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09/13/2010

A different kind of Radiohead

I interviewed Samara Freemark, a producer at Radio Diaries– a Manhattan-based organization filming some of the stories behind the displays of the First Person Museum. Their mission is to seek out subjects who might not otherwise have an opportunity to share themselves on such a large scale. Samara sees their work as a chance to “tell [stories] in an artful and engaging way so that they can resonate with the millions of people who listen to public radio. We help people share their own stories – and their lives – in their own words.” It’s much like the mission of First Person Arts, empowering the lives of regular folks, or as Samara put it: “To make the ordinary extraordinary.”

Radio Diaries started out with a low-tech, one-on-one approach- they gave tape recorders to ordinary people, and collected 30-40 hours of tape from each subject. In the beginning, Samara says, “[we] collaborate[d] with each diarist to edit the material into radio documentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered.” However, Radio Diaries has since branched out to include historical documentaries.

Samara says the group is headed toward combining the two main types of radio work with the goal of “tell[ing] historical stories from an intensely personal perspective. That’s our focus for the future.” This is clearly a perfect match for the First Person’s ‘museum of the people’ in which local historians and artists pair up with the display donors to tell the historical significance along with the personal to craft an interwoven tale behind each object.

I asked Samara about the people she interviews, and if she’s noticed any demographic patterns about who comes to it more or less naturally. Her answer, after balking to make any gross generalizations, was:

“I will say, though, that teenagers often seem to be particularly good, since they’re less conscious than adults about what they ‘should’ sound like on tape, and are more artless. I mean that as a serious compliment! As for who finds it the most difficult… to avoid giving offense, I’m going to blatantly dodge that question! I will say that the best interviewees are the ones who speak simply and honestly – the ones who speak as if they’re in a conversation, not as if they are presenting a paper at an academic conference or something.”

Like most documentarians, Radio Dairies is committed to helping develop new social consciousness, even social change when possible, which explains why Samara mentioned wanting to interview people living in war zones and under repressive governments as possible projects for the future. Samara also talked about how very personal, individual documentaries have touched on political issues. After all, what part of society is not in some way influenced by the political realm? As Samara put it, dusting off that handy Second Wave Feminist line- “The personal is political!”

We later discussed the overlap between her work helping people tell their stories for radio and the First Person Museum. One topic was the way people tell their stories. I was curious about what factors influence the manner or degree people communicate and how this might relate to the objects people chose to submit to the museum. Samara brought up an interesting point about privacy and a subject’s comfort level with their audience. She said, “Everyone has a different idea of what is appropriate to share in front of an audience of strangers, of how much of their personal lives they’re willing to disclose to an audience. So I think you’ll see that emerge in what objects people chose to submit.” This will definitely be something to keep in mind when viewing the exhibits this fall. In what ways has the donor allowed us into their lives? In what ways are we still held back or our vision of the whole obscured?”

In our conversation Samara and I mused on the philosophical side of the audio-visual spectrum. I asked her about our culture’s relationship with radio as a medium of communication and where it fits into our supersaturated visual lives. Now that I am used to my glorious car-free lifestyle in Center City, I rarely listen to the radio. Samara suggested that I, and others like me, may be missing out! In fact, she said that because radio is a “more limited [medium] it can make people stop and really concentrate on what they’re hearing in a way that they don’t when they’re distracted by other senses being stimulated. People approach information in totally different ways depending on what the medium is.” When I think about the hours I’ve spent with the TV talking to itself while I Gchat on my laptop, making dinner, and texting to multiple people at once- wait what was I saying?

Samara and I both agree that museums are beginning to embrace the power of audio, but it is particularly exciting to see what will come from the First Person Museum’s show with the elevated role that audio will play- enhancing the displays and their messages.

I asked Samara if she could submit an object to the museum what would it be and why. She came up with an old road atlas that she has kept around for unknown reasons. She figures it represents her freedom, “or something like that.”

Personally, I would submit my stuffed deer whom I named Filene after Bambi’s girlfriend from the Disney classic of the same name. I think it would speak to the broader influence Disney had on America’s collective unconscious during childhood- particularly the influence of the absent (or murdered) mother-figures… or maybe not.

Finally, I asked Samara for a preview of the objects she and the folks at Radio Diaries are documenting for the First Person Museum. I wanted to know in particular what appealed to her about these objects and why they make good subjects for radio. Here is her response:

“There’s a wedding ring from a woman whose story I loved because this wedding ring was actually a remnant left over from a bad marriage, and I loved that she hung on to it. There’s a pair of men’s boxer shots from a woman – they belonged to her son, and she ended up with them when he was sent to jail. She used to put them on and walk around her house. I loved that image. There’s a baby outfit from a girl who’s gay but who got pregnant as a teenager – I loved that juxtaposition. And a Mexican shawl that’s the last thing a woman was given by her mother, who was dying at the time. What I liked about that story was that her mother had worn that shawl around to prim faculty parties in the 1950s – a little act of rebellion.”

These great objects, and the stories behind them will be available at grand opening of the First Person Museum on November 5th at the Painted Bride Art Center.

– Morgan Berman

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