Shannon Finnegan is an artist making work about disability culture and access. Her work is often intended specifically for a disabled audience and reflects the humor, vibrance, and nuance of the community. During her residency at Eyebeam, she will focus on reframing alt-text as a poetic form. Alt-text, an important tool for web accessibility, is often written in a reluctant, perfunctory style. Through research about the best practices for writing alt-text and how those practices align or conflict with approaches to writing poetry, Finnegan will illuminate the expressive potential of alt-text for vision-impaired and non-disabled users. The project will culminate in an alt-text guide, writing workshops, and web-based art projects. She spoke with Alice Sheppard, dancer, choreographer, artistic lead and founder of Kinetic Light.
Alice Sheppard: I should begin by saying congratulations. It was a pleasure to read your application and I’m really psyched that you were chosen for this residency. How does that make you feel? What are you thinking about andwhat’s your reaction?
Shannon Finnegan: I’m looking out into this amazing, expansive time where I’m going to be able to really focus on projects I’m excited about. That is truly thrilling.
AS: Well congratulations. I know what it feels like to be embedded in pure artistry and not worrying about paying rent and surviving. I wish you the most productive and joyful time at Eyebeam. That’s really exciting. Tell me a little bit about how the theme of ‘access’ relates to your work.
SF: I think, very directly in my case. I actually have been thinking a lot about the conversation after your performance at the Whitney where Walei Sabry from the audience asked, “Whose responsibility is access?” The conversation at that event captured some of the nuance of this issue. You said you were hesitant to say it’s entirely the responsibility of the artist. That makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t want to take on access in a way that relieves an institution of their responsibility for working on access. Access is everyone’s responsibility. Access is really important for the type of work that I want to make and the audience I want to reach, so I’ve been thinking about what it means to make my work accessible and how I can be proactive about that.
AS: Brilliant. So can I push you a little bit on that?
SF: Of course.
AS: What are you going to say to your artist peers? Disability isn’t necessarily part of most people’s intersectional thinking, sadly, because people haven’t really moved yet to understand that disability is a federally protected diversity category. What can you say to your peers who don’t really understand that disability is more than a deficit of diagnosis? How do you begin that conversation?
SF: One of the ways that I think about influencing non-disabled people is by creating a vibrant and exciting disability culture. That’s potentially motivating in terms of thinking about disability more, getting interested in disability, reading more, educating themselves.
For this project I’m doing at Eyebeam, more so than other projects, a lot of the work that I’m going to be doing is focused on non-disabled people; hand-holding them through the process of access that is not just about compliance or minimum effort. There are creative and exciting ways to approach access that can be very generative. Alt-text has been written in this very dry and perfunctory way, but we don’t have to do it like that. We can do it in interesting and intentional ways.
AS: Yeah that’s actually an astute core because it’s something that I think people think of as a hassle, right, if they do it at all. Alt-text is, you know, “Oh my god, I have to do this for these disabled people. Maybe I remember to do it and maybe I don’t (more likely I don’t).”
SF: [Laughs]
AS: Right? But I love the idea that alt-text is bothit transforms the nature of that kind of block that maybe people have, into an actual part of an artistic practice. I really love that.
SF: I had an experience specifically with alt-text that has been very transformative for me. I really don’t consider myself a writer. I often dread writing projects. But through social media, I was seeing all these people who were using image descriptions and I got to this point where I thought, “Okay, I know this is the best practice. I have no excuse not to be doing this.” I started out from this place of being, “Oof, I don’t know…” and feeling intimidated by it. Now I feel like it is such a joyful part of what I’m doing, and I really enjoy thinking about the image, thinking about what is important about the image, thinking about what I’m trying to express with the image, and then writing something that I feel matches that tone. A lot of what I’m doing is on social media, like Instagram, which feels very flexible. You can be trying to accomplish a lot of different things with a post. Sometimes I’m trying to celebrate a friend, sometimes I’m making a political statement, sometimes I’m posting an artwork. There’s a lot of different chances to think about what image description can do and how it can adapt to different types of imagery.
AS: So who is your audience and how do you reach them?
SF: My audience shifts from project to project. For this alt-text project, I am thinking about non-disabled people as my audience and using this project as a way to bring people into the fold in terms of thinking about disability, thinking about access. There is another piece of the project, which will come later on in my residency, where I’m thinking about making web-based art projects that can only be experienced using a screen reader.
AS: Excellent. Give me three bullet points for your personal success criteria. How do you know when you are reaching your goals?
SF: I have lofty goals for this project. I would love to see major arts institutions using image descriptions on social media and taking it more seriously in terms of their websites. There’s been a few examples, like MCA Chicago has taken a very rigorous approach to image description, and I think that’s great.
AS: So that’s your large lofty goal. what’s a smaller goal?
SF: I feel like every person who commits to image descriptions counts. So that means if I get 30 people excited about it, if I get 60 people excited about it, if it’s 200 people… Part of my interest in reaching larger institutions is that it feels like there can be a trickle down effect. If I’m visiting the New Museum’s website or Instagram and I’m seeing that it’s part of their best practices, then it influences other artists and helps shift things in terms of [thinking], “This is important, it is important to do every time. It’s important to do in a way that is truly engaged with what it means to make a description of an image.
AS: Thank you for being so open about your practice and your thinking. What are you planning to do with the time and resources provided in this year at Eyebeam?
SF: I’ve been thinking about the year in different phases. My first phase is going to be a lot of research around what already exists, things that people have already developed in terms of best practices around image descriptions, alt-text. I know some of that from my own learning, but I really want to commit to understanding what’s already out there. Then I want to simultaneously be looking at different approaches to poetry. The reason I am framing it in terms of poetry is  to help clue people in to the fact that this is a more expressive and creative form of writing. So then from that, I’m going to create something that is both a workshop I can do with people in person, and some sort of guide that lives online, and potentially also in print. My working title is “Alt Text for Amatuer Poets.”
AS: That’s remarkable.