Andrius Arutiunian and Marianna Maruyama met in 2020, mid Summer, after the Covid outbreak and their first severe lockdown.
Marianna Maruyama uses the body and voice as primary agents in her performance-based practice. One of her primary interests is translation as an artistic method. Andrius Arutiunian works with sound and hybrid forms of media, with a particular interest in the politics of sound and technologies, sonic artifacts and shifting identities.
A long and fruitful sharing of thoughts and visions around audio production and listening practices had started: they found themselves talking about a very multifaceted and complex topic: the accessibility of audio productions between sound experimentation and storytelling.
Accessibility in audio production and the specific needs of highly sensitive persons (sensory processing sensitivity) is often underestimated. How, for example, do hearing-impaired, hypersensitive or deaf people have access to audio stories? Are captions and transcripts enough to communicate with new audiences, to democratize listening? How can these so-called ‘constraints’ – i.e. hypersensitivity – be a source of new ways of thinking about production and reception? As a start, or better to say as a new chapter of their collaboration, they could not find a better occasion to meet again and re-ask themselves these questions than the Lucia Festival, a three-day international gathering dedicated to the arts and crafts of audio storytelling.
Between 10 and 12 December 2021, the festival presented audio narratives from all over the world and did so thanks to the curated production of subtitled videos, which made the content accessible to all. In addition to listening sessions, LUCIA is also a platform for experimenting with live formats of podcasts and radio productions and a place for a down-to-earth kind of networking between audio makers and artists. Andrius and Marianna were their special observers: they spent three days listening to Lucia’s program and their comments and observations about their listening experience, about them being an audience of such a mixed-media festival, are of enormous nourishment and food for thoughts for future editions.
The conversations in the aftermath of the festival started mainly from their experience of subtitled listening, an audio-video format they are still struggling with, trying to find balance and accessibility. Both Andrius and Marianna highlighted a double folded cognitive response: fatigue and a certain degree of distraction. Subtitles give access to stories in other languages but distract from a deep listening experience of sound-rich stories. On the other hand, they are good constraints to pull the listeners into the audio story, whereas complicated plots and multilayered narratives demand attention and are tiresome eventually.
They asked themselves, ‘What if we mixed the hearing with tactility? Beyond the speech limits, what can a body perceive and understand?’ Starting from Andrius Arutiunian’s latest research and his electroacoustic music practice, they considered the limitation of words and the narrative dimension of sound beyond its linguistic value and the opportunity to adopt media other than speakers that are normative and only respond to the needs of cochlear listening. On the other hand, building on Marianna’s interest in translation, they also explored how and to what extent they can work on the culture of subtitling itself, anticipating it from the post-production to the moment the work is conceived, in other words, to make subtitles native to audio. Mayurama is interested in thinking of a protocol that, more than stating dos and don’ts, would invite producers and audio makers to think of a few basic questions before writing a story for the ears, a sort of please consider that.
This thread of investigation echoes a series of critical texts and artistic practices – to quote the latest Christine Sum Kim’s and Niels Van Tomme’s collaboration at ARGOS – that engage with captioning instead of subtitling a singular artistic form of expression. Captions – unlike subtitles – do not only visualize spoken words; they also include sound effects and music descriptions. To bypass the inadequacies of the most traditional forms of subtitling, it can’t always come last.
Accessibility is a long-term commitment, a process, and it is not a one size fits all: as their meetings with Andrius and Marianna confirm, subtitles are not enough. So this is a great challenge for them and an opportunity to trigger new ways of thinking and producing audio stories.