Alt-text: A white hand holds a blue postcard with blue, uneven, handwritten capitals spelling, “Artists for Alt-Text.”
SPEAKING: Bojana Coklyat
with L Autumn Gnadinger
Bojana Coklyat (she/her) is an artist, disability activist, and one half of the project Alt-Text as Poetry—a workbook, blog, and workshop series dedicated to reimagining our relationship to image description and image accessibility. Alt-text (or, alternative text) is what web users with low vision might use to interpret the content of an image online, and is a (generally underutilized) cornerstone of web accessibility.
Bojana and Shannon Finnegan (they/them), Alt-Text as Poetry’s co-founder, take this often utilitarian language used to describe images on the internet, and encourage users to engage with it through many of the same tools and freedoms as one would with poetry. The resulting descriptions are then allowed to live on their own, without the image that originally prompted them, not unlike poetry—as simple, but potent art objects.
I spoke with Bojana about Alt-Text as Poetry on Ruckus’ new Podcast, Art of Gravity. That episode, which includes a recording of our full conversation can be found in the notes, along with examples of alt-text poetry. This is an adapted and condensed version of our conversation—jumping right into our discussion about the project.
L Autumn Gnadinger: I love the language of an experimental approach, and that is part of what I found really interesting about a project that you're involved in: Alt-Text as Poetry. How would you describe or introduce Alt-Text as Poetry and your involvement in it?
Bojana Coklyat: About two years ago now I was finishing my masters and working on disability studies and art administration, and I decided, in addition to writing my 50 page thesis, I also wanted to put together an exhibit. I was reading a lot by Amanda Cachia, Carmen Papalia, Georgina Kleege, and I really appreciated how they all approached access in a way that didn't feel like it was additive—it really felt like access was just a part of the creative process. And so in this exhibit that I put together, I wanted people to feel invited to come into the space. I wanted it to feel multimodal. And I didn't want each part of the show to feel like “Here is the accommodation for this piece of art! And now here is this accommodation!” I wanted it to feel like you could come to each piece and experience it in some way that worked for you.
So, during this time, I met Shannon Finnegan and we were like, “Oh, wow. We both have a lot in common!” You know, with the way we were looking at the possibilities of access and how it could be an innovation, and not just how people sometimes see it: as this additional chore or this thing that's going to “wreck” the aesthetics of a gallery space.
Alt-Text as Poetry as a project really started with a presentation for the workshop—focusing more on teaching people what alt-text is, so people are kind of grounded in it. Then we can start to open it up and talk about the poetic part of it. And I think sometimes people get a little intimidated, like, “Oh, no, I can't write poetry. I'm not a poet.” But we're not necessarily asking people to—I am not a poet—we're just drawing on this huge wealth of knowledge that already exists with poetry, this way of thinking that exists with poetry. And again, I think one of the things with poetry is that there can be this experimental approach. There's also the efficiency of the words, an attention to language, how you organize your words in order to convey something that might be impactful or meaningful or funny. So, we really were drawing on all of that when we were talking about alt-text.
And we also always say this in our workshops: we're not experts. We are just two artists who saw creative potential in this project. These workshops aren't us telling people, “this is how alt-text should be—you should write it just like this.” It's more like, Hey, we get to do this together and practice, and we get to ask each other questions and figure stuff out. That's my favorite part of these workshops is the engagement with the participants and, and learning from the people who come to the workshops too.
LAG: What I find really compelling about this as a project, is that it has a way of disarming the fear I think a lot of people have about messing up alt-text. But because it's experimental, because it is relying, as you said, on poetry as a frame of reference, it really turned on a light bulb in my head, kind of immediately. Like, “okay, it's not something I need to be afraid of,” I just need to get in there and try my best. Obviously that's not to say that there aren't good conventions to follow and good resources to look to about how to do this best, but, I really, think it's incredible how successful that switch is made when you come at it from this angle.
BC: It opens up a lot of possibilities, for sure. It's not tethered to some type of perfection or some type of ultimate standard. One thing that I really appreciate that Shannon has brought up when we talk about objectivity in alt-text is: “what is objective?” Like if we were talking about this from a government, compliance-based approach to alt-text, who decided this is the right way? Who were the people in power at the time when they decided the rules—supposed rules—on alt-text?
According to these original rules, it should always be objective. It should be succinct. It shouldn't infuse any of your own interpretations or feelings. These are these sort of rules that were set in place like 30 years ago, and I think that maybe it's time for a little bit of a change. I think that if you listen to other people who are disabled, people do want this. They want other types of access, for it to open up and be more creative. And, you know, with Alt-Text as Poetry, this isn't something that Shannon and I figured all out ourselves. We were learning from so many other artists, activists, and cultural workers who have contributed to how we put together this project.
LAG: Obviously, alt-text is this thing that, when one normally comes across, it is fixed to some kind of image reference. It’s the thing that a screen reader is swapping out, or interpreting an image for. And I'm wondering how you would describe what else happens when the alt-text becomes separated from that embedding in a webpage—when it is allowed to act as an autonomous little object by itself. What does that feel like for you? Is anything else interesting happening for you in that transformation?
BC: Are you talking about when it's no longer a type of metadata and kind of just this thing that exists, let's say, as something in a blog, is that what you mean?
LAG: Yeah, or published in a book. When it is allowed to be “a poem” like that, where it's just a string of words, or this kind of thought that is now separated from its utilitarian purpose.
BC: I really, really love that question. When there's intentional, creative alt-text, it's creating another pleasant part of the experience of engaging with an image online or, let's say, a verbal description in a museum of a piece of art or something like that—it's this additional pleasure. And if I'm experiencing alt-text written someplace else, let's say in the workbook like the Death Valley1 example that you read—I've never seen that image, and we've used that description so many times, but each time I hear it, I am amazed and excited. I think of that “arc of stars” and the “twisted gnarled branches,” and it makes me wonder, what does that image actually look like? But it's kind of cool: I'm creating my own image in my head of what this image might be. Nobody else has that image. You know, you could give these words to 10 other people who live with low vision or who are blind, but we're each going to create something different in our mind's eye. I think that's such an interesting potential. It makes me think about the possibilities of art and access when we're not fixed to just one standard.
That was a realization that I had early on working with Shannon and doing this workshop. Shannon decided not to have the images with the alt-text. And at first I thought, “Oh, that's gonna really confuse people. I don't know.” But I realized as we continued to work together, that it was really important just to have the text—just to focus on the words itself.
LAG: What would be like the dream-come-true situation for this project?
BC: I would love if the Alt-Text as Poetry workbook was in every museum studies, art administration, or curatorial studies curriculum. Because you have curators and art administrators who are working in museums who are not being taught very much about access, and that needs to change, and there needs to be more discussion about access in these spaces. But having this workbook as part of some curriculum that different universities teach from: I think that would be really great. I would love to see that.
Potentially, let's say, from this Alt-Text as Poetry project, more galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions were like, “Oh, wow. We love this Alt-Text as Poetry project. We are going to make sure we are implementing more alt-text into our social media, and our websites,” and drawing from some of these more experimental approaches to all texts. That would be amazing. Seeing that grow. If there was a substantial uptick in the amount of alt-text that was being utilized or implemented, and keeping with this creative process, I think for me, that would be really wonderful to see. To know that online experiences for people who are blind, living with low vision, or with certain cognitive disabilities—to know that they were having a more fulfilling, welcoming experience in these spaces, that would be pretty amazing for me.
LAG: I'm wondering if you have any advice for either an art journal or an art podcast?
BC: I think that it's always great to have support or from other organizations where people are doing something similar. That's really helpful because sometimes you might be like, “Oh my God, what am I doing?” and you may be able to reach out to a colleague or to somebody doing something similar and bounce off ideas. You don't necessarily need a personal relationship, but having a handful of organizations or resources that you can kind of keep going back to and see what they're doing—that will help you move along and learn.
People want to do things so perfectly that sometimes they just don't do something that needs to be done because they don’t want to mess up, and, you know, it's okay to fail! It's okay to make mistakes. The thing is you're moving forward. Like hopefully if you do fail and you make a mistake you'll say “Okay. Now we learned, and now we're gonna move past that mistake and we're going to do it better next time.” Again, like this project Alt-Text as Poetry, we could not have done this if it weren't for looking at what these other amazing people were doing—what they were writing about, what they were doing in their art, what they were seeing. And there have been so many iterations of our workshop, too. We're always trying to adjust and take people's suggestions or critiques into consideration and then tweak it from there. And so, I think those two things: not being afraid to fail forward, and making sure you have some support, whatever that might be for you.
Here are some examples of image descriptions that Alt-Text as Poetry uses in their workbook and on their blog. Both examples were originally found on Instagram, and their authors’ accounts are listed below.
“Candystore, a white non-binary body, stands on a urinal wearing black boots, black jeans, a black leather jacket, a black faux leather hat from a gas station stuck with a black raven’s feather, a shadow cast over half shimher face, sibylline.”
“A sea of purple aster flowers, with round yellow centers and thick manes of straight thin lavender petals, like purple daisies.”
Art of Gravity Episode 02:
- 1. Death Valley National Park (@deathvalleynps) “Twisted wood branches in the foreground with an arc of stars in the sky above a dark distant mountain,” https://www.instagram.com/p/BkbGbeBFjkx/?igshid=1bfbc4y1dgmx3
- Art of Gravity
L (they/them) is an artist, writer, and current MFA candidate at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, PA. They are originally from Louisville, and an editor for Ruckus.
Pictured, Bojana Coklyat. Alt-Text: A white woman, with brown hair cut into a bob, turned toward the camera smiling.