An Interview with the Artists Behind “READ SUBTITLES ALOUD”

November 16, 2020
On the heels of its critically-acclaimed run in Turkey, Media Art Xploration, PlayCo, and A Corner in the World present the English language premiere of the interactive multi-media soap opera series READ SUBTITLES ALOUD. PlayCo’s Communications & Marketing Manager Annie Jin Wang sat down with creators Onur Karaoglu and Kathryn Hamilton, and MAX Associate Producer Deniz Tortum for a deep dive into the creative process behind RSA and what it means to be an artist on a virtual, yet global stage today.
Meet the Participants

Onur Hamilton Karaoglu works between performance art and theater. Since 2010, his original and adapted writing and directing pieces were presented at spaces like garajistanbul, bomontiada Alt, Roxy, Heidelberg Theater and Rotterdam Schouwburg. His installations and video works were presented at Bahar (Sharjah Biennial 2017), SPOT, Operation Room and Artnivo. He lives in Istanbul.

Kathryn Hamilton, otherwise known as Sister Sylvester, is an artist and self-taught microbiologist, based in Queens. She is a 2019 Macdowell Fellow. Recent work includes The Eagle and The Tortoise at National Sawdust; ARK, at 601 Artspace, MUTEK festival and MoCA Toronto; Three Rooms at Shubbak Festival, Arcola Theater, Bozar Center for Fine Arts, Brussels, and Frascati, Amsterdam.

Deniz Tortum is the media arts producer at MAX. He works in film and new media. His work has screened internationally, including Venice Film Festival, SxSW, Sheffield Doc/Fest and True/False. He has organized new media exhibitions and conferences at MIT Open Documentary Lab, Istanbul Independent Film Festival and Camden International Film Festival.

AJW: I think a good way to start this conversation would be to talk more broadly about the digital medium, since everyone is interested in creating work for virtual platforms nowadays. The urgency suddenly feels very different than in pre-pandemic times. To what extent have you, as artists, felt a shift in how you approach your work now that this is something that everybody is trying to do?

Onur Karaoglu: This is something in our practice we can generalize–we are thinking that we are making theatre, but we are not only making theatre; we are interacting with other disciplines and we don’t call ourselves “theatre people” traditionally. Before the pandemic, we weren’t happy with what “theatre” was doing for us. I would say that the technological possibilities allow us to be more interdisciplinary. In Turkey, I don’t call myself a “theatre person”, I call myself an artist and I must collaborate with people from other artistic forms. 

Kathryn Hamilton: You know, this whole idea of suddenly there exists all this online theater–that’s actually been going on for a very long time. Take 2016 as an example: everyone was experimenting with digital forms, there was so much need for it, because there was also an inability to travel but for a different reason. A whole section of the Edinburgh Festival was translated into hybrid online forms because a bunch of people had their visas denied. There has been a lot of online hybrid theater forms previous to this, and so it’s a little strange sometimes to just to see the US acting as if it’s becoming an event right now. 

AJW: So the rest of the world has been waiting for the US to catch up to it.

Deniz Tortum: To add to that, there is an interdisciplinary area where boundaries between different art forms and traditions blur–that’s where most of the experimentation is happening. We’re currently living at the extreme of digital and physical worlds colliding with each other, but we’ve actually been living in this world for at least twenty years. Maybe this moment is pushing it because we are collectively experiencing it together. To bring the domain of knowledge of theatre-slash-live arts, you need to move towards the other forms as well. To poke little holes in the form so that the light can get in.

KH: I think it feels really strange to define yourself according to a form, especially in these days. I think it is necessary to be form-agnostic, and I guess “artists” is the term which allows you to do that most broadly. Like what Deniz was saying, there’s a lot of playfulness to be had with not necessarily abiding by the form of theater, but playing with the traditions, playing with the history, playing with all these different elements without necessarily having to use the form of it.

OK: The new convention is now digital, like, we have advanced from physical to digital now; it is very much everywhere like that way. So, now, if you think of what is the next step after digital, maybe we are going to go back to the physical, but in a different way. What Read Subtitles Aloud does is completely strip down the digital. I don’t know if Subtitles would be possible conceptually before the pandemic. But we are once again going out of the convention of the digital; the digital has become as prosaic as the physical until we can disregard the conventions of it in a similar way.

AJW: Something I found really interesting about this series is that it subverts the conventional performer and audience relationship. When you’re watching a film in a theater, even one of those hokey 4D scratch-and-sniff experiences that have some sort of participatory element, you’re still very much the consumer of what is being presented to you; it’s very passive. In conventional live theater, the performers are feeding off of the audience’s energy, but this is almost taking away the role of the audience as spectator and turning it into a fully active relationship. Even with no one watching me, it made me very uncomfortable to be put in this position of knowing that if I wanted to fully buy into the narrative experience that you were creating for me, I had to participate.

OK: This is about the origin of the work, actually, and this is important to us. The piece comes from when you are saying certain things, like when you are processing them in your brain, you say something and you believe it immediately. I mean, we have subtitles and are conditioning people to think in certain ways. I’m not saying that we are trying to make propaganda, but we want people who say certain things to believe in that, or to acknowledge that as you begin to say words, you believe them. You write yourself.

AJW: Yes, I did have this experience–as a dramaturg who works with actors often, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about how actors create characters. They fill in the lines that the playwright has written for them with intent, and in Subtitles I am being asked to do that, but I have to do it after I say it. It’s the reshuffling of the conventional storytelling process that is certainly really interesting intellectually, but also in a physical, bodied way.

KH: I think maybe it’s closer to the way that we actually function. We say things, we do things, and then we have to arrange our character to back up those spur-of-the-moment decisions.

DT: Just a little parallel I thought of–when you say something out loud, but then you start thinking about it or questioning it. For example, in one of the episodes, the audience really speaks to themselves in a way that functioned almost like therapy for me, in the sense that I’m saying my feelings aloud and then thinking about them, how they made me feel. And it’s interesting because if you look at the history of interactivity and computer media, I’m always surprised because how has this not been done before? I mean, maybe it has, but nothing widespread that I know of.

KH: It’s kind of like a dialogue karaoke. Annie Dorsen did a thing called Spokaoke, it was like karaoke only it was historical speeches. And I think that’s really interesting. How much do you embody them by saying them, how much do you believe them? What does it mean to put those words inside of you? 

DT: Watching Read Subtitles Aloud, I’m now thinking that you don’t actually need someone else to reflect it back to you. You just need your own words to reflect this revelation for you.

KH: Yeah, I think that thing you’re reacting to is really important, whether it’s spoken, whether it’s visual, that’s the thing that keeps you going.

OK: During the early pandemic, there was a drive to do it because everyone needed to react. Everyone is at home and, coming back to the origins again, you’re not socializing with anyone and you don’t have anyone to talk to. But we are all affecting each other. I’m connecting with you in the US, it’s daylight there but it’s nighttime here, but I see the daylight and it’s pulling up my mood. I mean, even if you’re talking to a fictional character, emotions are still being pulled up somehow. 

AJW: I’d love to hear more about what the actual process of scripting this series–creating the boundaries and the structure–was like. Seeing yourself an artist who has access to all of these digital tools and how you’ve used them can open up the imagination for a lot of artists, I imagine.

OK: We had the initial version in Turkey, in Turkish [this past spring]. And then it was released, and then MAX was interested in adapting it, so [Kathryn and I] started to write the American version. We followed some ideas from the Turkish version, but it was very different than this.

DT: At MAX we produce and present work that interrogate technology and art, but we also focus on works that bring the knowledge of live arts. This piece is both live art and it completely looks at our digital lives and how strange this time that we are living in is. At the same time, it is giving us a lot of room to think. It is a piece that’s holding our hand and accompanying us to understand both our experience and emotions.

OK: One other difference I will mention as well is that in the Turkish version, we don’t have a producer. We had lockdowns in the first wave of the pandemic here and we didn’t leave our houses. I had my group of friends, we were on Zoom, and I was sending them the briefs and they were performing. Then I was at home, editing them in the night and sending them to everyone and we were reviewing them somehow. it was all very do-it-yourself style, with no institutional support. And here, in the US version, we have a design team, we have dramaturgy, we have a marketing team. It’s happening very differently here, so the shape of the work is different here. This is the first time we’ve worked with such hands-on producers–

KH: But it’s producers that we trust. And we all know that MAX has the same overarching vision, so there’s been a lot of feedback. You usually don’t have people with the capacity to be coming in and giving notes all the time, but it’s been a really amazing experience to have people who really care about the piece and are able to push it to the place it needs to be.

OK: I’m really curious to know, actually, how people in the English-speaking world respond to it, or people who have seen both versions. I’m not trained as an actor so I won’t call myself one, but in the American version I really pushed my limits and English is not my first language. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that.

AJW: I do think, coming as a non-actor, there is something that’s very alive about non-actors not acting, if that’s what we’re doing. Many of us, especially now when we feel isolated, want to feel part of something, like someone is paying attention to us and in that way this experience is self-soothing. So maybe an actor’s not what this experience needs because at the end of the day, we’re trying to make a human connection.

KH: That’s something we discovered while we were filming–the most important thing wasn’t acting, but a sense of listening.The other important thing we figured out is where the other person is located on the screen from where they are looking, to make us believe that they are looking at us. It doesn’t work if we look straight into the camera because we know we’d be looking to where our face would be if it was on the screen.

AJW: So when you were recording, was there another person on the other side?

KH: No, we would send the performer the script and ask them to turn on Photobooth or whatever they were using to capture it, and then they would send it through to us and we would watch it and do another take. For some people, it was very quick, and others not so much.

AJW: Given how organic I felt the timings were, it was surprising to hear that there wasn’t another person saying your lines back to you during the performance.

KH: What I love about that is that we don’t know how the audience is going to speak that line. There’s a weird disconnect between what you put out and what the other person is giving back and that’s what we wanted to play with.

DT: There’s something very interesting about the eye contact, or looking at someone else. I just wanted to reiterate that because I’ve been thinking both about this show and the feeling of looking at someone.

OK: In our version, everybody’s leaning towards the left side of the camera and it’s a very decisive choice. They could have been on the right side of the camera too, but we chose to be on the left.

DT: So, because I will probably be towards my right and you’re going to be on your left?

OK: No, I mean, we start reading from the left, that’s the reason.

DT: Ohhh.

KH: In cinema when someone looks directly at and addresses you in the camera, it’s more artifice. When we started filming it with people looking at the camera, we realized really quickly that it didn’t work at all and we had to find a way to have people’s eyes inside the screen.

AJW: I just want to be conscious of time (haha!), so if there’s anything else you want us to know about this project that we haven’t yet talked about?

OK: One last thing–we are talking about conceptual ideas that are very exciting and artistically and intellectually very moving. But the piece itself–it’s very simple, sometimes really stupid. The people are very mundane, we incorporate small details of daily life and they are not talking about big ideas. They are obsessed with these unimportant situations and conceptually we are trying to prove something somehow, but it is also like a football match. On top of what we are discussing from an intellectual perspective, I am excited for how the daily interactions will be received by people. It is frivolous, in a sense, but also we are getting people to engage with these ideas.

KH: Also as the whole world has been going through these dramatic, seismic, catastrophic shifts every day this past spring and summer. To have those things happening at the outskirts of the story and to have these people actually just talking and thinking about the most mundane, quotidian, petty things–it’s about the juxtaposition of the two.

DT: And at the end of it, it also feels like you met five new friends.

KH: I don’t know if we want these people as your friends. (laughs)

DT: I’ll refriend them.

KH: Yeah, well, there has to be a certain charm to the characters to make you keep engaging. And yet they are also quite despicable.

AJW: I like the idea of making new friends, in this digital age.

KH: Oh, I was thinking the other day about how much the thing I miss most about New York in these times is not meeting strangers. You know, all these chance encounters that I didn’t realize how much energy I got from them. I have my ways of connecting with the people that are really dear to me, but I don’t get many serendipitous kinds of chance encounters, so maybe this is a way for people to experience that.

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Annie Jin Wang is the Associate Director for Programming & Communications at PlayCo. Drop her a line at!