Art has been a way for me to reflect on the practice of interpreting and what it means to be that person between two parties.
By Evana Ho
When Josh Ophel speaks, he speaks with his whole body. A lot of people could be described this way, but with him it makes even more sense.
Australian Sign Language (Auslan) was Josh's first language. He's the eldest of five, and he and his siblings are CODA: Children of Deaf Adults.
“I found myself between hearing and deaf people a lot growing up and sort of naturally being that kind of intermediary,” Josh, who has normal hearing, says. “I think a lot of my study as an adult has been trying to develop a formal vocabulary and toolset to do this in a professional way.”
His studies at the ANU School of Art and Design have helped him work through some of these things. Josh has just completed his Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours), focusing on printmaking and drawing in his undergraduate studies, and sculpture and spatial practice in his Honours.
He spoke about the great community of people at the School, people who are passionate about making and doing, and the skills he's learned there; from making to critical thinking. On a personal level too, he says: “Art has been a way for me to reflect on the practice of interpreting and what it means to be that person between two parties. It's been a useful critical space for me to think about my own presence and power relations, and the implications of being in that role.”
To a layperson, being an interpreter may seem like a straightforward, signal in/signal out sort of proposition. Josh explains the complexity and significance of conveying message and meaning to people.
“Sometimes those words have a lot of responsibility, a lot of impact – in a medical context, a legal context, the words you're putting out to someone could affect their life in really profound ways. But also, in a crisis, the information you get access to is so important.”
He recalls as a child seeing how stressed the deaf community was during the 2003 Canberra bushfires.
“There wasn't as much news interpreting, it wasn't as prolific as it has been this year. So there was an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, which sort of returned with last summer's bushfires.”
The greater visibility of Auslan interpreters in press conferences on the most recent bushfires and the Coronavirus inspired the work Josh produced for his Honours in Visual Arts. His portfolio included a video of him signing against a media wall backdrop, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison's head super-imposed on his own.
“In that video Interpreting the News, I was thinking about, what does it mean to be kind of the face of that message? What does it mean to carry that message through your body? At the same time, I was thinking about in what ways is truth and meaning represented in the news, and in what ways is it constructed.”
He continues, “I was thinking about this sort of post-truth, deep fake atmosphere around the news as well and the way in which crisis is commodified and turned into this thing that, y'know, clicking, following a certain call-to-action on a news media item, is very much like a profit-driven enterprise. So what does it mean to adopt that role of interpreter for that kind of media machine?”
As his experience during the 2003 bushfires suggests, access to and prominence of Auslan interpreters wasn't what it is now. As young as when he was 6 or 7, Josh was helping his mother to interpret at the shops, doctors appointments, and at Centrelink. But even at the age he is now, he says it's not appropriate for him to play this role, particularly in medical contexts. He highlights the importance of having a formal interpreter - someone who doesn't have a conflict of interest and isn't emotionally invested.
“The art making I've been doing has been thinking about this kind of witnessing that a person does when they're between two parties, even if you yourself aren't dramatically, like, traumatised or affected by an event,” Josh says. “There's sometimes a surplus of experience that you have and it's not your life, but it's other people's lives. How do you process that, how do you deal with that?”
Looking back, Josh feels his experience was like that of a first generation immigrant family where the parents speak one language and the community, school, and everyone else speaks a different one. Hand in hand with a different language is a different culture – as well as each family's own traditions.
Auslan is a very visual culture, so music wasn't much a part of Josh's home life. He stresses though, that there are many deaf people who love music and there's such a thing as sign-singing (which he says he's not very good at). Instead, he and his family enjoyed watching movies together, and he and his parents share a love of drawing. Josh also describes his mother as a fantastic storyteller.
“It's really an amazing experience when you're told a story in Auslan, because there's things like role-shift and you assume the character that you're in. If there's a dialogue between a character on your right and your left, you'll position your characters there and sort of move your head and assume those characters,” he says.
“When my mum tells a story from her childhood and she assumes a character, like her sibling, you can really see her sibling in her performance. There's a really amazing dimension to Auslan storytelling that I'm really passionate about filming and recording.”
It's only recently that Josh has been talking more about Deaf culture and embracing that as part of his identity. It's gradually become more important to him and he has realised how much he values signing.
“I've realised that a big way I express myself is with my hands, my face, and sign language, and I wasn't showing that side of myself to a huge part of the world that I was connected to – school, work, and things. Finding the words, finding the right time to express that part of me was really hard,” he says.
“Art making has created a space for me where I can produce these little vessels that maybe pass those ideas on to other people. By bringing them together, I found more ways to express who I feel like I am.”
Post-university, Josh intends to keep making art. In addition, he's on track to complete his Diploma of Auslan interpreting this year. He has been studying that with two of his siblings, and wants to work as an interpreter.
“I only ever signed with my parents, but now I get to sign with other people,” Josh says. “That's been really beautiful.”