Essay 5: From the Nonverbal to the Verbal: Titles as Translation and Interpretation

I debated with myself for a long time whether or not to title the individual pieces in Encounters (2005-2006), my most recent body of work. Even coming up with an overall series title was a challenge. This has led me to think a great deal about the interpretation of my work and how I want people to interact with it. I used to think that it was the artist’s job to give each piece a meaningful title, and that leaving a work untitled—or basing the title on some sort of numeric system for identifying and cataloguing works—was a cop out. I have since backpedalled on this idea, and have decided that though my recent work as a group might warrant an overall title, the individual pieces don’t need individual titles.

A number of converging ideas led me to this reversal, all of which center on the challenge of translating visual ideas into verbal language. After I talk about these challenges, I’ll present a case study that demonstrates the absurdity that can happen as a result.

For me, titling and interpretation of a piece is usually best left until completion of the piece, and often after long contemplation. I have to spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about a finished piece before I can title it. It is a rare occasion when a title springs forth before or during the creation of a piece. To be fair, I have created works in the past where the titles came before I made the piece. My digital series Pyramid Suite (from 1996-1997) was one. The following two series, Conversations (1997) and Lunar Threads (1997-1998)—and the individual works within them—were also titled before I made the work, as was Ghost Trees (2000-2001). These series were all titled partly because of the necessity of uniquely naming each file on the computer—in thirty-one characters or less—and partly because my approach was to choose a theme for each body of work, then look through my sketchbooks for appropriate images. In effect, I was curating source material for thematic series. Aside from these digital series, almost all of my work has been conceived of and completed as individual works, even Encounters—my most recent body of digital work—which has a cohesive look but was not conceived of as a series in the same way that my other digital works were.

Nonverbal Practice

My most recent work came out of a nonverbal process, and many of the decisions that led to what might be interpreted as specific verbal meanings in the work were, in fact, intuitively based on formal needs, whimsy, or otherwise nonverbal—sometimes irrational—reasons. As such, I felt that to come up with titles would be forcing an interpretation on work that was intended to have an open interpretation. I recently heard or read a story about a composer who, when asked about the meaning of the piece he had just played, simply played the piece again. This is often how I feel when people ask me about meaning in my work. I’m usually well behaved in my responses, but in my head I’m thinking about the fact that if I had truly intended for a verbal interpretation of my work, I more than likely would have chosen a literary form.

With my work in general—and especially with the recent pieces—I find titling to be akin to captioning news photographs. Similar to captioning, the act of titling is my way of giving my viewers an idea of one or more of my interpretations of the piece. As artist Setsuya Kotani said,

Images can have intelligence and understanding, and their meaning can be quite faithfully translated into words, but they need not start from philosophical or religious concepts and rarely do so in our time. Universal meaning finds its way into art with or without discursive intellectual effort, but it requires a certain receptivity from the artist who turns toward that level of meaning, that aspect of his or her inner life. (Kotani in Lipsey 1988, 26)

While Kotani talks of religion and philosophy, his attitude could easily be applied to any images, from the sacred to the mundane, including those found in news media. Or, more generally, one could apply this idea that visual meaning is often pre-verbal to any situation where images must be decoded. In any case, photographs used by news media usually have multiple readings and are chosen to go with specific headlines and stories, sometimes with only a tenuous connection. Often captions are chosen to emphasize particular biases of the publication, and once attached to the photograph serve to fix its meaning for readers of that publication.

The receptivity that Kotani speaks of is something that I require of myself when making a piece and of my audience when they look at my work. This isn’t the place to debate philosophy or religion in art, nor do I necessarily agree with Kotani that works of art carry universal meanings that are the same for all viewers. Rather, I believe that a work of art can communicate to all its viewers, but that interpretations will differ from one person to the next. When I do title my work, I do so in order to guide the interpretation.

Titling As Translation

I have likened the act of titling to a translation of what for me is a visual language into a verbal language. My process for titling a work consists of me verbally describing the piece to myself, and then creating a story that makes sense within the visual framework. This narrative approach makes sense given the fact that each of my pieces seems to have an underlying story. But this act of actually creating the narrative is totally separate from the process of creating the work—interpreting and translating into words an intuitively created visual artifact—because the foundations of the work come from a language totally outside of the written or spoken word. When I do title individual pieces, the titles often end up as one-line poetic meditations on the piece.

The process of translation of images into words is an act of recreating or summarizing the source work in the new language and is similar to the translation of literary works from one language to another. This was a fact borne out in my studies of foreign languages, and even more so when I taught English in Japan and encountered a wide variety of possible translations of a given text. Much earlier than my time in Japan, I found this phenomenon in pop music where the creation of videos—promotional films that are often no more substantial than product commercials—is a translation of the musical work into a visual one. The music and lyrics may evoke or describe images in each listener’s mind, but often, because the video medium is so often primarily a marketing tool, the translation to that medium is not given the creative attention that was paid to the original song. This results in a poor or botched translation that doesn’t have the same power as the music it illustrates.1 Imagine a technical writer with no experience of poetry attempting to translate haiku from one language to another and you can imagine the possibilities for poor translations. Combine this with the fact that our minds find it very difficult to dislodge first impressions—especially visual ones—and the video medium often replaces or changes our conception of a work of art. My experience with music videos is that this translation is rarely for the best. I’m not saying that videos are bad or serve no purpose. They are a useful tool, but in some ways they are an enforced visual interpretation of an aural work, a work conceived of in a different medium. In the same way, I find that titles, for Encounters, would be an enforced reinterpretation in words, of works that had no verbal origin.

In museums and art galleries, it is common practice to follow the breadcrumb trail of title cards along the gallery walls. Visitors glance at each painting in turn, nod in agreement with the data printed on the card, and move on to the next stop. Or rather than agreement, they feel another emotion: bafflement, confusion, anger, or nothing at all. Regardless, there is a sense that once the card has been read, the piece has been “done,” the viewer’s task accomplished. I want my viewers to look at my pieces and be interested enough that they want to find out who did them. I don’t want them simply to walk from title card to title card. This ties in to my experience in the late 1980s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where they had recently opened the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing devoted to modern art. The annex was so new that museum staff had yet to put up name cards to accompany the works. I remember being awestruck and amazed by the pieces in the exhibition. I wandered through the exhibition totally engaged visually, and only occasionally being frustrated by not knowing who the artists were. A security guard I talked with in an attempt to find out more about a couple of specific pieces was apologetic but unable to tell me anything about the work. It was only many years later, on seeing a video of that inaugural exhibition, that I found out more about the contents of the show.

The specific titling of a work of art forces viewers to think that there is a correct interpretation of the work, and that there should be some sort of verbal-intellectual response to the work. I would much rather have people wandering around an exhibition of my work, totally mesmerized and responding on a visual, nonverbal, visceral level, looking at the title cards for information once they’ve really looked at the work rather than as an authoritative guide to understanding.

Personal Interpretation

Different people will react to the visual elements of a piece differently—whether there’s a title or not, and whether the title is known to the viewer or not— depending on their experience. In her article “Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution,” Kathy Acker interprets works from the Western realist canon—primarily Goya and Caravaggio—in a way that intentionally ignores the socio-cultural milieu from which they came. For each painting, she describes what she sees, bringing in her own experiences and interpretations rather than the intended meanings. In this excerpt from her description of Goya’s early-1820s oil painting The Fates (Atropos), Acker declares that

A man who has light hair, since he’s looking into a mirror, is a female. She wears an armless white tee-shirt. The man almost directly in front of her but slightly to her right is ugly. He has ugly monkey lips. Black, greasy hair is dripping down the neck. (Acker in Wallis 1984, 30)

Acker’s descriptions of other pieces are equally absurd and entertaining, and easily prove the point that meaning is relative and often dependent on cultural markers. Her article was a reinforcement of my experiences in showing my as-yet untitled work or work-in-progress to people of various backgrounds, and seeing them make their own—sometimes widely varying—interpretations. Rather than my work—especially the titles—serving a didactic function, I prefer to release viewers from the hand-holding of titles. People seem perfectly comfortable constructing their own stories and meanings.

Indefensible Authority to Interpret

Finally, I don’t claim to be an expert at interpreting my own work. In relation to my having to create a verbal interpretation of a work for myself as part of the titling process, I don’t think I can always be relied on to come up with an appropriate interpretation. There’s a lot of stuff in the pieces that is intuitive, and as such I may not even notice it. Elements which to me are peripheral may prove to be central to another viewer. This may be a cop out, but my experience with audience reaction in the past tells me otherwise.

Encounters 10: A Case Study in Titling

Encounters: 10 by Ed Pas

Encounters: 10 (2005-2006)
Digital media, variable size (2.35:1 aspect ratio)

This piece was the tenth one I completed in my most recent body of work, Encounters (2005-2006). We can describe the piece formally as being in a landscape orientation.2 The image contains a number of bird-like figures, many of which look none too pleased. Most figures are facing others, with the general motion of the figures being towards the centre of the composition. Two of the creatures appear to be emitting cones from their mouths, though these conical shapes could easily be interpreted as giant spikes coming from beyond the sides of the image. The ground is full of jagged shapes, and the background appears to be some sort of sky filled with an off-vertical wavy texture. The colour scheme has a cool bluish-grey cast to it, with traces of yellow. It would be easy for me to be flippant and title the piece Composition Number 10 (The Bluebirds of Unhappiness).

Alternatively, I could look at the chronological sequence in which I created the piece, and what was going on in my life at the time. I was living in southwest England at the time. Using sketches from the late 1990s, I made the base collage on 3 November 2005, worked on the piece from 16-18 November 2005, and then made minor changes on 21 February 2006. In the fall of 2005 there was media hysteria about avian flu, which was spreading across Europe, having been detected as near as France but not yet in England. At the time I jokingly told a friend that this was “my bird flu piece.” This would be a legitimate interpretation, except that the piece was not directly a reaction to then-current events. Still, it would be easy to title it in a way that uses anti-government rhetoric to force such an interpretation. A title such as British Government Continues to Take Little Action as Bird Flu Found Across the Channel in France would do the trick. Or a tabloid headline-inspired invocation of previous agricultural neglect: Continental Birds Dead of Flu. Bureaucrats Take Little Action. Is this BSE all over again? Topical as these titles are, they are to my mind mostly irrelevant to the work.

Another interpretation could be made based on the way I titled my working layers as I developed the piece.3 The jagged texture at the bottom was labelled as “stones,” and the top half background were “sky” and “clouds.” There were many layers of different types of birds, which may or may not have had names such as “left bird,” “middle angry bird,” “dying (or falling) bird,” “bird with a human head,” and so on. It would be easy to come up with something like Fear and Aggression in the Stoneyard: An Allegory. One could create an entire interpretive framework around so-called verbal clues that were an arbitrary part of my production process. Of course, this assumes that I was consistent in naming and renaming layers as I worked, which is rarely the case. For example, I might have moved the so-called “left bird” to the middle or right side of the composition, perhaps adding a few pictorial elements into the top of the frame, and then transformed the bird creature into a humanoid, all without renaming the layer. So too with any of the other compositional layers of the piece. Incidentally, I took the objects in the “stones” layers and modified them slightly for a later piece, renaming the layer “flames.”

All of these possibilities ignore the history of my creative practice. I’ve always used birds in my work, and although I’ve often had clear reasons for doing so, I’ve just as often simply used them because they were expedient, or for reasons that defy rational explanation. Additionally, I have a history of making anthropomorphic figures, and most of my oeuvre to date can be characterized as some form of landscape. In that sense, the piece could simply be yet another iteration of themes I’ve been exploring for some time. In light of my conscious decision to make these pieces in a cinematic widescreen aspect ratio, it’s possible to look at my work as still frames from an unknown film from another world. Ideas of relationships and otherworldly beings, my love of cinema, and a tip of the hat to Cindy Sherman might result in a series title of Archive Stills: Unmade Movies From Another Plane, with this particular image titled The Birds Reimagined: Loplop Grows Wings of Desire and Visits the Falls.4

I find titling breaks down when it is reduced to mere description, such as with a title like Blue Composition: Bird Creatures in Apparent Conflict.5 Even so, and regardless of my personal taste, I think all of these interpretations of the piece are valid. Whether I like or agree with them or not, they are all things I have thought of or about when looking at the piece. It’s difficult—I’d say nearly impossible—to come up with a single all-encompassing title that would not exclude a majority of these interpretations. This is not for lack of trying, and neither laziness nor evasion on my part. The difficulty arises exactly because my attempts to make evocative, nonverbal pieces has succeeded. Many of the ideas encapsulated by my sample titles naturally exclude some of the other interpretations. I’m going to side with Acker and assume that people will bring their own knowledge and reactions to each piece, without me having to guide them.

I think that Henry Moore said it best in this unreferenced quote from Wikipedia, when talking to his niece about the simplicity of his titles:

All art should have a certain mystery and should make demands on the spectator. Giving a sculpture or a drawing too explicit a title takes away part of that mystery so that the spectator moves on to the next object, making no effort to ponder the meaning of what he has just seen. Everyone thinks that he or she looks but they don’t really, you know. (Moore, unreferenced in Wikipedia 2006: Moore)

With my work, I would take Moore’s statement a step further and argue that there are so many possible interpretations for my work—at least with my recent digital pieces—that even simple titles give people an easy way out. In my case titles would allow the viewer an opportunity to avoid looking deeply at a piece and thereby avoid creating a personal interpretation.


  1. It’s important to note here that I am not dismissing all music videos. I’ve seen many which are great art. However, I don’t believe that the majority of pop songs describe the members of the band prancing around on stage or in a white-box studio. As such—notwithstanding the fact that often the lyrics are often as inane—I don’t believe the majority of videos should be depictions of mimed performance. Furthermore, my comparison of videos to product commercials should not be take as an attack on the latter medium. In fact I enjoy watching good commercials. But both types of media have their weak practictioners weighing down the truly creative people in these fields, and and as such there is always a range of quality. ^
  2. Its format is considered landscape based on its proportions and orientation rather than its subject matter. That is, its horizontal width is greater than its vertical height. Nonetheless, the content could also be described as “a landscape” because it appears to depict a sort of outdoor space, with what looks like sky and ground. ^
  3. I discuss my digital processes in greater detail in Essay 7 (Why Did I Go Digital?) but don’t describe the use of “layers” in imaging software. The following description of layers, while taken from a specific software package, applies in general to any imaging software that implements the feature:

    Layers allow you to work on one element of an image without disturbing the others. Think of layers as sheets of acetate stacked one on top of the other. You can see through transparent areas of a layer to the layers below. You can change the composition of an image by changing the order and attributes of layers. (Adobe Photoshop Help, About Layers)

    Not only is it possible to modify the composition through changing the stacking order of layers, it is also possible to move the position of compositional elements within a layer. If the stacking order of layers can be conceived of as a pile of clear sheets of drawn-on acetate in which individual sheets can be moved deeper or shallower, then the elements on a single sheet can also be moved within that sheet in any direction: up, down, left, right, or any combination thereof. They can also be scaled, distorted, coloured, duplicated, and otherwise manipulated. ^

  4. In the late 1970s, photographer Cindy Sherman did a series of “Untitled Film Stills,” photographs that have been described as follows:

    Like ordinary snapshots, they appear to be fragments; unlike those snapshots, their fragmentation is not that of the natural continuum, but of … a conventional, segmented temporality. They are like quotations from the sequence of frames that constitutes the narrative flow of film. (Crimp in Wallis 1984, 181)

    The speculative title The Birds Reimagined: Loplop Grows Wings of Desire and Visits the Falls combines references to one artist from the Surrealist tradition and three separate movies. The Birds is obviously a reference to Hitchcock’s 1963 suspense film of the same name. Loplop was a recurring bird creature who appeared as the artist’s alter-ego in the work of Surrealist Max Ernst. Wings of Desire, the 1987 film by German director Wim Wenders, is an evocative, moody love story featuring angels who observe—and some of whom try to participate in—the daily lives of Berliners. The Falls is Peter Greenaway’s 1980 pseudo-documentary about people whose lives have been affected by a Violent Unknown Event which is in some way connected to birdlike behaviour and phenomena. ^

  5. This would be something like playing the “cloud game” where one looks for recognizable shapes in clouds as a starting point for imaginative play, and realizing that one’s playmate, rather than seeing dragons or trees or speedboats sees such things as cirrus, stratus, or storm clouds. ^