One strand of the Interpretation Matters project is a programme of workshops designed to encourage the whole organisation to discuss their written interpretation in practice and process. The idea is that by putting concentrated time aside, the organisation can examine and review how they work and whether they want to make changes. The second aspect that has proved particularly valuable is a focus on writing techniques, and how the organisation perceives its identity. The workshop asks if these crucial elements of a public identity are integrated, or is there opportunity for greater self-expression?
The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, has been the first organisation to undergo The Interpretation Matters Workshop Experience! Here, invigilator Anna Graebe gives her first hand account of what happened:
To set up the Interpretation Matters workshop at the De la Warr Pavilion, the IM team had already achieved the impossible; to have representatives from many sectors of the building together in one place at the same time was no small feat.Participating were the directors, press and marketing department, curators, front of house managers, volunteers, gallery invigilators and our online and social media person. And this miracle was not a one off, but instalment one of two! So, within this somewhat novel, though not unhappy environment, we found ourselves greeted by the delightful combination of Dany and Alistair, self-described as our very own ‘good cop, bad cop’ team.
We began with particulars, introductions and who’s who’s, and then launched straight to the heart of the matter – the aim of the workshop – creating and portraying a coherent and conducive identity through written gallery text. Being a language student, I was immediately interested from a personal perspective, but I was slightly doubtful how something as particular as written gallery text could cohere and embody all the different philosophies and objectives of the Pavilion, let alone all the departments and staff seated around the table. However, Dany quickly demonstrated just what a crucial and unifying interface written gallery interpretation can be. We began with the curators, the people who start off the gallery writing process. They shared their experience of writing and the difficulties they face, the biggest being communication: with the artist or their representatives, other DLWP departments and staff, and even each other. This was when it became clear that in order for our workplace and gallery to speak through our written text, in a united voice, all departments need to be aware of the processes involved from origin to completion, and that maintaining good communication (not just emails!) along the way would be our only way of achieving this.
Ron, a DLWP volunteer, and his fabulous T-shirt!
We moved on to looking directly at written gallery texts, mainly those that we’d brought along as examples, sharing and rating them as poor, good, or excellent. While a few achieved unanimous judgement, most proved hard to reach a consensus on. Some people favoured the elaborate language of sensation and allegory, and others believed that factual and uncomplicated accounts were most effective. Despite these discussions over a preferred style, and difficulty in pin-pointing what exactly made one piece of writing good, bad or exceptional, we did come to some definite conclusions:
- that our voice needed both authenticity and integrity.
- that it is okay for writing to be stylised provided that style suits the subject it is describing.
- that simple language for a strong idea is always better than elaborate and sensational language for a weak or half-hearted concept.
Together we made taboo the improper or over-use of the words ‘challenging’, ‘experimental’, ‘thought-provoking’ and ‘makes us question…’ But before we got too caught up in our individual linguistic ticks and pet hates, Dany and Alistair steered us into the most valuable and enjoyable task of the session: to define the DLWP as if it were a person.
Having already identified certain dos and don’ts for gallery language, we now had to personalise our decisions. Our first breakthrough came in the realisation that the DLWP would not and could not embody a singular persona, but that it is rather an intergenerational family, with different departments, such as the live theatre and cafe-bar, co-existing for different audiences and family needs. The notion of DLWP as a ‘wayward child’ figure was bounced around, and though this sense of waywardness held some resonance, it clashed with our sense of being a centre for the local and wider community. We felt that while we wanted to embrace our uniqueness and trendsetting abilities, we didn’t want to consciously ostracise ourselves, and thereby our audiences. We ended the session knowing that: “We need to have our own voice because we can’t cater to everyone”, but despite running over time, we hadn’t managed to actually define how that voice would sound.
And so we came to our second IM session. To get things going Dany and Alistair asked us to group up and share our attempts at re-writing our worst gallery text examples from the last session. This proved harder than it at first seemed, with some of us mistaking the re-writes for the ‘bad’ originals! We also shared our favourite and most hated words and phrases. Among those cited were: commute, scuffle, juxtaposition, interdisciplinary, bum, sunshine, municipal and nice. But what was it about all this language that so strongly either appealed to or repelled us? We realised that is was not the words themselves that were either good or bad, but the reason and context for their use. We were against words used as fillers, buzz words, clichés, and words used only for the effect of their cultural or verbal connotation rather than to convey appropriate meaning. Instead we wanted language that was intentional (one of Dany’s favourite words). We returned to the idea of “the wayward child” and updated it with the persona of “the Maverick”:
“An individual who thinks for themselves, and laughs in the face of authority. Someone who goes against the grain in several aspects of their life. A person who refuses to bend to the conventions of society. A natural born leader. Unconventional in their wisdom, and acutely aware of their surroundings at all times”.
The combination of refusing to bend to societal norms, of leading the way, and also being aware of one’s surroundings resolved the conflict between being neither conformist nor extremist. Adopting the maverick identity means the DLWP doesn’t need to absolutely conform with or be subject to the systems on which it relies (for example, the Arts Council, and local residents) but nor does it need to confront and antagonise these communities and institutions that it is proud to be a part of. Unlike “wayward child”, the term “maverick” invites more positive than negative connotations and therefore prevents eccentricity and creative values from being the characteristics of outsiders or the minority. It instead makes them inclusive and integral.
Finally we turned to how we could integrate these values and systems of thought into our everyday work and interactions. Together we spoke of the notion of “a written dialogue”, and the importance to maintain open communication during the gallery writing process. After all, if we expect and hope our written language to serve a communicative function first and foremost, then it seems only right that we seek to communicate with each other during the processes of conception.
The Interpretation Matters workshop highlighted to the DLWP that we need to establish a unanimous tone and unfailingly trust it. More than that, the workshop actually enabled us to do this. By providing an open, informal but stimulating environment for our staff, all issues raised and discussed – though they at first seemed to highlight differences, conflicts and tensions within the group – actually resolved to reveal a united aim amongst us. I was surprised and delighted to realise just how similar the philosophies and priorities of my colleagues are to my own. In the day to day hustle of working together, the sense of a shared workplace ethos can seem one idealism too far, and fade to being an unrealistic back-thought, leaving only the mundane annoyances and practical necessities to mark the path forward. The Interpretation Matters workshop not only breathed fresh life into the way we create and respond to gallery texts, but also to the fundamental ways in which we communicate and respond to each other.
After all to interpret is to communicate, and vice versa; you can’t have one without the other.
Anna Graebe, De La Warr Pavilion
Note from Dany:
This first set of workshops was followed up with work with with a section of the DLWP audience. The objective was to research what they want from gallery texts and to understand the type of language they are comfortable with. We also gained feedback about the audience perceptions of existing DLWP communication.
If you think your institution would benefit from undertaking this process, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss.