to alt-text as well as four writing exercises. It’s available for free online as a Word Doc, Google Doc, PDF, audiobook and a Spanish-language translation. We also do workshops and have started a blog that collects interesting examples of image description. 

Of course, there are lots of people who are already writing alt-text and image descriptions (and audio description) poetically. We’ve started to map the ecosystem this work exists within — other artists and thinkers who we look to and learn from. 

We look forward to a future that continues and expands this ecosystem of rich descriptive experiences!

More about Alt-Text as Poetry 

More about Shannon’s work

Image: ‘Experience Art through Audio Description’, hand-crafted blue lettering on a pink background, commissioned by VocalEyes from Shannon Finnegan.