During the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin was quoted as saying, “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.” That same year, journalist, playwright and actor Dan Hoyle went on a three-month road trip in search of those “wonderful little pockets” and the real Americans who populate them. He traveled to Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas, not unlike this year’s GOP hopefuls. But Hoyle wasn’t stumping for votes; he was looking for inspiration and trying to better understand the divide between big city and small town America.
The result is “The Real Americans,” a 90-minute, one-man show in which the audience meets Reaganite union coal miners, iPhone addicted hipsters, anti-war gun salesmen, and a slew of other not-so-stereotypical archetypes from all over the United States. ”The Real Americans” premiered at The Marsh theater in San Francisco in 2010 where it had a 10 month sold-out run. On February 17 the show returns to The Marsh through mid-March.
I caught up with Hoyle to talk about the show and the state of the “real America” three years after Hoyle’s eye-opening journey.
Turnstyle: In 2009 you were quoted as saying, “Part of what made me begin this show was wanting to do political theater that had conservative characters.” Why do you think those conservative characters have been so scarce in political theater?
Dan Hoyle: My experience is that people who work in theater are majority liberal, so it’s only theater’s fringe place in American popular culture that shields it from the kind of commie-pinko slings that academia takes from the right. People write what they know, and the theater world leans left. I believe non-Broadway theater audiences also tilt left, so it’s harder to make genuinely conservative characters sympathetic to a majority liberal audience. In creating The Real Americans, this was a challenge. And I take pride in making the characters in my show sympathetic despite having core beliefs that are very different from most of my audience. What I’ve sometimes seen is that playwrights write characters who seem conservative at first, and hard to like, and as the play progresses, they are essentially progressives with a southern accent and maybe a cowboy hat. Which is an easier story to tell, because it makes us feel that our differences are superficial, and we just need to talk to find enormous common ground. That’s not as much the case as is often portrayed onstage.
Turnstyle: What prompted your interest in seeing those conservative characters brought to the stage?
Hoyle: I went in somewhat naively, thinking that all we had to do was talk and everything would be ok. I also wanted some tough country wisdom as I felt I was drowning in urban liberal righteousness and feel-good foodie politics. I had traveled through rural/small-town America before, but only quickly and briefly, and I wanted to take a long dip. I wanted to meet folks in their environments and contexts, as part of what the show is doing is showing audiences that, yeah, if the factory closed in your town, Walmart’s the only place hiring; your uncle, brother and cousin are serving in the military overseas; you’re not allowed to pray in school anymore; and main street in town is half boarded up. You’re going to have a whole lot different view of things than if your living in a city where your local shopping street just opened a new vegan doughnut shop; you’re going to attend the bicycle rights rally later tonight; and the community garden is really excited to have you as a volunteer.
Turnstyle: Your work is often compared to that of Danny Hoch and Anna Deveare Smith, but last summer, in a review of The Real Americans‘ first run at The Marsh, writer Barbara Koh compared your work to Studs Terkel and Charles Kuralt. To what degree do you see your work as being documentarian in nature?
Hoyle: A lot of the characters in the show are composites, so I’m not just doing verbatim renderings. I do record audio or take notes; the characters I create are very closely observed, so there is a documentary aspect to it. But there is a point at which it moves from research to theater. Basically, I get to do my own first-hand research; I get to be the journalist, then the playwright, then the actor. They happen all at once, as they are all based on close observation and trying to get inside the mind of the people I’m meeting, writing, creating, performing.
Turnstyle: How do you approach the people upon whom you base your performances? What is their awareness of the process? How do you view them?
Hoyle: About the first six weeks of my trip I had set up meetings and interviews with cowboys, oilmen, farmers, union leaders; I spent five days observing Army basic training at Ft. Leonard-Wood in Missouri. The second half was largely meeting people at public events: ballgames, town parades, gunshows, rodeos. I tell people I’m a playwright working on a play about whatever topic it is (in this case small-town and rural America) so I’m upfront about what I’m doing. This helps, as people are more trusting of a playwright than a journalist, I’ve found, as I’ve worked as both. I also do a lot of the journalism of hanging out, which is just talking to people casually, or just observing. I have a great time, drinking moonshine in Alabama, going crabbing out in the bayou, stomping to church music in Appalachia, bouncing in the club in the Mississippi Delta, getting shaken by the power of 400 horsepower engines at off-road races in northern Wisconsin.
Turnstyle: When did you begin your road trip to meet the “real Americans” and what do you recall culturally and politically from that moment in the country’s recent history?
Hoyle: I went in 2008, and that was before the Tea Party and the backlash to Obama was just brewing. But I felt it all. Lots of people saying Obama’s a Muslim, a terrorist, a socialist, and the anti-Christ and harbinger that the end times are coming. Now people are pissed that they have to get health insurance. A lot of people know they should have it, but they feel it’s their choice, and they feel they need to draw a line in the sand before they are forced to give up their guns and start practicing Sharia law. Really nice, hard-working people would say things like this, and I really think they have genuine fears about this stuff. When I started doing workshops [for the play], some reactions at first were like, “Obama won, people like him.” And I sort of had to bite my tongue and trust my experiences. Then when the honeymoon wore off, and it became clear that half the country was really upset by the direction of the country, it was sort of vindication. And that’s when the play opened.
Turnstyle: What do think has changed in the time since your road trip?
Hoyle: Recently I traveled through the small-town South again for a new project, and if anything the rejection of the progressive vision for America has grown stronger in parts of the country. I think the country is more divided than ever, and I think books like Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010″ are really important. I haven’t read it, and I’d probably disagree with some of his prescriptions, but his diagnosis is right on, that there’s been a serious decline in education and income levels in white working class America, which I think has gotten lost in our national debate, as race is a much more popular topic in liberal, urban circles. And many conservatives are still trying to deny that classes exist in America.
Turnstyle: Do you feel like being a white male allowed you easier entry into the lives of those white working class Americans?
Hoyle: Sure, being a clean-cut looking white guy helps in a lot of situations, and sometimes it hinders. A black woman would have a very different experience no doubt, as would an old person or a transgendered person. We are judged by how we look. But a lot of that is first blush stuff. People judged me a lot at first because I was from San Francisco, but often, after 2o minutes of talking, those prejudices and suspicions would dissolve and people would take you for who you are. I tell the story of my trip, but I don’t mean it to be the definitive experience for people from cities taking a trip through small-town and rural America. In fact, I would hope the play would inspire people to take their own trips, have similar or different experiences, and create something to share with other people that makes us laugh, think, and thrill.
Turnstyle: The GOP primaries have been grabbing the headlines for the past few months, and during any primary race, Republican or Democratic, one always hears a lot about “Small Town U.S.A.” and “The Heartland.” Considering that focus and based on your own experiences in “Small Town U.S.A.” have you been surprised by the candidates, especially the ones who appear to be pulling ahead of the pack?
Hoyle: I was surprised that Rick Perry didn’t do better, as he is a true small town, heartland son-of-the-soil. And the disconnect is startling. I was just in New Hampshire during the Republican primaries doing research for a new project on the press, and Mitt Romney is about as far removed from small town, hard times America as exists in this country. But he’s got the big money and the top pros on his side, and I think that matters more in the end (as all the candidates hold their events in cute diners and rustic factories anyway).
Turnstyle: What has surprised you about the race so far?
Hoyle: Besides the Perry debacle, not much. I wasn’t surprised by Herman Cain’s quick flame-out, and he was never going to maintain that popularity. He was the black friend the Tea Party needed to show they weren’t racist. But I miss him, and Michele Bachmann, who made the early debates riveting television.
Turnstyle: What do you think the people, upon whom the characters in The Real Americans are based, would think about the current Republican Presidential Candidates?
Hoyle: I think they distrust Romney, as he clearly was a moderate Republican who has had to tack right to satisfy today’s right-wing Republican Party. Whether he can win over more of the base is a big issue for the general election, especially in swing states. In 2008, Obama got as many votes in Ohio as Kerry did in 2004, it’s just that McCain got 100,000 less votes than Bush did. I think the anti-Obama ire on the right today is similar to the anti-Bush ire on the left in 2004. So the question is: can conservatives rally behind a French-speaking, flip-flopping, billionaire from Massachusetts in 2012 in Romney more than liberals could in 2004 with Kerry?
Turnstyle: How were your perceptions of people in both cities and small towns been challenged or confirmed since bringing The Real Americans to the stage?
Hoyle: I think we are talking past each other. I think the divides are deeper and more profound, and we are living in bubbles that rarely get penetrated. And people need to get outside of their bubbles and meet, and see each other’s realities. I had the time of my life meeting my fellow-countrymen from different walks of life, and I think more people should do that. There is hope and redemption and solidarity in meeting your fellow brothers and sisters even if you don’t agree on a lot. And the hospitality is tremendous, overwhelming. I got endless free meals, was invited to park my van and crash in people’s yards. It was wonderful. I try to bring those two worlds onstage every night, and my hope is that people try to do it in their real lives as well.
Dan Hoyle’s The Real Americans returns to The Marsh in San Francisco for one month starting February 17. For more information go to http://www.themarsh.org/dan_hoyle_real_americans.html
All photos by Dan Hoyle.
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In October Turnstyle interviewed author Daniel Alarcón as he added “Executive Producer’ to his impressive resume with the launch of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish language podcast telling Latin American stories. Daniel is working with a seasoned team of journalists and radio producers including editor Annie Correal. She gives us an update on Radio Ambulante in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign designed to raise funds for the group’s first podcast’s this April.
Turnstyle: What has the feedback been to Radio Ambulante thus far? Any surprising reactions?
Annie Correal: We’ve been thrilled by the response: people from all over the U.S. and Latin America have heard about it, thanks in large part to Twitter and our Kickstarter Campaign. They get it and they’re really excited. These are people of all ages and many nationalities. But the project is different things to different people. Latin America has a thriving literary and journalistic scene and for some Radio Ambulante is offering a new form of storytelling that doesn’t exist yet: there’s nothing like This American Life or Snap Judgment or The Moth Radio Hour in Spanish, as far as we know. For others, in the U.S., Radio Ambulante is a way to connect with their roots, with other immigrant communities. I think it comes at an important time because Latinos in this country need an authentic voice. People in our community are really rooting for us.
Turnstyle: How is the fundraiser on Kickstarter going? Are you near your goal?
Correal: We’re really happy with how it’s going so far. We’ve raised over $12,000 — but our goal is to reach $40,000 by March 25th. We’re confident that we can do it, but there’s still a ways to go. These funds will help us launch our first three episodes and secure long-term funding, so they’re critical. There’s something I should note: we are paying our contributors for their work. This should go without saying, but many new projects rely on the goodwill of their contributors. We felt it was very important, ethically, to pay. So people’s contributions to our Kickstarter Campaign will be going back into the communities where our reporters live, and this will help them to continue doing their ground-breaking work there.
Turnstyle: Describe the submissions process as far as the number of submissions and work involved to choose which stories will make the cut.
Correal: Well, we received over 50 submissions from more than a dozen countries when we sent out our first call for pitches. We each read every pitch and once we had narrowed it down to a dozen or so, we had a very long meeting and decided which stories we were interested in pursuing. We plan to send out our next call for pitches, with new themes, in the next few months. Stay tuned! We anticipate getting a lot more proposals this time around, since people know who we are and have heard some of the stories we’ve produced.
Turnstyle: Have you been approached by any stations yet in regards to carrying the show?
Correal: We’re grateful to be able to use the studios of KALW in San Francisco. But no — while we have been in talks with radio stations in the US and Latin America, we haven’t yet made plans to go on the air with any of these stations. Eventually we hope to be carried not only in the U.S. but around Latin America, by large national stations as well as community radio stations, because we love the idea of Peruvians listening to stories about Dominicans in New York, and vice versa.
Turnstyle: When will the program be available via podcast or broadcast?
Correal: Our first podcast will be available April 15, and the theme is “Moving,” or “Mudanzas.”
To learn more about Radio Ambulante or contribute to their Kickstarter Campaign go to http://radioambulante.org/
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The recently reported story of a looming foreclosure on the home of an Iraq War veteran in Atlanta (below) has a happy ending. Brigitte Walker had been attempting to get Chase Bank to modify the loan on her home since her medical retirement from the army as a result of combat-related injuries in 2007. On Dec. 6, Occupy Atlanta initiated a series of actions across metro Atlanta including protests at county courthouses and occupations at the homes of Georgians in danger of foreclosure including Walker.
Occupy Atlanta conducted two press conferences, a national call-in day, and a march on Chase Bank in the two weeks since December 6. Chase Bank has finally conceded to a loan modification that will enable Walker to keep her home. The news comes just weeks before the scheduled Jan. 3 eviction of Walker and her family.
Original story 12.13.2011:
As more protests on behalf of foreclosed homeowners take place throughout the country, Occupy Atlanta seems to have found a rallying point that is attracting support and participation from a wider spectrum of Georgia residents. A week has passed since Occupy Atlanta began its occupation of foreclosed homes, and for some Georgians, their participation in a protest or occupation is the first time they are engaging in political and economic activism.
“I made a gradual entry into the Occupy Movement,” said Gwinnett County resident Deborah Storm. “I began reading stories and watching the Occupy Atlanta chat live. Then I had contacted Tim Franzen from Occupy Atlanta to ask if anything was going on in Gwinnett County.”
It was through Occupy Atlanta that Storm learned of Kenneth Glover (pictured below) who has been trying to negotiate a review of his recent eviction. “I’ve assisted Kenneth Glover in his fight for his home in Gwinnett County,” says Storm. “I went with him to the initial eviction hearing, which was granted and then filed a motion the following week to review the eviction hearing as well as file an appeal of the eviction.” Glover made payments on a modified mortgage for four months before being notified by Chase Bank that his home had already been sold.
“The motion to review the eviction hearing was denied, but the appeal was granted, which allows him to save his home for the time being. I actually wrote up the motion to review in my own handwriting with Kenneth approving and signing. Kenneth also filled out a form to see if he could be granted an appeal with no fees since he should have qualified due to income and expenses, this was denied,” said Storm. In the meantime, it appears that by lending Glover a hand with his own housing woes, Storm inspired him to join her and small group of Occupiers in a recent protest at a their local courthouse.
Riverdale, GA is another new front for the movement in Atlanta. Its home to Iraq war veteran Bridgitte Walker. Walker, whose spine was crushed in 2004 by mortar rounds, was forced into medical retirement from the army due to the limited mobility caused by her injuries. “[The retirement] drastically reduced my income and so I was not able to maintain as I was before,” says Walker. “As I was facing my hardship I’ve been in contact with Chase [Bank] since the very beginning [of the foreclosure] and for some reason they just won’t help me.”
When the bank notified Walker that they would take her home on Jan. 3, she wrote a letter to Georgia Senator Vincent D. Fort who in turn called on Occupy Atlanta spokesperson Tim Franzen.
“One of the things that has happened over the last 10 or 11 years since I’ve been [investigating] predatory lending and foreclosure eviction issues is I get calls,” says Fort. “I get two or three calls [from homeowners] a week and they’ve increased over the past few weeks because of what Occupy Atlanta has been doing. I feel like it’s my responsibility to get them all the help that I can. I said ‘OA, Occupy Atlanta, this is something we’ve got to get with.’ So we met with Ms. Walker.”
When asked what the support of Occupy Atlanta means to her, Walker responded, “I’m proud that they’re willing to support me. I think it’s power in action. And their actions are very powerful.”
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Brooklyn and West Oakland may have gotten the most attention for activities related to the Dec. 6 Occupy Our Homes day of action, but protesters in Atlanta also participated in demonstrations to protest foreclosures and begin an effort to aid homeowners in danger of eviction. Occupy Atlanta protesters held two press conferences and picketed on the steps of county courthouses where pending foreclosure announcements are made every first Tuesday.
A small, but dedicated group of protesters, made their way to the Gwinnett County courthouse in Lawrenceville, GA about 45 minutes north of downtown Atlanta. Meanwhile, a similar protest was happening at the Dekalb courthouse in Decatur, GA. Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery joined Occupy Atlanta on the steps of the Fulton County courthouse in downtown Atlanta and called for a nine-month moratorium on all foreclosures and evictions. That protest drew nearly 200 people, making it one of largest Occupy protests in Georgia thus far. Below, photos of protesters at the Fulton County courthouse.
Stay tuned for more updates and stories from Occupy Atlanta.
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Established in 1988 by the World Health Organization, World AIDS Day — celebrated on December 1 each year around the world — serves as a yearly observation of the millions of lives lost to, and affected by, HIV/AIDS across the globe.
Recognized internationally by governments, faith-based organizations, community organizations and individuals, World AIDS Day serves as an opportunity to raise awareness, to commemorate those who have passed on, and to celebrate victories such as increased access to treatment and prevention services. This year marks 30 years since the epidemic was initially reported, and many communities and institutions are going the extra mile to make the day even more memorable.
The Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) has been gearing up for the anniversary with two AIDS-related exhibitions: Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Posters and The AIDS Memorial Quilt. Both exhibitions opened October 2 and will continue through January 1. Before the exhibitions close MODA will open its doors for 24 hours on December 1 and host a marathon of screenings, performances and lectures. Other events on the schedule include a 3 AM dance party, an afternoon quilting workshop, and a candle light vigil in the final hour of this daylong event.
After checking out the impressive collection of 153 posters from around the globe, we learned more about the show from Associate Director of MODA, Laura Flusche and Elizabeth Resnick, one of the curators of Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Posters.
Turnstyle: What are the origins of Graphic Intervention?
Elizabeth Resnick: Graphic Intervention: International AIDS Awareness Posters 1985–2005 is my fifth design exhibition curated for Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston where, I am a tenured full professor and the current Chair of Graphic Design.
I proposed Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of AIDS Awareness Posters 1985- 2010 to the MassArt exhibitions committee in the spring 2008 and it was approved. I needed to find a co-curator as two heads are better than one. It took me a year, but I finally found the right partner in Javier Cortés, a graphic designer and partner Korn Design, Boston. We began the project in the fall 2009 looking through Jim Lapides archive of international AIDS awareness posters. It took several months to go through this massive collection. There were several iconic posters I knew had to be in the exhibit but Javier and I needed to go through all 3200 posters in the archive first. By January 2010 we knew what posters were missing from the archive. I made a list and located the posters utilizing the internet. Of the 153 posters in Graphic Intervention, 99 are borrowed from Jim’s archive and 54 were acquired from the designers Javier and I contacted.
Turnstyle: What inspired your interest in the posters?
Elizabeth Resnick: Pre late 1980s, the idea of developing exhibitions never crossed my mind because graphic design was not considered an art form that could or should be exhibited in a gallery setting. This was the prevailing notion and practice of all U.S. academic exhibition committees in the 1960s through the 1980s including Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Then something marvelous happened! In September 1989, Mildred Friedman, who was then the curator at the Walker Art Center, opened a game changer of an exhibition titled Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History. Two months later, while attending a design education conference, The Core of Understanding, held at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, one of the evening events was to visit the Walker to see this exhibition. I remember this was the first of my “ah-ha” moments, as it proved without a shadow of a doubt that graphic design was indeed an art form suitable for exhibition. I returned to my college and volunteered to serve on the academic exhibitions committee, which, at the time, was completely peopled by fine artists, administrators with degrees in fine art, and students studying fine art. I became the faculty advocate for design. It was up to me to bring proposals to the table where the case could be made for a design exhibition. It was a steep hill to climb.
For years, I had been collecting sociopolitical posters. I would use them in the classroom to illustrate the elements and principles of composition, color and design in my sophomore level classes. I would also show this work in upper level design classes as great examples of how one can use metaphor and symbolism in design work. I would invite designers who also made sociopolitical work to give talks to our students. From 1989 to 2007 I served on the board of AIGA Boston, and about 12 of those years I was the lead organizer of their lecture and events, so I became very aware of designers doing ‘cutting-edge’ work, ‘authorial’ work and sociopolitical work.
Turnstyle: Was it the medium or the message that brought you to gather this collection?
Elizabeth Resnick: I would say it is both the medium and the message. The HIV/AIDS epidemic isn’t just happening in faraway places. HIV is still a threat across the United States. Before we can stop any epidemic, we first have to recognize the magnitude of the disease. People here in the United States become infected with HIV on the average of every 9.5 minutes. And it changes not only the lives of those who become infected, but also the lives of their families and friends. Even though there are treatments to help people with HIV live longer than ever before, AIDS is still a significant public health issue.
Turnstyle: To what degree, if at all, do you think posters about HIV/AIDS are distinctly different than posters and media about other health crisis?
Elizabeth Resnick: Each person entering the gallery will respond differently to this exhibition based on their own experience and their pathway in life. The whole point of this exhibition is to visually demonstrate that the people respond to different visual language strategies in different ways based on their own cultural context. That is the bottom line, but the exhibition also happens to be on a topic that is very important and touches everyone in the world.
Javier Cortés and I are not HIV/AIDS scholars or researchers, but we understand, as concerned citizens, how important it is to encourage a continuing dialogue about HIV/AIDS in our own communities. In today’s society, there are so many vital and important issues. Designers and artists are in a unique position to use their visual language skills to educate and promote important messages for society. When I ask myself, “Do I walk the walk? If I ask my students to do these types of things, what do I do it as well?” My answer is, “This is what I do.” I could make posters, but I do not. Instead I use my role as a curator to plant ‘seeds of thought and action’ in our young people. If we expose our students to this kind of thinking and doing early in their formative growth and development, they will become comfortable when given the task of using their skills for the greater good.
Turnstyle: Both The AIDS Memorial Quilt and Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Posters go well beyond the typical fare one expects at a design museum. What prompted MODA to present two such powerful groups of work?
Laura Flusche: We’ve worked with [Elizabeth Resnick] before and so we knew that the exhibition would be an extraordinary one. The topic is of great importance locally — AIDS has had a huge impact on the city of Atlanta over the past decades, both in terms of lives lost and the efforts to find a cure. The poster (and the graphic design efforts used to create the posters) has played a special role in promoting AIDS awareness and safe sex education across cultures. We wanted to spotlight this form of design that allows messages to successfully reach specific targeted groups because the poster as a medium is cheap and easy to produce locally.
Turnstyle: Were there critical or conceptual considerations for MODA in deciding to present both shows? What were they?
Laura Flusche: Graphic Intervention and The AIDS Memorial Quilt work together beautifully as they are both design responses to a crisis that affects a very broad segment of the population both locally and globally. Because they are meant to inform mass audiences about HIV/AIDS prevention, the designs of the posters in Graphic Intervention frequently draw on images from popular culture. On the other hand, The AIDS Memorial Quilt panels draws on the long tradition of quilting as a folk art, using it as collective memory, as therapeutic device, and as political tool.
Turnstyle: Are these exhibitions part of a larger event or program? If so, can you give me some details about that event/program?
Laura Flusche: The posters and the AIDS Quilt went on display on October 1, 2011 and will remain on exhibit until January 1, 2012 — they are part of MODA’s regular cycle of exhibitions. That said, MODA is particularly interested in the ways that design affects everyday life and so we try to bring exhibitions to Atlanta that demonstrate the intersection between design and social consciousness.
To learn more about MODA and their ongoing exhibitions and events go to http://www.museumofdesign.org/
To learn more about Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Posters and see the entire collection go to http://www.graphicintervention.org/
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Artist Jennifer Trausch is the Director of Photography at the 20 X 24 Studio in Manhattan. She has helped artists and photographers realize, and in some cases, discover their vision for over a decade. The 20 X 24 Studio is built around a 239-pound analog camera that shoots 20 X 24 images on Polaroid film. There were six of these cameras built between the years of 1976 and 1978 and three of them are currently in use in different parts of the world. Despite its use of Polaroid film, the 20 X 24 Camera is no mere “point and shoot,” and is rarely used outside of a controlled studio environment. The logistical complexities of using the camera make Trausch’s own personal odyssey with it through out the southeastern United States a remarkable endeavor. The resulting photographic series, The South, is equally remarkable. We asked her to reflect on her own powerful images of America before she heads to Paris to begin working with Impossible Works, a non-profit dedicated to creating a contemporary collection of art works made with instant film.
Turnstyle: How long have you been working with the 20 x 24 Polaroid Camera?
Jennifer Trausch: Exclusively for about ten years, but we go back about fifteen.
Turnstyle: How did you come to work with the camera in New York City?
Trausch: When I was a student I took part in a semester-long internship program at the 20×24 Polaroid Studio. During the internship, I had the opportunity to play around with the camera and make some of my own work, and we bonded! Two years later, after completing my photography degree I was recommended into a position at the 40×80 Studio (with a 40″ x 80″ room-sized camera) where I shot and printed on 8×10 and 20×24 Cameras. Several years later, in 2003, I was asked to take over the camera at the 20×24 Polaroid Studio in Soho, a wonderfully exciting position as the New York camera was handling 70% of all 20 X 24 shoots worldwide at the time. The job was also remarkable for coming with an extraordinary lineup of 20 X 24 art clients including as Chuck Close, William Wegman, David Levinthal, Mary Ellen Mark, Julian Schnabel & Maria Magdalena Campos Pons.
Turnstyle: What was your background before working at the 20 x 24 Studio?
Trausch: My early professional background was a mix of working in arts education, medical photography, and commercial assisting.
Turnstyle: What is your role at the 20 x 24 Studio in New York City?
Trausch: My title is Director of Photography and my role is similar to that of a cinematographer. I operate the 20×24 Camera for all of the Studio’s shoots, but more importantly I work with an artist to create their vision on the 20×24 Camera; from early conversations about the camera and how it sees & works, to the making of final images.
Turnstyle: Describe your relationship with artists and photographers when they come to the studio to use the camera.
Trausch: Each experience is different depending on the person, but in general working on the camera is a team effort. Most days feel like a collaboration, in that the client and I work on the back of the ground glass together, sometimes crammed under a dark cloth. Some days I work with an artist that does not know the technical side of photography, who comes to trust me to do what they need, another day I may have an artist that pushes and question the limits of the camera, and another day I may be corralling four small children to sit together in the same plane of focus!! So there’s always been a good mix of art, commercial projects & editorial work, each of which comes with technical, artistic, and production challenges, and of course the perennial challenge of wrestling a
240-lb object around the room!
Turnstyle: What inspired you to take the camera out of the studio?
Trausch: Over the years I watched how this static camera was always used in similar ways in the studio, mainly how people brought their ideas & objects to it to be photographed. Some of my impulse to take it outside was a reaction to this. Some was the natural reaction of a documentary photographer stuck inside dark photography studios, when she really wanted to be out in the bright world shooting! I was also curious what this awkward, albeit fascinating tool could bring to my documentary sensibility; i.e. could this camera be used freely and loosely, to see a familiar world in a new way.
In the history of the camera there were very few people that took it out into the elements, namely Neil Slavin in his project Britons, and Julian Schnabel. Both of these artists’ work gave me faith to break all of the camera’s rules, to get over the hurdles of taking it outside and trust that interesting things would happen.
Turnstyle: To what degree was taking the camera out of the studio a departure from how the camera is normally used?
Trausch: A huge departure. There are many reasons the camera is used the way it is: First and foremost it is a studio camera that weighs 240lbs and when expanded it is about as large as a refrigerator! It requires a lot of light and is used primarily with high powered flash to get a workable amount of focus. It is rare that the camera is used with available light as the exposures can get quite long. And people generally do not take the camera outside because it can be such a finicky, sensitive machine – it reacts to temperature and humidity, dust, light streaming through all the holes, and it’s rarely happy being dragged over boardwalks, bumpy gravel roads, and rickety dancehall floors.
Turnstyle: Where did you take the camera?
Trausch: The project started when there was a cancellation in the 20×24 Studio’s schedule that left the camera suddenly available for one straight week, which was rare. My assistant and I rented a truck and just hit the road, ready to shoot anything. We needed to choose which way we were going to drive out of New York city, and we chose south, partly because we needed warmer temperatures for the film to work outside, and partly because it was a part of the US that I knew almost nothing about, and what little I knew wasn’t from direct experience.
Turnstyle: Why did you take it to that region of the country and to those specific locations?
Trausch: Again some of it was a reaction. Over the years as the film has gotten more and more expensive, the 20×24 has gone back in time to being a camera for the wealthy patrons of New York. My reaction was to take into places where people would never otherwise have the chance to see it or experience it; and for me that meant small towns.
The locations themselves were often happenstance. For example, sometimes we went to a town just because we thought it was a place whose name might answer some of our questions about the South: Lost City, New Roads, Southland, or we went because liked the name Hot Coffee or Two Egg. More often than not, if someone suggested a place, an event, or someone we had to meet, we would go.
Turnstyle: Why choose B&W for this project?
Trausch: Most of the Polaroid films available in 20×24 format are slow speed and would have required incredibly long exposures or extra lighting to work in the field. B & W is rated around ISO 400 and was able to offer the most possibilities for shooting in any condition, as its sensitivity to temperature and mixed lighting are less constraining than the other 20×24 films. So again, practical constraints guided my initial decision, but then it happened that shooting with long exposures made the B & W film a little muddier and grittier, which very much carried the feel of how I was working and how I experienced the South.
Turnstyle: What were the responses you got from people when you began shooting down south?
Trausch: Love, hate & everything in between! In general, people were warm & inviting, especially if they were asked to take part in it. Because I was able to share the pictures as they were being made, people stayed engaged and would give as much time as was needed. There was often a small crowd watching.
Over the five years I took shooting the project, I had plenty of other, less positive reactions from people, most memorably mistrust and suspicion. People worried that an outsider might depict them in a bad light, or that somehow sharing their lives or their image would get them in trouble or somehow bring them attention, and in some cases attention, which was, the last thing people wanted.
Even when we weren’t out shooting, in the tiny towns we were in it was usually pretty clear that we were outsiders, so we were often stared at while we ate at restaurants or drank in bars, which got really old after a while.
The vehicles we drove made it even harder to blend in – we usually worked in a large truck with a lift gate on the back, and for one trip worked out of a 25 foot RV. Hardly anyone knew what to make of us, but their suppositions were by turns amusing and insulting – people confused us for being filthy rich, undercover cops, dykes, the Bloodmobile, salesladies, people running from the law, and on and on.
Turnstyle: To what degree, if at all, did you see this as a documentary project?
Trausch: The premise of the trip, at least initially, was as a documentary project, to talk about a broad place at a particular moment in time. But then the images evolved into stories of that place, less as facts, more as loose vignettes that left room for your imagination.
The project also didn’t end up as just a survey, recording some particular aspect of the region – It was much closer to a record of the particular kinds of experiences we had in this place, with this giant camera. I wouldn’t point to the project and say ‘this is a project about rural life in the south, or about poverty, or race, or ruin’, or anything like that. I didn’t go into it knowing what I wanted to shoot either, like I had for my previous project, Skateland. The images for this project came about so randomly, so serendipitously, and we just tried to be as open as possible, both to the intriguing things the south put in front of us and it’s effects on us personally over time, both good and bad.
Turnstyle: You have done quite a bit of environmental portraiture in the past. Do you consider projects like Skateland and this series to be documentary work?
Trausch: Yes and no. The images from my south series started from a moment that I saw and felt and wanted to communicate, but that initial moment can change so much when you use a big camera, first off because there is more time that passes as you are making the image. While you are in that process of making, you depart from what was, and enter a more active or reactive role of what it is to become, this can change quite simply by someone giving a new expression or the wind blowing. That being said, even after the moment adjusts, changes, reacts to me observing it, the essence of what I originally found interesting or compelling is still usually there. It’s just shifted or opened ever so slightly.
Turnstyle: What draws you to working with large format Polaroid film?
Trausch: I started as a painter and for me the large format Polaroid medium carries a feeling and sensibility that is aligned with how I see. These films have an incredible mix of crisp detail and painterly softness. The process involves making a contact print from a giant negative, and because it is a diffusion transfer process, the silvers or color dyes that are pulled over to the paper are softened within this process.
The instantaneous way of working and sharing with whomever I’m shooting is also important. While you can equate it to a digital way of working, in that you see and build an image as you work, there is nothing like doing this at a full scale print size; You really know when you got it.
Turnstyle: What were you trying to capture with the project?
Trausch: I think one of my lifelong goals, as a photographer has been to try to get to bottom of the feeling of a place. And for me the small details are what best communicate this feeling of place; the sweet, smoky smells of a day long barbecue, the pride of a hardworking gourd farmer with his fingers in his own soil, the humidity and sweat everywhere all the time, the flotsam slowly making its way across a heavy swamp.
In the end, I gravitated toward the warmth of the people in the South, contrasted markedly with their at-times intense suspicion; also the growth and lavishness of the landscape, coupled with a heaviness and listlessness that hangs in the air, and, quite simply, the pace of this place that seemed like it was in no rush to get anywhere.
Turnstyle: Describe the process of locating subjects on the road and convincing people to let you take their picture.
Trausch: I purposefully chose not to produce these shoots that the camera and I would find our way; this is romantic almost to excess, which I now know.
Working this way meant that it was a mix of wandering and always looking to serendipitous connections where one shoot would lead to another.
So as to not feel too lost, my assistant Kim Venable and I would make a list of things we were looking for – traditions and customs, everyday activities, common foods, etc.
What I chose to shoot also reflected what we had access to in our life on the road – public meeting places such as general stores, the ubiquitous steam-table buffets, beauty salons, church picnics or the local snow cone truck.
Lastly we tried to shoot things that reflected our own experience of these places. For example, our life on the road was greatly affected by the elements – Water, wind, weather, soil and every kind of bug known to man were, for better or worse, a big part of our life on these trips, so they naturally became one of our themes and something I actively tried to include in the body of work.
In terms of asking people to take part, I was always honest with people that I was an artist shooting images in the South. In terms of when to bring the camera out, I used intuition. If people seemed wary of working with us, I would spend hours talking to them before attempting to bring out the camera for a shot. If people needed a lot of convincing, it usually wasn’t worth it. Although there were exceptions to this, for instance when we waited three days for Maxine, the no-nonsense, gun-wielding owner of the town general store, to get comfortable enough with us to take out her gun for a shoot.
Turnstyle: Do you view the people you photographed as subjects, participants, and collaborators? How did you initially define their role?
Trausch: I thought of them as subjects first and foremost. But because of the Polaroid process and my ability to share what we were making as I was making it, they became collaborators and performers within that.
Each image would build and grow over several exposures and while you may not get that sense from the work, there was often a conversation had around an image and a decision about what to do next. And then we would ‘perform’, in the loosest sense.
Turnstyle: Has your definition of their role changed over time?
Trausch: At a certain point it became difficult to manage people’s expectations about their pictures as sometimes my vision for the image didn’t fit with their idea of ‘good photography’. For example, overtime I began to shoot less straight portraiture as we know it, and started to drag the exposures so that it was more about the feeling of that person moving in or through the environment, and less about their identity or what they were wearing or what year it was. This all sounds simple enough, but for some people it was an insult that they gave me their time and then the image wasn’t about their individuality. But I couldn’t hide the pictures!
Turnstyle: In what way did your role as the photographer change during the project?
Trausch: The work, and I, changed a lot over the five years it took to complete the project. (I tried to shoot once a year, with each consecutive shoot having more & more travel time). At first my shooting was purely documentary (in that I wasn’t altering reality), or as much as one could be with a 20×24! I was recording quickly what I saw and reacted to as I travelled. But then I started to realize that I didn’t always want to give the whole story away, that for me mystery and the South were intertwined. And with the way I had chosen to shoot with available light, which often meant not a lot of light, I was forced to let things move over long exposures with a very limited depth of field. This way of seeing really changed the work and how I experienced the South. Sometimes it felt like I was making two parallel bodies of work, one very sharp and real side and another loose and surreal side, but eventually found a way for them to talk to each other.
Turnstyle: Where has the series been seen since you finished the project?
Trausch: I let it sit and settle and breathe for six months before I tackled the editing. It’s been good to give a project time, as the shooting itself was intense and draining both mentally and physically. Pieces go in and out for exhibitions, and I am pulling together the edit for a book. Most recently it showed at the Flanders Art Gallery in Raleigh, NC.
Turnstyle: Are their any upcoming exhibitions of the series? Where? When?
Trausch: The next solo exhibition will be at Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame in January 2013
Turnstyle: How did the project change your practice?
Trausch: I think I might do something a little easier next time, at least physically.
Ok, maybe that’s a lie; I still have yet to choose the easy way! Hopefully my next project at least will require less bug spray.
Turnstyle: How did the project change your perspective?
Trausch: It was strange to feel like an outsider in your own country, and it took some time to make peace with that and to understand why bringing a 20×24 into the picture may have heightened that. Most memorably, we were told stories about how the bluebirds and blue jays do not mix (gays, blacks & whites) and were initially dumbfounded by “coonass” jokes which turned out to be not quite the racial slur that we thought, but in these and many other similar situations we realized we were not in a position to fight against a mentality that profoundly disagreed with without putting ourselves in a potentially unsafe situation.
Yet while those situations made us feel like we were on the outside looking in, there were plenty of other experiences that opened us back up with people offering to house us, to feed us when it was clear that they did not have much, and to have a wonderful openness and curiosity about us and how we came to be there.
Turnstyle: What were some of the logistical challenges of the project?
Trausch: As I had limited access to equipment and film, there was a lot of pressure when I was the on the road to get a lot done in a short amount of time.
In reaction to this, for one of my last trips I shot for ten weeks straight on the road which gave me more freedom, but I forgot to leave time for recovering for exhaustion!
As I said earlier the camera was not made to work outside and is prone to light leaks so this meant the camera and I were swathed in dark cloth in 100 degree sunny and humid weather. We pushed the beast of a camera up hills, into swamps, through mud and rain, up and over train tracks, taking risks and never knowing if it would be worth the effort. But in retrospect it almost always was, though if we had dumped the camera into a swamp I might have a very different answer!
Turnstyle: What were the artistic challenges of the project?
Trausch: I think in past art making, I usually define a rough idea or concept for a body of work and then make it. Here I wasn’t sure what I was after for several years, and I had chosen such a large and varied region, so the concepts for the work were developed more along the way and in the editing process. Because of the time span of five years of shoots, it was a bit long and torturous to not really know what it was about until the end! But it was also remarkable to watch the project shift and grow.
I also struggled with the idea of making lasting connections. I would spend three hours or day with people knowing I would probably never see them again. I think this was difficult for me, as I do believe in giving back to the community or person from which you shared. In the end I had to accept the moments we shared in making was what it was about.
To learn more about Jennifer Trausch’s work go to http://www.jennifertrausch.com/
To learn more about the 20×24 Studio in NYC go to http://20x24studio.com/
To learn more about Impossible Works go to http://www.impossible-works.com/
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Radio Ambulante is a monthly Spanish-language radio program launching in early 2012 with the goal of telling uniquely Latin American stories. The program is the brainchild of Martina Castro, Annie Correal, Mandalit del Barco, Carolina Guerrero and Daniel Alarcón. Between the five of them they’ve worked or produced for a slew of public radio mainstays like This American Life, Latino USA, Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition as well as working with institutions outside of the broadcast world like PS1, Lincoln Center, Revista Semana and Conexion Colombia. We spoke with Alarcón, best known for his books “War By Candlelight,” “Lost City Radio” and “The Secret Miracle,” to get his take on how the program came to be and where it’s heading.
Turnstyle: What pieces inspired you to start Radio Ambulante?
Daniel Alarcón: It wasn’t one piece, or one experience; it was an entire set of circumstances. For starters, a lot people in my family have worked or currently work in radio in Peru, so you could say it’s always been part of my life, a medium I valued. When he was a teenager, my father was as a soccer announcer in Arequipa, my uncle Lucho was a music deejay, and my cousin Cecilia worked for years with campesino radio stations in the north. Growing up in Alabama in the 1980s, my family, my parents, sisters and I used to produce little radio programs to stay in touch with our cousins in Peru: my father would interview us kids, and we’d send these cassette tapes back to Lima; our cousins would send their tapes back to us. I’m aware that this sounds absolutely prehistoric, but back then, that was the best way to stay in touch.
In 2007, I published a novel called “Lost City Radio,” which has at its heart the idea that radio is a uniquely powerful tool. It tells the story of a radio program for missing people, and it’s based on a real show—Buscapersonas—which I used to listen to all the time. Not long after the book was published, I got an invitation from the BBC to produce a documentary about Andean migration to Lima. This was a dream come true. They sent a really wonderful producer named Gavin Heard from London to Lima, to record and help guide the piece, while I went around talking to folks and hearing their stories. It was just an incredible experience—the only downside being that some of the most interesting voices were in Spanish, and had to be translated on the fly, losing nuance and personality. Some of these didn’t make the final edit. So a question just stuck with me—what could be done with that tape if there was a Spanish language outlet for those voices and their stories?
Turnstyle: How has it been different to write for radio than to write novels?
Alarcón: It’s easier in some ways, harder in others. Writing for radio is more like having a conversation, and I’m less concerned with the architecture of each sentence than I am when I sit down to work on a short story or a novel. Writing fiction is a different energy. The challenge I find with radio is to create a structure in which your best tape can shine. It feels at times closer to curating than writing.
Turnstyle: How has being a novelist influenced your audio work?
Alarcón: I’ve spent years thinking about what makes a good story. A lot of writing is about failure—expecting a kind of energy to emerge from a set of characters, and discovering, 100 pages on, 200 pages, that it hasn’t. You have to begin to ask yourself why, how, where did I go wrong? I’ve become a merciless editor of my own fiction, and I think that’s what I’m most looking forward to: working with our team, pushing producers to get the most out of their stories. As a novelist, I’m always looking for the surprising element, the unique detail that makes a character come alive. Good radio requires much the same, of course.
Turnstyle: What is your favorite sound (or one of your favorite sounds)?
Alarcón: That’s a real radio question, isn’t it? (In the writing world you get: Who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books?) I’m a deejay in my spare time and one of my all time favorite sounds is the crackle of a vinyl record when the needle is placed and just before the music begins. It’s a lovely, complex kind of “silence.
Turnstyle: How does being bilingual influence your way of listening/hearing the world?
Alarcón: If anything it makes me more aware of the possibilities of stories that are out there. I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America, traveling, working as a journalist, living, and I always hear these amazing, intriguing stories. Often they’ve found their way into my fiction, but now I think they’ll become radio.
I’m not going to be reporting every story for Radio Ambulante, of course. We’ll be relying on a large team of independent producers who have access and knowledge that I don’t have. We have questions, interests, themes we’d like to explore, and we want to find the producers who have the most surprising answers and responses to those themes.
Turnstyle: How are you finding producers for the program? Do you have ties with independent radio producers in Latin America?
Alarcón: In a variety of ways—we’ve pushed the call for pitches out to journalism programs all over Latin America, and connected with folks working in community and commercial radio in many different countries. We’ve also been in touch with various organizations that support journalism in Latin American. My co-founders, Carolina Guerrero and Annie Correal, each have our own networks in the world of Latin American journalism, and we’ve doing all we can to get the message out there.
In my case, since 2003, I’ve worked for a Peruvian magazine called Etiqueta Negra, a sort of Spanish language New Yorker, and had the opportunity to cultivate relationships with some of the best young journalists working in Spanish. Writers like Gabriela Wiener or Cristian Alarcón, amazing, talented journalists who know a good story when they see one, personal friends who willing to dive into radio storytelling, and are eager to learn.
Little by little the word seems to be getting out. With social networks, of course, this process becomes a bit easier, and we’re getting incredible pitches from all over Latin America, the United States, Canada, and Europe, from both print journalists and independent radio producers. At this stage it seems everyone is curious and excited about Radio Ambulante, and very willing to help promote the project.
Turnstyle: What are stories you are most excited to see on the program?
Alarcón: There are many, but I’ll just mention a handful. We have a piece in the works on the fall of River Plate, the Argentine soccer club, one of the most famous in Latin America, who were relegated to the Second Division a few months ago. We got an interview with the announcer who called the decisive match, delivering a despairing and angry love letter to his team. We have a piece being produced by Rosa Ramirez here in San Francisco about a marriage breaking up after the husband announces he’s transgender. This would be shocking and painful in any context, but is particularly so in a very traditional Latin household. We have a great piece about a women’s boxing champ defending her title in Cuzco, Peru. And lastly, Radio Ambulante co-founder Annie Correal is working on a piece about disaster migrants, mostly Latinos, who travel across the US from one environmental catastrophe to another.
And because I’m a writer, I’m particularly excited to include fiction in every episode: a four to six minute story read by a different author each time. It’s the segment of the program I’ll most enjoy curating, I think. We’re already recorded readings by Samanta Schweblin and Pedro Mairal in Buenos Aires, by Mexican journalist Diego Osorno, and we’ll soon be recording the Mexican writer Yuri Herrera in New Orleans.
Turnstyle: What kind of stories are you looking for in the early stages of Radio Ambulante?
Alarcón: Surprising pieces, surprising takes on Latin America. Stories that confound expectations, that take an idea, an event, or even a gesture, and demonstrate over the course of five or ten or fifteen brilliantly-produced minutes, that it contains entire worlds. I want something small that turns out to be quite large, and vice versa. I want stories that remind us that life is immense and complex. Occasionally hilarious. Often heartbreaking. Stories where reporters take me places I didn’t know existed, and upend my assumptions in the process. These are the same things I look for in fiction, I guess: I love stories that make me care about characters, let me identify with people that may be nothing like me, and marvel at how much they have teach me.
Turnstyle: To what degree is Radio Ambulante an attempt to fill a gap in broadcast media?
Alarcón: There’s plenty of Spanish language radio in the US, but there isn’t enough, in my opinion, that is narrative, story-based. I do think there’s a gap, but more importantly from our perspective, there’s an audience. When my wife Carolina and I started looking around for models, we found, to our great surprise, that a program like the one we imagined didn’t exist in the US, or even in Latin America. Latinos listen to radio all day, but there was no venue for this kind of audio storytelling. Let’s look just at the US: there are more than 50 million Latinos, from every Spanish speaking country, and as a demographic group, we are over-indexed in radio consumption at all age levels. We download more podcasts than any other ethnic group. There is a large percentage of Latinos who are entirely bilingual, who are happy to consume media in either language. It’s our feeling that these Latinos are not Radio Ambulante listeners only because Radio Ambulante doesn’t exist yet.
But to be clear: the listeners we expect to draw are from Latin America as well. This isn’t a show for US Latinos, but for Spanish speakers everywhere. We’ve been told it’s a risk trying to have a show that is transnational—that a Mexican listener, for example, will not be interested if there’s a piece about Uruguay, or Puerto Rico. I just don’t think that’s true. I’m convinced that there is a large community of listeners out there who are curious, and whose interests cross borders. It’s our responsibility to find the stories that are going to grab them, no matter the country of origin.
Turnstyle: When is the official launch date of the program?
Alarcón: At the moment we have as a target first quarter of 2012 for our launch. We’re not setting a specific date yet, because we’re focusing on trying to get the pilots where we need them to be. I’d like to say early March, but as a team we are more committed to quality than we are to any particular date. The important thing is that each episode be riveting from the first minute.
Turnstyle: How can it be heard?
Alarcón: Initially, Radio Ambulante will be a podcast, but very soon we’ll be looking to create partnerships with community and commercial radio stations here and in Latin America. I feel very confident we can be on the air in a dozen countries within a year or 18 months. But as important as it for us to be on the air, for a globalized project like this one, the downloadable podcast is the key: even if we find relatively small audiences in many different places, in aggregate, this following can grow to be quite large. That’s what we’re hoping for. The challenge is reaching them.
To learn more about Radio Ambulante go to http://radioambulante.org/.
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StoryCorps, the national oral history project in partnership with the Library of Congress and NPR, has been recording the stories of everyday people across America for nearly a decade. Through its podcasts, books and weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition, the organization is on a mission to prove that there is no better way to honor our selves and our loved ones than by listening. Unless, of course, you like to watch while you listen, too. Mike and Tim Rauch are helping this American institution retell some of its most compelling stories through animation — and their work is catching on. The Rauch Brothers were recently nominated for a Emmy Award for their animated work and Turnstyle contributor Jeremy Helton interviewed the duo in September of 2011.
Turnstyle: How did you get in involved with StoryCorps?
Mike Rauch: I started there as an intern in 2007, which is when I first had the idea to translate their stories into animation. I was really nervous about asking StoryCorps founder Dave Isay if we could animate one of the stories. He was so passionate about the human voice and video wasn’t really on his radar, but he agreed to let us animate a StoryCorps story.
Tim Rauch: Mike pitched me the idea to animate one of the interviews. I didn’t think it would work, but he convinced me to try. We started with “Germans in the Woods” and after that we did “Q&A”. “Q&A” was the episode that really sold the idea for a series and helped us to see that there were several StoryCorps stories that would be great for animation.
Turnstyle: Who are your heroes in animation?
MR: We both share many of the same heroes: Chuck Jones, John Hubley, Ralph Bakshi, Art Lozzi, Ed Benedict, Jay Ward, Nick Park, John K, Bill Wray, and Stephen DeStefano to name a few. Animation takes so many different talents that you end up having quite a few influences, heroes, and inspirations because each person has very particular strengths that make them uniquely great.
Turnstyle: Do you have any inspirations or favorite projects in animation?
MR: Too many to name really. A particular inspiration for the StoryCorps series was Aardman Animation’s “Lip Synch Series”, which used animation to re-contextualize documentary audio recordings. With StoryCorps, instead of re-contextualizing things we’re specifically telling people’s real stories, but Aardman’s work helped us to see how interesting everyday life really is.
TR: In a similar vein, John Hubley’s use of improvised recordings of his children for shorts like “Moonbird” and his Marky Maypo commercials was another inspiration for the work we’re doing. “Moonbird” was a major reference for us when we were working on “Q&A”.
Turnstyle: What prompted each of you to get into animation?
TR: We’ve wanted to do this since we were in grade school. Walt Disney feature films were the first thing that instilled a passion in us to want to tell stories through animation.
MR: Our older brother Sam took us to see “Beauty and the Beast” at a dollar cinema. It was extraordinary to see that animation was capable of evoking such a wide range of moods and emotions. From that point forward, we studied animation throughout our childhood.
Turnstyle: Are you working on any projects outside of StoryCorps?
TR: StoryCorps takes most of our time, but we are working on new ideas for shorts, series, and feature films. The stories continue to use cartoon styling with a touch of humanity and center around the American experience. Some of the ideas include a story about Puerto Rican migrants in New York City during the 1950′s, a variety show inspired by old time radio, a feature film about gator wrestlers, and a collaboration with a theater group that involves American folklore.
MR: We’re also working to launch a project that will help independent animators, cartoonists, and other creatives to fund, create, and distribute their own work. We’ve been extraordinarily lucky to get the chance to follow our passion and we want to help other people do the same thing.
Turnstyle: Describe the creative process behind animating the StoryCorps clips.
MR: We begin with research. We meet the storytellers, collect old family photos, take photographs of key settings, and gather historical reference when necessary. Using that, we design the characters and create the storyboard. That initial stage is the key to everything that follows and is where we solve most of our problems. Once we have final character designs and a final storyboard, we begin background layout and animation.
TR: Although we have figured out much of the episode at the storyboard stage, we keep ourselves open to new ideas from all the artists throughout the production. Often times, somebody will think of a gag we can add, a way to reposition the camera that helps better tell the story, or a cut we should insert to improve the flow. We don’t limit the artists to one realm. For instance, a gag or story idea is just as likely to come from our background artist as from our storyboard artist.
Turnstyle: How does your collaboration with each other work? Who does what?
TR: I’m responsible for the character design and animation. I also work collaboratively with Mike as we gather our research and reference and decide how best to tell the story. In the past, I was the storyboard artist as well, but now Stephen DeStefano has taken that role and I help make the edits and changes to his work that we need.
MR: I oversee and direct our creative team, identifying talent that will complement our strengths and weaknesses and helping to craft the vision for their work. We have a small team, so I also help fill the cracks whenever there is something to do but no one else to do it— painting the finished character animation, retouching background art, or compositing the finished cartoon for example.
Turnstyle: What were some of the initial surprises and challenges of animating these stories?
MR: The biggest challenge has always been finding ways to complement and enhance the original audio track. StoryCorps’ production team does such an incredible job of editing the interviews into powerful stories, and a lot of times they are perfect pieces of audio that should remain as audio only. We are always careful to work only with stories that we think we can help add another dimension to.
TR: It’s a delicate process finding the balance between enhancing the audio with visuals, staying true to the story, and not overpowering or dulling the audio recording with what we do in animation. Each episode has it’s own unique challenges and it’s own unique solutions, but striking that balance is the core challenge we face every time at bat.
Turnstyle: To what degree do you consider your animations for StoryCorps “documentary work?”
MR: Anyone making documentary work, whether it’s photography, film, radio, or something else, has to interpret and edit. The key is to try and be as honest and true to the story as possible. We do the same thing. So for us, animation can absolutely be documentary.
Turnstyle: How do you navigate the concept of authenticity in these StoryCorps animations?
TR: Each episode is grounded in research and the intent to honor and be true to the people in the story. With that foundation, we have found that authenticity tends to naturally follow.
Turnstyle: Have there been instances in which StoryCorps participants have been ambivalent about having their story animated?
MR: We’ve gotten full support from everyone whose story we’ve animated. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t animate them. We take people’s trust very seriously, and consider it a real honor and a gift that they allow us to help tell their story. In a lot of ways I feel that we really make each episode for the storytellers more so than anybody else. The biggest complement possible is when we get their positive feedback on what we’ve done with their stories.
Turnstyle: How do the StoryCorps animations tell a different but equally authentic story as the audio clips heard on Morning Edition?
MR: The story is made visual, so it’s an entirely different experience from the radio component of StoryCorps. By adding visuals, we are able to accentuate or add jokes, heighten or emphasize emotions, and clarify or strengthen story points. In “John and Joe”, one brother becomes a firefighter, the other a police detective. In audio, it can be confusing which brother is which. In animation, we used color to help distinguish them. John, the firefighter, has blond hair and always wears red. Joe, the police detective, has brown hair and always wears blue. The red and blue are of course design choices that help tell the story, but the hair color is authentic and true to life.
TR: At the end of “John and Joe”, the two boys’ father delivers some particularly poignant lines remembering his deceased sons. It’s a powerful moment in audio alone and there is an added dimension in animation when he speaks directly to the viewer. His posture and facial expressions help underline the mood of the story at that point. The acting in the animation is true to his tone and the character design is a very direct reference to the actual man, so even though it is in cartoon form there is a lot of truth and authenticity in that moment.
Turnstyle: Aside from the fact that StoryCorps does not videotape their interviews with participants, can you talk about why animation might be a superior alternative to video when it comes to telling these stories visually?
MR: People can easily become self-conscious in front of a camera. Recording their story by talking into a microphone while sitting across from a friend or family member gives them license to talk about things that they might not otherwise. It puts them at ease in a way that wouldn’t be possible on camera.
TR: And in translating the story into animation we’re able to show events and parts of the story that would simply be impossible to capture on camera. For instance, we can show a couple on their first date 50 years ago as they recall the conversation they had. You could reenact that for a camera, but in animation we can actually have the people themselves delivering the lines. It also opens up the opportunity to use design, color, and the controlled performance of an animator to add new meaning and understanding for the audience.
Turnstyle: Have you been privy to any interesting or memorable reactions to the work by StoryCorps participants or others? Can you tell me about one or two that stand out for you?
TR: It has been particularly moving to see the response to the September 11th shorts we released for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. So many people have said that they never understood the impact of that day or never felt any emotion about it until they saw the StoryCorps shorts.
MR: It’s incredibly gratifying to know that this work helps people connect, relate, and better understand each other. Helping people experience and understand both the joys and sorrows of life is exactly what we’ve wanted to do with animation since we were children.
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There’s nothing new about controversy in the arts. Many artists, from Chris Ofili to the National Endowment for the Arts Four, have had to defend their work, and their belief that it was worth showing and worthy of being tolerated and supported in their community. Usually, the results of these disagreements about the “appropriateness”, or value of a work of art, are pretty clear; the NEA decides to no longer fund individual artists, a planned exhibition of Ofili’s work at the National Gallery of Australia is cancelled.
In the case of artist Juan Obando’s proposed “Colombia Caliente” installation, things were a little less resolved. Obando currently works between Colombia and the U.S., and holds a position as assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Elon University in North Carolina.
It was in nearby Greensboro where artist and curator Lee Walton invited Obando to apply to the Super G Residency Program — an “Experiential Art Residency” located inside a local international foods market. Obando’s initial proposal to install an online matchmaking service for men in the Greensboro area to meet Colombian women was initially approved by Walton, until a description of the project was posted on Super G’s Facebook page. What followed was a breakdown of communication between Obando and Walton.
After almost a year of unfinished work and numerous unfruitful attempts to contact Walton, Obando decided to re-enact his adventure by live blogging all of his materials and correspondences related to the project, and installing his home office at the Greensboro Center for Visual Artists for its July 2010 “Paper Planes” exhibition. The name for this kissing cousin of “Colombia Caliente” was inspired by the early words of encouragement he received from Walton: “Your Application Is Beautiful.”
Visit the online component of the piece here.
Turnstyle: What inspired “Your Application Is Beautiful?”
Juan Obando: Lots of things, I think. Specifically my experience with the Super G Residency in Greensboro, NC, but also (and more generally) my discontent with contemporary artistic practices that sell themselves as activism or community-oriented work. “Social Practice,” to put it in academic terms. That American (and almost Christian) version of “Relational Aesthetics.” It seems that art in the United States has become more of a place to make friends and be a “good person” than a space, free of moralisms, where the most acid form of critique could find a home. Still, my main inspiration was to just bring some closure to that unfinished process that started on September 2010, with the application for the Super G residency program.
Turnstyle: While the most obvious subject of YAB is the aborted installation of “Colombia Caliente” at the Super G residency program in Greensboro, NC, it feels like the structure and choice of mediums present the possibility for subject matter beyond “Colombia Caliente.” In what way is the medium the message with YAB?
Obando: I think, in many ways. But I don’t know, you know? For almost seven years I’ve been making art that, in my mind, is extremely clear. I use commercial aesthetics (bold fonts, logos, slogans, posters) and practices, in sculptural ways, in an attempt to get through unnecessary conversations about craft and skills and right to the point(s) I aim to expose. Still, I’ve heard the most distorted versions of my work by the people who experience it. So, I’ve given up. And that’s great, I think. It taught me a lesson. Art is still such a free space, where people will always come up with their own interpretations, no matter how clear and in-your face you try to be. That would be the difference between Graphic Design and the work I do. Even if this is highly influenced by the urgency to universally communicate that Graphic Design has. So, in this case, I used blogging and home furniture (and appliances) to make my point. Blogging, to perform. I’ve never blogged before in my life, and it did feel as an exercise of performance: Putting myself through the regime of gathering all this documents and memories from last year and systematically posting them in a public platform where people could comment. I also moved my home office to the gallery and installed it in the same way it placed in my apartment for the whole year that I was working on Colombia Caliente.
For me, these mediums were just perfect for my own personal catharsis. Getting out of my chest, and sight, all that unfinished deal with the Super G. In an ideal world, I would hope that the public exposed to this piece would see it as an exercise of full-disclosure. A sneak-peak to the backstage of these small-town art scenes. Specially those who sell themselves as “liberal” and “open to anything.” What you see there is something that happens all around the art world: Rigid social circles, young people hanging out, older people pretending to be young, some establishing themselves as local celebrities, some improving their sex appeal. All in the name of art. And now, thanks to the humanitarian delusion imposed by American academia: in the name of “Political Activism” and “good intentions.”
Turnstyle: The core of the YAB is a series of email exchanges between yourself and artist, and curator Lee Walton. Aside from posting the exchange as proof of your interaction with Walton, what is it that attracted you to create, or rather re-post this document?
Obando: Mostly, and again, it was all self-motivated. I wanted to close that chapter and have a link that I would be able to send to the next person that asks me “Hey, so what happened with that supermarket residency you were supposed to be in?” I’ve been telling this story to my close friends, former professors and even some students that ask me about my current work, and it really is getting old. Using the emails was just my way to construct the illusion of fairness and objectivity, but also to be as clear as possible as to what went down in those months.
Turnstyle: With email, the recording of a conversation is the actual conversation. Do you have any thoughts on what that means in terms of the expression of ideas, meanings and fulfillment of this relationship?
Obando: Well, that’s what Google tried to do with “Google Wave” almost two years ago, to have this real-time conversation-based email system. With Wave, you could “replay” a whole conversation you had with someone by email, in this very analog-looking way. It had “play,” “stop,” and “forward buttons,” and all. But people didn’t embrace it much and they called it off.
In terms of art, mail has always been very interesting as subject and medium. I remember friends in Mexico telling me how upset people were when the first Warhol exhibition went to Mexico City (In the late ‘90s!) and a big chunk of the show was some of the “Warhol Letters” (a series of correspondences the artist held with the likes of Mick Jagger, MOMA, and even the Campbell Soup Company). Most people didn’t see those as “art” or relevant at all. I think they are great. They expose the real social work (and skills) of the artist. No matter what medium you choose to create your body of work, you always use correspondence to deal with collectors, curators, and program directors. Sometimes the writing process takes over the actual “artwork,” and, in some cases, that is more interesting to me. Robert Smithson letters, for example. They are amazing. I couldn’t care less about his work, but those letters are beautiful. There’s one in particular where he rejects the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies invitation to take part in the US section of the São Paulo Biennale, saying: “To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts.” That was great.
In my case, and if I knew how things were going to end up, there would have been way better ways to document my attempts to communicate with Lee Walton. For example, he’s a very active Facebook poster. So there would be times that I would be on Gmail, writing an email to him asking about the status of my residency project and then, almost at the same time, Facebook will pop up with posts by him asking people to apply to the Super G residency. I think a video screen capture of those moments would have been perfect for this piece.
Turnstyle: To what degree does documentary work in any form influence or inspire your work?
Obando: Quite a bit, I’d say, especially mockumentaries. I think any “non-artistic” format can be interesting, once it is re-interpreted or re-contextualized. Newscasting, for example. What Stephen Colbert does: to take the aesthetic of news/propaganda and turn it up a couple of notches to expose the ridiculousness of hyped-up media discourse, and make people laugh. In that same vain, I like to use academic formats and aesthetics outside academia: publications, catalogs, podcasts, and such. The overly serious look and feel of these forms is ideal for channeling and disseminating questions and images under the disguise of “knowledge.”
Turnstyle: Would you say that, aside from use of documentary as an attempt at an authentic telling of a story, that there is an aesthetic to documentary work regardless of medium?
Obando: I think so. I think that is what mockumentary is all about. Using the aesthetic of documentary work to validate fiction. It lowers costs of production and by so, it brings the story closer to the viewer, in this lo-fi way that even relates to the general public own means of production. I wonder how Spinal Tap would have worked if it hadn’t been shot and presented in that style. Or Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, that supposedly caused mass panic at the time because of its presentation as a real news bulletin.
Turnstyle: How would you say that your previous work utilizes or comments on documentary or documentation?
Obando: Mostly by mocking it, or using it to mock other things. Documentation is the holy grail of contemporary art and somehow you can’t get away without using it. So you might as well make it work in your favor or embrace it as your art form. I’ve used video podcasting as a stage for public performance, “industry-standard” printed publications to validate things that outside that format would only be seen as incoherent ramblings, and video collage made of found material to accentuate and exaggerate certain social gestures.
Turnstyle: Does a project like YAB, which appears to be a straightforward document of emails, in fact pose questions about the validity or meaning of such documents?
Obando: I wonder. I guess no one will ever know if I constructed those conversations or photoshopped the screenshots. Only Google knows.
Turnstyle: You’ve invited people who experience YAB online or in the gallery setting to contribute to it via responses to the re-posted exchanges between you and Walton. Do you feel that in some way re-defines the document of the exchange?
Obando: Not for me. Since I’ve been manipulating these documents for so long and since I’ve been so closely involved, I’ll always have my version of the events. Also, as expected in an all-smiles conflict-avoiding small context, peoples response has been extremely silent. So far, response has been limited to an anonymous commenter that claims to know me and says I’m an “aggressive,” “bad,” “mean-spirited” person. This is where we are at right now.
Turnstyle: Is YAB asking the viewer to consider documented events or relationships in any way?
Obando: No. Or I don’t know… That’s a question for the viewer, I think. Like I said before, I think it is very naive and pretentious to predict what art does in the viewer/participant. I make these things and I’m content with being able to just get them out there. Whatever the audience makes of them, is their problem. If anything, YAB is asking the viewer not to trust artists. Especially those who present themselves with “good intentions.”
Turnstyle: Does that process of re-definition and participation serve as a proxy or model for the dialogue that you might have hoped had been inspired by the realization of “Colombia Caliente?”
Obando: Sure. Still, I think Colombia Caliente would have been a more dynamic and engaging platform for that process. Managing a booth for international matchmaking and having people record video profiles for potential romantic adventures overseas sounds way more exciting than a guy blogging about his experience with an art residency in Greensboro, NC.
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