No one is asking for it: Reflections on Multilingüelandia, a Public Engagement residency with Antena and Antena Los Ángeles, March-May 2016

No one is asking for it: this is a natural response when questioning policies around interpreting museum materials. The conclusion obviously is that our audience does not want it. The assumption being that we know our audience; that they are empowered enough in the space to express their needs fluently; and that the audience already entering our doors constitutes the entirety of the audience we seek.

As workers in the museum field we choose every day to earn less and toil in service to our institutional mission. The social justice component of that mission here at the Hammer inspires us and guides our programmatic goals: “The Hammer Museum at UCLA believes in the promise of art and ideas to illuminate our lives and build a more just world.” In Public Engagement we seek to expand curatorial work beyond the didactic to the dialogic, considering the audience, the artists, the institution, and the multiplicity of potential situated in interactions between these communities. Sure in our knowledge of these groups, it can be difficult to hear the voices that are missing, the silent or the silenced.

We like to say around here that we go where artists lead. The first time I met with Jen Hofer, John Pluecker, and Ana Paula Noguez Mercado of Antena and Antena Los Ángeles, this mandate came to mind. The language justice collective Antena, and its sister collective, Antena Los Ángeles, explore how cross-language work helps to reimagine and rearticulate the worlds we inhabit. The artists believe that aesthetic practice is part of language justice, and they attempt to create culturally enriching spaces through embracing language equity, making all participants feel equally empowered to express themselves in ways that are comfortable and authentic. As artists working and struggling with these concepts as part of their artistic practice, these seemed to be the perfect people to confront the institutional hesitation, and to help guide our thinking.

Some revelations:

“They” are “not asking for it” because
1) they are not here,
2) they are not invited in,
3) once in, they are not enfranchised to express their needs, and
4) the museum would benefit from including these voices, and doing so in the languages most comfortable for expression.

Public Engagement has in its seven years acted often as a conduit between artists, the museum, and visitors by commissioning projects that have inspired small but deeply impactful changes in the museum’s space, programming, and on-site relationships. A yearlong residency with Machine Project in 2009 considered the activation of liminal spaces in the museum; Ana Prvački’s Greeting Committee (2011) focused on entry and the museum as gatekeeper; while Lisa Anne Auerbach’s United We Stand (2011) involved the artist training as a museum guard and considering the fundamental impact of the job on security professionals, as well as the impact this front-line team has on the gallery experience. Despite enlarging the mission to embrace unique projects and performance, we hoped to accomplish deeper integration by returning to the residency model in our work with Antena and Antena Los Ángeles.

Our initial conversations started with the big ideas: training all of our front-line staff; weekly multilingual programs; a book cart to traverse Westwood and the UCLA campus spreading the gospel of small press and multilingual literature; and even translations of all on-site copy. Once we developed ideas for the dream residency we factored in time and financial constraints, ultimately deciding to include one staff training, two full-day programs with partner organizations around food labor justice and housing justice (paired with language justice), and two on-site installations: the Antena Móvil outside of our museum store and a lightbox artwork in the courtyard. Regular interpretation for programs, training for front line, and translation of didactics and labels were left unaccomplished for many institutional reasons, some of which may be interesting to ponder.

Antena Móvil, installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2016.

Jen and Ana Paula constantly remind me that language justice time is slow time, and museum time — well, it can be quite condensed. So it was that the museum decided to pursue the project just weeks prior to the deadline for our print calendar, leading to a frenzied process not only to put words to actions but to additionally translate those words appropriately into multiple languages. Even more precarious was the process of placing text into our lightboxes for Antena’s installation project, Atentamente /敬上 / Sumasaiyo (2016). Here words were created, fixed, translated, designed, sent back to the translator, then run past a native speaker’s eyes, sent back to design, and finally off to print. It is fascinating to see how words lose meaning and once again regain it through the process, how every tool we take for granted can potentially alter content, adding inadvertent meaning or obscuring intent.

Antena (Jen Hofer and John Pluecker), Atentamente /敬上 / Sumasaiyo, 2016. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

We additionally learned a great deal in enacting multilingual programming in a space so resolutely monolingual. Jen and Ana Paula pushed us to consider, with our communications team, how we might draw a multilingual audience and devised to have monolingual non-English speakers at the front of the room, guiding the discussion. Two events were conceived with partner organizations whose social justice work aligned with both the mission of Antena and Antena Los Ángeles and the mission of the Hammer, and that we knew would reach a monolingual audience.

The Hammer produces approximately three hundred programs per year for the public, and interpretation for these programs would add an additional cost but would not be tremendously difficult to institute. The issue here, however, is that interpretation must be based on need or access; simply offering the service is not enough. It would require a concerted effort to integrate the voices of non-English monolingual speakers into existing discussions as well as to reach out to non-English monolingual audiences with the intention of being a space for broad intersectional dialogue. This fundamental embrace of alternative perspectives is essential in providing a truly equitable and diverse intellectual community within the museum walls, and yet is often overlooked in favor of more superficial integration policies. It is only the superficial perspective that we are entertaining when we say, “They aren’t asking for it,” in response to the question of incorporating interpretation and translation within museums.

Antena/Antena Los Ángeles, MultilingüeLAndia, 2016. Documentation images from Food Labor Justice + Language Justice: A Bilingual Exchange, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, March 12, 2016. Photo: Barbara Katz. Participating organizations: Cocina Abierta and Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles.

Similarly, the most obvious integration of language justice would have happened in the direct space of interaction on-site, between front-line staff and the museum’s visitors. Several subtleties made adding a more thorough training process impossible during the residency. Most frontline staff members are students at UCLA — they come from diverse backgrounds and are uniquely capable of connecting with the student visitor population. At the same time, because we rely on student labor, the department is constantly in flux, especially during summer months. Intensive language justice training is not inexpensive, and this turnover would increase that cost multifold. Ideally our colleagues in the front lines are multilingual, but even beyond that, they should be trained to make monolingual non-English speaking visitors feel welcome through physical cues and guidance when they don’t speak a common language.

And so these are the questions we are left asking: How does the museum embrace and benefit from equity through language justice despite institutional barriers? How can the lack, the silent and the silenced, be recognized institutionally to enact a sense of urgency in welcoming and valuing these wide-ranging voices? Diversity of course is the hot topic of the day. But understanding how, left unquestioned, structural realities like monolingual space contribute to programmatic failures is essential to the mission of a cultural center: namely, holding space for our publics.