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Annotation as Aesthetic: A Closing Interview with Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan

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2021 Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan created Speculative Annotation, an experimental browser-based application that encourages students and teachers to have conversations with historic Library of Congress items through annotation and mark-making. McClellan is a research-based artist who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. With a subject focus on speech and civic engagement, McClellan works in a range of media including sculpture, performance, photography, and writing. LC Labs’s Jaime Mears interviewed McClellan as she wrapped up her work with the Library this fall.

Can you talk a bit about what your relationship was with the Library before you started this residency?

I had been to the Library in October 2019. I was, at the time, doing research about courtroom sketches. A friend had seen an exhibition of Library of Congress courtroom sketches, and I spent the day in the P&P (Prints & Photographs) room to access some of the collection. I had a great day going in—I got my card and spent the afternoon looking at sketches. That was part of what sparked my interest in doing the Innovator in Residence program. I had wondered if there were a residency available if I continued that research or some other research, and I found the Innovator in Residence program online when I was following up about ways to collaborate with the Library.

How, specifically, did you hear about the program?

When I saw the listing for the Innovator in Residence program, I did some digging into who the previous Innovators were. I was really intrigued by the process and the previous works that had been made, and I also saw a space where what I could offer to the program would be different than what the previous Innovators did.

2021 Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan
2021 Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan

Can you contextualize your work in this residency within your larger artistic portfolio? Could you have made this work three years ago? Five years ago? Five years from now?

A project that I did as part of the Roman J. Witt Artists in Residence program at the University of Michigan, prepared me for this project. It gave me the confidence both to engage a really large institution, and to think about how I might benefit from and be of benefit to the institution I was working with.

A lot of how I think about collaborating or assess a new project is thinking about what resources are available in the organization, and how I might put those resources to good use. In the case of the Library, I knew that the capability of, for instance, hiring a developer, was unique to the Library of Congress, but it was also that I really love working with experts and I love being able to access a vast archive. I like learning new things, which may sound overly simplistic, but having access to people and materials that I haven’t seen before, and talking to people who know much more about those materials than I do, is one of the things I find exciting.

Speaking of working with experts, you ended up featuring staff annotations in Speculative Annotation which was not a part of the original scope. What attracted you to create a tool for students to have the same experience carving a pathway through the Library?

I’ve spoken about artists as toolmakers. Sometimes we might think about that as making a concrete physical tool that you’re going to use in the workshop, but this is a research tool. How do we create a space where an artist could set up a conversation or a way for young people doing research? This is a research tool but also potentially a communication tool, a way of using annotation to be in conversation with other people. That really gets to the heart of what I’m interested in about making art, and certainly about what I was interested in to make Speculative Annotation.

screenshot of application with image of movie screen.
A screen capture of the Speculative Annotation application in an early design phase. Experience Courtney’s work at

What need does Speculative Annotation fill, for you or for the students you designed it for?

One thing I’ve talked about a lot with students is that you are always going to be your first audience, your first critic, and the first person who is using something you made. So if it’s not useful to you, it’s going to be really hard to make it useful for anyone else. That’s part of a larger philosophy I have about artists as problem solvers.

Speculative Annotation did a few things: it dealt with annotation as an aesthetic. I love the visual nature of annotation.

We also created a mini curated collection—curating as an artistic gesture. There are many artists who do this and do it really well. Fred Wilson, for example, curates museum collections and heightens and draws attention to some of the inherent inequities and dynamics of collecting museums. Sophie Calle, collected stories about the missing paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She spoke to the security guards who had spent the most time with now lost works of art. There are many artists who work to reframing the archive, so the chance to curate a mini collection was an interest. In this case, I wanted to address communication and civic engagement about speech.

And finally, thinking about how this might be relevant to students and teachers in a K-12 audience. I wanted to share in research as a form of dialogue.

How did Speculative Annotation in its final form differ from what you’d originally conceived?

The biggest addition has been the curator annotations, which get to my intention of creating dialogue, sharing knowledge, and creating spaces to speak back to something. I’m interested in providing access to the ideas of others and still hopefully finding a space to value new voices.

The layout of the tool was in the proposal, but there were some important additions. I remember students suggesting a highlighter in one of the classrooms I visited, and that’s another one of those great visual aesthetics of annotation that we see out in the world. And something that the Library offered was the layout of the “Learn More” panel—we got some great advice on how much information should be in that panel, how to think about the audience and streamline how they could use this tool as a launching point for research.

You had less than a year to do the research, produce, and publish a work. What did you want to include in the tool that you couldn’t?

One of the biggest things that came up—which also came from our outside advisors—was about making the tool more social, so that potentially a class could all sign on and be annotating the same item together. That would get to the heart of my goals about how annotation initiates a conversation, and how lovely that would have been if people could have had that conversation in real time. Technically we worked with the project developer, Adam Arling, to build that out, so it does exist in the bones of the application. But we didn’t have the time or resources to connect a database for it to work.

And there are a few other small, funny things. We had talked about the drawing tool looking like a waxy crayon. I wouldn’t mind there being more texture involved in the way the line worked. One of the inspirations here was hand photo editing, where a red waxy crayon would be used on a black and white photograph. It does have a historical precedent, so I wish small things like that could have brought some aesthetic nuance to the tool.

Let’s say that this residency was twice as long—what would be your priorities?

Inevitably, I can’t divorce the year of making this from the year of COVID. One of the things I would have liked to do was spend more time on the property, talking to curators and staff members. Another thing I would have liked to do is spend more time in the classroom with students. I was able to visit maybe six or seven classes over the year, more than that if you include the multiple visits to the same class. I think I can always learn more from students and teachers about how they might want to use the tool or features.

Do you have advice on how we could support more innovators in the future?

Sometimes artists’ research is not particularly linear. For instance, when making this mini collection—I didn’t know what I wanted until I saw it. That’s a hard thing to support; it doesn’t come with a roadmap. The most generous thing you can do with an artist is to share your enthusiasm for your work. Find ways to take an artist in and show them the things in the collection that you’re most excited about.

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