Sunday, 24 July 2016

Live Captioning for Portraits Untold

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  I actually had to get dressed up and leave the house to go to work, which was quite a shock. 

“Hi, Fess.  Captioning for Portraits Untold?  Sure. What?  You mean I have to actually get dressed and leave the house and go somewhere?!”

Friday 15th July 2016, I headed up to Birmingham to meet for the first time the artist Tanya Raabe-Webber in anticipation of the first of four Portraits Untold events kicking off the next day in the first venue, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). I’d be working with Hatch&Twine (formally CoQuo) on the technical side…  Well, I’d be typing the captions using Aidan’s (from H&T) captioning software.  I did though actually contribute to the tech side of things once there since I lent Aidan my iPad to use as a mouse mat - innovation or what? - and I found a spare extension lead at a crucial moment so I'll be a fully qualified roadie before long.

Aidan: Right, Marian, this is a computer.
Don't break it. 
We first met up to talk about this new software last year in London and I first did this captioning lark for them on less sophisticated kit at Salisbury Arts Centre for Liz Crow’s Bedding Out in 2013 (and I produced the transcripts afterwards for that too).  It was amazing to see how efficiently it worked and Fess (Matthew Fessey from H&T) has turned the captions from Birmingham into a transcript, which you can now see in all its typo glory, even though he has given it a bit of a tidy up.  I assume he’ll do the same for them all.  

Going forward to the next event, we are aiming to get something like Breevy. Breevy - a text expander and macro thingy - doesn’t work on Macs but we’ve a few things to choose from. With one of these in place running behind Aidan's software, I can catch transposed ‘ht’ for instance which seems to be a bit of a favourite hting of mine and put in some short cuts to common words that take a bit of typing, like ‘because’, ‘everything’, ‘something’ and so on. Typing the word ‘people’ is annoying so having that shortened will be great because the project is all about people as much as portraits - the sitters and the participating audience.

Then Friday 22nd July I was back (again not wearing pyjamas) on a train just up to London this time to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to do it all once more.  Aidan had fixed a glitch (so no more waving my hands in the air, which was previously my subtle signal to him that I'd broke everything mid-sentence) and it went really smoothly.  Aside from having fixed that, Aidan is now officially my favourite person because he said at the end, unprompted, “Aced it again, Marian.”  Just thought I’d humbly report that!

As the live stream of the events went out into the world, the captions could be chosen to be shown scrolling underneath the footage.  In the venues, they were on big screens.  

The caption screen at BMAG (amongst other things)

I hope that by this project raising the bar in terms of access by providing both BSL interpretation (by on these occasions the lovely and super friendly Layne Whittaker) plus captioning, more event producers and organisers can see the benefits of having captioning.  The reasoning is that while Deaf people use BSL, people with hearing impairment or people with acquired hearing loss may not, so both are really needed for access.  I’d like to say that my handing out my business cards to all and sundry after these two events was due to my being on a mission to make all this so.  I was though really just shamelessly and blatantly punting all my services to the great and the good!  
An even bigger caption screen at NPG with Layne in full flow in the foreground
“Anyone know the BSL sign for marimba?
Having the screen there seemed to go down well more generally. Layne said it was handy for her for spelling names (despite me consistently spelling both of hers incorrectly) and Tanya also said that when she was concentrating on the painting and then had to refocus on the conversations, the captions let her get a bit of a recap so she could catch up and join back in. It’s also an added bonus to end up with a written record of the event to go with the video and audio too so people can search for and reference things maybe.

The first session in Birmingham was with film maker John Akomfrah  (yes, he got my card).  Busy lives meant that he and Tanya had never met before that day and it was fascinating listening in as their rapport developed.  

John and Tanya developing rapport not least through mutual admiration of Tanya's frock

The second at NPG was with Dame Evelyn Glennie  (yep, she got one too – I have no shame).  It was quite something to be sat a few feet away from her as she improvised on a waterphone. 

Tanya and Evelyn improvise

The two events had very different atmospheres and the conversations had different rhythms and paces but both produced remarkable outcomes. Obviously Tanya’s portraits are the stars of the shows (aside of course from the caption screens!) but seeing what the audiences had drawn - through both traditional media and via apps like Procreate and Sketchbook - at the venues and also as their pictures came in via Twitter and Instagram - #portraitsuntold - it really spoke of how much the event, through embracing technology, was connecting people, letting people join in, be a part of it, and opening up the usually private portrait process.

The next one will be a bit of a departure as the team heads up to Stoke City FC  – Tanya has had lovely dresses thus far but I’ve suggested a football strip for this one –  where Neil Baldwin  will be the sitter.  That’s in September.  Then we’re off to York in October (where I went to university, so that will be a bit of a memory lane thing for me) where Beningbrough Hall  will be staging it all with the performance artist David Hoyle in the hot seat. I doubt he’ll stay seated as a sitter for much of the time though. Finally it will be nice to head back to the National Portrait Gallery in December where Tanya's four portraits will be brought together for the grand finale.

Really pleased with how it's all gone for everyone so far now we’re at half time as it were and I’m super excited about September.  Seems a long way off though.  I said (whinged) to Fess, “Can’t we do this every week?” 

You see, it’s made me realise just how much I love working as part of a team.  Which is quite funny since my usual work life is so much a solo affair.  I love this too but a mix would be good.  More on this idea soon because I’m hoping it might be about to change.  Still doing what I do as Sound Words but maybe in a different context… Watch this space!
Portraits Untold team photo from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Portraits Untold team photo from the National Portrait Gallery 

The Portraits Untold team is:

  • Tanya Raabe-Webber, artist (and queen of style)
  • Mandy Fowler, producer for Portraits Untold (and curator and cultural consultant and...)
  • Jaqueline Cooley, Tanya’s PA (and glass artist)
  • Layne Whittaker, BSLI (and possibly the friendliest person on this planet)
  • Mathew Fessey, Hatch&Twine (The Boss)
  • Aidan Rumble, Hatch&Twine (The Brains)
  • Lara Ratnaraja, cultural consultant and senior research facilitator, Digital Humanities Hub, University of Birmingham ("One of my most favourite projects I have been involved with.")
  • Dr Chris Creed, human-computer interaction specialist, Digital Humanities Hub, University of Birmingham 
  • The two Neils – Tanya and Mandy’s OHs
  • Me!

Portraits Untold is supported and partnered by Arts Council England and The Big Draw and PR is by Braques PR

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