See For Yourself by Carmen Papalia
- Audio Description
When I stopped using my visual sense as my primary way of knowing, I would ask a friend to accompany me during gallery and museum visits so they could offer narrative descriptions of the work on display.
As a means of establishing an entry point to the visual detail, they would often describe a given work to me from their own subjective position—and would draw upon their particular interests, experiences and expertise when sharing their interpretations. I remember transcribing one such exchange—one in which my friend Aubyn provided visual description during an opening at Vancouver’s Helen Pitt gallery in 2007. The product was a block of text that came to represent the installation from which it was derived. I was struck by how it stood alone as a translation, a copy and the work itself at once.
For marking Blind I commissioned 7 participants to write visual descriptions of a significant artwork of their choice and 7 participants to make visual translations based on those descriptions. Contributors are a sample of my close friends, mentors, family members, those who I have mentored and those who I am in community with, and represent my vast network of care and support. Each artist that produced a visual translation was only given a written description to work from—the artist and title of the artwork describe was kept secret so as not to influence the translating artist’s approach. Each visual description serves as an alternate title for the artwork that it describes, and each visual translation stands alone as the titled work itself.
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), Oil on canvas, 1912.
Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), or, A group of staggering figures back to back, arms tension tangled, hip bones interlocking hip bones their movement, inseparable. Conjoined they move in a diagonally descending fashion. Angularly they float down. Their stacked bodies tightly compacted from the waist upwards, yet their legs separate and wide with potential movement and ease. Which way their faces are turned, is up to them – gazing side ways, to the back of one’s head, looking down at the ground as the one in front holds the rest in line. At times it appears there are four, then maybe three. Their hamstrings tight from their will to stand up as they lean on each other in efforts against there quest. Does one have more momentum then the other? Are they at ease in laughter or in tension of stress? Where are they coming from? A dark muted brown geometric background framing only the top right of the canvas and the bottom left fading into … Where are they from? Do you hear voices? Are they silent in their quest? They mimic and mock the pattern of the other. Repeated shapes in hues of beige they produce monochromic angular forms distinct in their own movements yet needing one another for support. Are they moving? Or are they stuck? There is tension. They move, but is it with their feet?
Taryn Goodwin described Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) with visual translation by Jason Sturgill – see Image 1 below.
Download audio description of Jason Sturgill’s visual translation in Word.
Listen to audio description of Jason Sturgill’s visual translation on Soundcloud
Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, Oil on canvas, 1932.
Girl Before a Mirror, or, It’s funny! I see a girl, with stripes. And I see it has a lot of triangle things with colors. And I see it has a closed eye and an open one and a white nose with stripes. And a hand and a loop-dee-loop. And another nose and another eye and another ear. Hey, I know what that is! It’s a circus! It makes me feel silly. The girl is putting her hand in there. I think she’s putting her hand in the blue thing you see. In the loop-dee-loop thing. I think the loop-dee-loop thing is a magic mirror. Maybe that eye is closed with the stripes and the white. And the eye is open on that other eye. The one in the mirror doesn’t have a mouth. Maybe it’s saying “hey, don’t come in, cause we’re sleeping,”. That other eye that’s closed is purple and it doesn’t look computery. It just reads computers, but it doesn’t like computers. I don’t quite know why the girl is looking in the mirror. I think he just wanted to make the painting. Maybe he felt sad. Maybe he had a splinter. Maybe he was thinking about lions. Maybe he doesn’t like lions a lot, like me.
Vivian Lantz described Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror with visual translation by Aly D – Image 2 below
Download audio description of Aly D’s visual translation in Word.
Listen to audio description of Aly D’s visual translation on Soundcloud
James Ensor, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889, Oil on canvas, 1888.
Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889, or, The painting is very large, rectangular and horizontal, almost wall size, its overwhelming, very colorful, but kind of subdued colorful, lots of red and green, but darkish red and green. There are many faces, crazy looking faces and masks, they are very large up front at the bottom of the painting and then get smaller as the perspective recedes back into the distance. There is a marching band of soldiers in uniforms in one section of the crowd, the lead soldier has medals all over his jacket. There are people making out, smiling, laughing, grimacing, spacing out, looking uncomfortable. There are banners on the top and sides of the painting, which are in French, but I think say things like “long live Socialism” and “Jesus lives”, etc. Jesus is depicted on a donkey towards the center of the painting. He is depicted relatively small in the field of the painting and at first you don’t notice him, but he’s the reason for the crowds. Somehow he is riding slowly into Brussels on a donkey like he did somewhere in Israel in the bible story, but in this case its in the late 1800’s, so its weird, sort of science fiction or something, backwards and forwards in time and place. Jesus wears a red cloak, and has a yellow halo radiating out from his head, he has his arm up in a blessing sort of way. The painting style is very rough and unlike other paintings of that era, sort of a proto expressionist style, way ahead of its time. The brush strokes are choppy and awkward, the paint isn’t blended much, it’s like a huge, grand, complicated child style painting. I’ve seen photos of the painting installed in James Ensor’s (the painter’s) house, he kept it there with him so that he could see it on a daily basis, which I would want to do if it belonged to me.
Harrell Fletcher described James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 with visual translation by Thor Polukoshko – Image 3 below
Download audio description of Thor Polukoshko’s visual translation in Word.
Listen to audio description of Thor Polukoshko’s visual translation on Soundcloud.
Oscar-Claude Monet, Morning on the Seine in the Rain, Oil on canvass, 1897 – 1898.
Morning on the Seine in the Rain, or, There is no space for an observer to rest here. Trees awn over on a trail of muted mustard green and pale yellow to the lower right of the work inviting you to walk into this silence. The constant blur and movement and pixilation renders this space a contradiction of both continuum and yet small pockets of separation between the subtle slow graduated shifts in colour flow. The water carries it all – one subject envelops another and connects backwards to forward, the depth, and the surface as one. Ironically, Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes always begins playing when I enter this place.
Phinder Dulai described Oscar-Claude Monet’s Morning on the Seine in the Rain with visual translation by Jordan Martin – Image 4 below
Listen to audio description of Jordan Martin’s visual translation on Soundcloud.
Download audio description of Jordan Martin’s visual translation in Word.
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, Tempra on canvas, 1482 – 1485.
The Birth of Venus, or, Nude girl standing on oceanside shell, her long hair stirred by the breath of angels, oblivious of the woman rushing to her with a flowered red cloth. The painting is in the Renaissance style so everything exists on the same plane. There is no sense of distance as we survey the slightly hazy blue sky and the curling turquoise sea. It all seems super-real, with each detail as definite as every other. The angels look like they escaped from an ancient map – the kind of angels that generate the winds of the world! Their wings are dense, like carved wooden wings impractical for flight. Still, they’re moving fast! As the dark-haired male angel rushes toward the nude girl, the cerulean cloth covering him drags back almost to the edge of the picture. The female angel – lighter, with red hair, and clad in green – clasps her hands around his waist. Is she holding him back? What would happen if she let go? Would something other than flowers – tiny-stemmed pink puffs like cherry blossoms – fall from his lips? The nude girl in the centre of the painting looks out at us, her head tilted down coyly, like she’s got a secret she’s not ready to share. She has one hand at her chest – but she doesn’t quite succeed at covering her breasts. Her other hand is at her side, holding her flowing, strawberry blonde hair like a fig leaf. She stands on a huge clam shell that, we see from the golden spray of lines beneath it, is in the act of rising. On the right side of the painting, a woman runs toward the girl with her arms extended. She holds a billowing red cloth covered in Mediterranean flowers, fan-like sprays of green leaves with tiny white buds. The woman is wearing a flowing white dress covered in small purple sprigs. Behind her are the impossibly-straight, dark green trees of the forest. The girl’s destination? The woman runs against the wind, trying to reach the girl and to cover her with the cloth. Are the angels simply ferrying the shell, or are they trying to stop her?
Janet Whyte described Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus with visual translation by Bruce Ray – Image 5 below
Listen to audio description of Bruce Ray’s visual translation on Soundcloud.
Download audio description of Bruce Ray’s visual translation in Word.
Théodore Géricaultt, The Raft of the Medusa, Oil on canvas, 1818 – 1819.
The Raft of the Medusa, or, The raft of the title is below and in front of us, nearly at our feet—if our feet could climb the wall and up and over the edge of the heavy gilt frame. The raft, the frame, the painting, 16 ft tall, 23 ft wide, broad plinths for heaps. A heap of glowing flesh; so many starving, well-muscled men, African men and Europeans, adrift for 13 days off the coast of Senegal, said to have been abandoned, to have eaten their dead, to be the last 15 out of 149 souls. A heap of cloth; to the left, a taut sail on a tent wrapped mast; above and right, a swirling red and white rag in the hands of a dark skinned sailor, he at the summit, facing away, waving; a wet tunic fused to a corpse and to the very edge of our frame, he at the base, headless; a heap of rags, bandages, headscarves, and stockings. A heap of hands, of fists and slack palms, of grappling hands and supporting ones, holding the heap together, the living and the dead, a pose. A heap of ocean, a heap of clouds, of wind and waves, of rope and foam, holding the heap together, a torment. But then a postage stamp sail at the horizon: a ship, the Argus, a hope and the name of another ancient monster.
John Muse described Théodore Géricaultt’s The Raft of the Medusa with visual translation by Rozzell Medina – see image in header above
Listen to audio description of Rozzell Medina’s visual translation on Soundcloud.
Download audio description of Rozzell Medina’s visual translation in Word.
Vincent van Gogh, The Night Café, Oil on canvas, 1888.
The Night Café, or, This painting is like a cartoon. People’s faces don’t have clear features. There are no perfectly straight lines and it looks like it was done with a rough, scratchy brush stroke. The ceiling is green and the walls are a reddish orange. There is a wooden chair rail across the room. A well-worn hardwood floor. Wooden chairs with straw bottoms. A pool table in the middle of the room. On the pool table, a pool cue and one white ball. One red ball too. There is a light fixture over the table. A man with gray hair and a black moustache all dressed in white. A painting on a long, rectangular canvas hangs over him. It looks like a fire scene. There is a doorframe opening with a curtain attached to each side on the far, back wall. It shows a room with a bed and a green door. Then, beside this open door, a cabinet with liquor bottles and a vase with white flowers. Over the cabinet, a clock that reads 3 o’clock. On the front, lefthand side of the picture plane, there are two chairs facing each other. Two tables with booze and glasses. A high-top table. A man slouched over and alone. Next to him, a well-dressed couple with a wine bottle, wearing hats. On the front, righthand side of the picture plane, a man with a fishermans hat. He is slightly slouched over. He is sitting with a man that looks like a captain. There are three large lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling. They have halos.
Doris & Mario Papalia described Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café with visual translation by Heidi Nagtegaal – see Image 7 below
Listen to audio description of Heidi Nagtegaal’s visual translation on Soundcloud.
Download audio description of Heidi Nagtegaal’s visual translation in Word.
“…in some way, I know the work as an insider too—since I have personal relationships with everyone who translated and since I can recognize their personality in their process / approach. One description (of Van Gogh’s The Night Café) was written collaboratively by my parents and it was translated into this non-literal colorful marker line drawing by my radical educator / feminist artist friend…Heidi Nagtegaal. It’s exactly what I thought she would make of it given her process & politics. Then, Kristin’s 3 year old niece Vivian Lantz described Woman Before a Mirror by Picasso and my friend aly d. illustrated it quite literally in her kid drawing comic-book style. Then there are the artists who made their translations specifically for me (with inside jokes and all) and who made visual choices that would offer a particular experience to me as a viewer through visual description… like my good friend Rozzell Medina, who slipped a Canadian flag into his parody of The Raft of the Medusa! That piece is most certainly intended to get a response from me!! Rozzell’s translation helped me realize that there are a lot of relational dynamics playing out in this series. Its a big mess of trust, negotiation and disconnect but it all connects back to a single point—an experience of the original work itself.” – Carmen Papalia
Its a big mess of trust, negotiation and disconnect but it all connects back to a single point—an experience of the original work itself