Harriet Parry reflects on their experience guest editing a special issue of the Media and Cultural Studies Association – Post Graduate Network digital publication Networking Knowledge.
Amongst the multiple opportunities opened up for academic enrichment over the past 3 years as a postgraduate researcher, was the chance to help guest edit a special issue of the Media and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) Post Graduate Network digital publication Networking Knowledge. MeCCSA’s remit is to bring together a peer network of postgraduate students through funding and supporting conferences, workshops and publication. Pulling the journal together with the rest of the team over the course of the pandemic was not plain sailing, but there were many positives.
My own research focusses on lived and embodied experiences of heritage sites, and a particular highlight was having the opportunity to ask Professor Emeritus David Crouch (University of Derby) for an interview that responded to the journal’s theme ‘Mediating Place’. Crouch is a cultural geographer who has really inspired me and is considered in critical heritage circles to be one of the early academics exploring the performative production of heritage. His research pays close attention to the ‘everyday’ and the ‘mundane’, which includes social and emplaced activities such as gardening and caravanning. In so-doing he demonstrates the rich rewards that can be found in what is often overlooked.
I had also learned through the cover of one of his publications Flirting with Space (2010), that he is a practicing artist. My own research draws together theatre design with the everyday embodied experience of heritage, and I was attracted by the way Crouch’s creative sensibilities seemed to influence his academic practice. I found his painting on the cover of Flirting with Space had a similar cadence to his writing, and I was interested to find out how he felt they might relate.
Our email discussion was very rewarding, and I was delighted when he agreed to include some pieces of his art in the body of the interview. The benefit of the publication being online, was that we could also provide Alt-Text descriptions of the artworks for visually impaired people using screen-readers. This brought up an opportunity and a challenge that I had not been expecting.
With no formal training on making images accessible via Alt-Text, I turned to social media to get some leads on how to use text to represent artworks that are painterly, impressionistic or abstract rather than realistic. As might be expected, context and rationale influenced opinions on the best approach to take:
Screengrabs from Twitter of discussions about using Alt-Text. Images: Harriet Parry.
Working through decisions on how to best describe Crouch’s paintings, forced me to feel the power relationships, and cultural and perceptual biases that go into providing such a description for someone who cannot see. When considering the study of Western design and art history, it was a reminder of how impoverishing oculocentric hierarchies of aesthetic evaluation and experience can be. Alt-Text recommendations are for two short sentences, and my descriptions felt ham-fisted and wanting. With more time and resources, a direct collaboration with those for whom the description was provided would have been best practice, and it is clear that there could be an incredibly valuable and interesting research project here!
A paper that I did find useful was a 2003 journal publication by cultural geographer Kevin Hetherington. Hetherington had worked with a visually impaired artist he called ‘Sarah’ who has been campaigning for greater access to museums for people with disabilities since the 1980s. Convincing curators to allow her to touch artworks was a key aim, and she has since developed a method that is fascinating and I would encourage you to read Hetherington’s account. In brief, when Sarah touches a work of art, she is creating an embodied and interactive relationship with the piece that is not seeking to understand its visual representation, but to discover its properties and how they feel in relation to her body.
With no opportunity to touch Crouch’s work, my solution was to provide a short description via the Alt-Text function, and ask him for a more kinetic description that we hoped would bring the listener closer to an embodied sense of their creation. There were anxieties, not least his caution about imposing his perspective on the listener, but this was the compromise that we came to.
This experience reminded me how much I take my sight for granted, has created more questions than answers, and builds on a perspective that I first considered after reading the work 19th Century Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. In prioritising vision, my inability to describe what is essentially an aesthetic experience of a work of art through the language of the gaze, was a timely reminder of the benefit of enriching art and design scholarship with the lived experience of those more attuned to embodied perception and understanding.
To read the Networking Knowledge special issue that contains the interview, alongside a multi-disciplinary mix of postgraduate responses to the theme ‘Mediating Place’ follow: https://ojs.meccsa.org.uk/index.php/netknow/issue/view/72
 Emma Waterton and Steve Watson. ‘Framing Theory: Towards a Critical Imagination in Heritage Studies’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 19, no. 6 (September 2013): 546–61. https://doi.org/10.1080/13527258.2013.779295.
 For example see David Crouch. “Patterns of Co-Operation in the Cultures of Outdoor Leisure – the Case of the Allotment.” Leisure Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1989, pp. 189-199.
 Crouch co-produced a documentary for BBC2 in the 1990s on the importance of allotments and their subversive owners in The Plot, also featuring the great Billy Bragg. Open Space, The Plot, 19:30 22/11/1994, BBC2 England, 30 mins. https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/RT4502E9?bcast=120201450 (Accessed on Box of Broadcasts 21 Apr 2022)
 David Crouch Flirting with Space: Journeys and Creativity (Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010)
 Alt Text “alternative Text’ is a web based system to make images accessible to the visually impaired. Its aim to describe the ‘why’ of images for those using screen reader software. https://accessibility.huit.harvard.edu/describe-content-images
 Mieke Bal. ‘Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture’. Journal of Visual Culture, 2003. 28.
 John Dewey Art as Experience. Perigee trade pbk. ed. A Perigee Book (New York, NY: Perigee, 2005)