Towards a Working Title


There are a number of rituals I perform when marking the start of a new artwork. One of the most exciting tasks is to give it a ‘working title’. Often the most direct description, for example ‘an artwork about standing on a stack of plastic chairs, (akin to Patricia Piccinini)’ becomes the working title. For the purposes of simplification, this may be reduced to ‘the work about a stack of chairs.’

So it begins. You come up with an idea, the idea is then given a name, and this name continues to evolve as a working title.  Once this is out of the way, I am able to proceed and focus on the nitty gritty, that is, taking the subsequent steps to work out how to bring the idea to some form of resolution or sense.

More often than not, I find that because I have taken a pragmatic approach to coming up with the ‘working title’, I end up not returning to it again. And before I know it, this working tile ends up being the actual title. The title becomes a result of my apathy, lack of time and ultimately, having to just accept what was already there…because I couldn’t come up with a better alternative. Whatever.

Anecdotally, there are compelling reasons for how a working title may play a more significant role in the process of making art. Films and projects that set out to challenge a political regime for example, would try to minimise the attention of censors by operating under an innocuous working title. Other title ruses are adopted to avoid copy-cat productions, and alternatively, working titles can be strategic fictions placed to attract and fulfil the interests of private donors, or to meet the prescriptive requirements of institutional funding streams.

Beyond purposes of monetary deception or marketability, working titles are also preferred by superstitious crew, think about the why ‘Return of the Jedi’ might have been produced under the working title ‘Blue Harvest’?

However relevant, these diversional strategies do not address how the working title may contribute to the actual working process. What are the possible implications of fluidity and freedom that are consciously or subconsciously available to facilitate by this titular approach?

When I am stuck mid-project, one option I default to is simply to change the working title. A low stakes strategy to shift and change both the direction and focus of the artwork. Occasionally I find it necessary to cross-out the working title, creating a playful coup d’etat to reclaim some much needed space and time for something new to eventually fill in the conceptual vacuum.

Despite the stress and uncertainty of these situations, the working title ensures that ideas and concepts were never locked-in, so when these blocks occur, there is no real need to enforce a self-inflicted state of emergency as the project is set aside, giving the artwork the space and time to make chance encounters and connections in order to continue.

Not settling for a finite title also allows artworks to evolve beyond itself – that is, beyond its initial objectives. To me, locking in a title at the very early stages of production shuts down alternative avenues for flexibility, investigation and therefore transformation. For example, what was initially conceived as a film may become an installation, then a live performance and even a VR experience if that makes the most sense as the work evolves.

A unifying title might give coherence to all these possible iterations. But I have reservations. It would feel that I hadn’t spent adequate time and effort to work out an idea before deciding to a shift in a new direction and discover an alternative approach to the problems that the idea catalysed. A working title offers a useful way of marking and acknowledging this transformative process.

A slickly resolved title on the other hand feels too prescriptive and shrewd. Being readily transferable and translatable makes a title become its own thing. It moves away from a working process, to something that is pan-disciple, cross-media and multi-platform. In its streamlined unity and coherence, a set title – and therefore idea – has a capacity to efficiently colonise and occupy spaces in a way that a working title never can.

As many of us are forced to adjust to working and making art in conditions where multiplicity and non-specific outcomes become increasingly blurred – and as collaborative and cross-platform practices become the norm – it is more important than ever to think about the political relevance of process driven vs product driven work.

This is not to say you can’t make both. But the working title offers a low-stakes strategy to simultaneously give focus and purpose, as well as allowing for a flexibility and instability that caters for the conceptual journey and practical trial and error that has always been essential in the process of making.


James Nguyen

Author: James Nguyen

James Nguyen is a Sydney-based artist. After completing Honours at the National Art School and a Masters of Fine Arts at Sydney College of Arts, James undertook a collaborative Fellowship in New York at UnionDocs (Centre for Experimental Documentary Arts) with the support of the Anne & Gordon Samstag Visual Arts Scholarship. James has exhibited in Australia and China and is currently a PhD candidate at UNSW Art & Design.