Fereshteh Toosi is an interdisciplinary artist based in Chicago. Last week I attended a brainstorming brunch she hosted with creative friends and cool people to gather input and share ideas for her latest project, GARLIC & GREENS. G&G records people’s stories about soul food as a way to explore the intersection of culture and food. Read more about the project here, in an interview I did with Fereshteh for Turnstyle News. (And if you’re interested in contributing, help out the G&G kickstarter fund). Here she shares some additional thoughts on audio just for us.
You said, “I am committed to doing work that addresses multiple senses”…How has sound played into GARLIC & GREENS?
I like art and audio that is complicated, things that have messiness or noise. I also appreciate carefully crafted and layered documentary like Radiolab. It’s highly produced and uses music, special effects, and the soundbed in unexpected ways. But in my own work, I’m still learning to compose. To share the interviews I have collected, simplicity is OK, maybe even preferred. It’s important to allow some voices to stand on their own. The tone of the human voice has so much information in it. The content of the stories and the way they are performed by the speaker are of primary importance. That’s what’s compelling to most listeners. The stories have a complexity that is more powerful than any production tricks I could add to the track.
Getting more comfortable with simplicity also stems from my greater awareness of accessibility for people with disabilities. I owe my understanding of this to the people with low or no vision who’ve assisted with GARLIC & GREENS. These days, because Braille books take up so much physical space, audio tools are really important to people who are blind. Audio allows a hands free experience of information, and it is maneuverable. At first I was surprised when I heard a person who is blind listening to the audio cues on their iPhone: the text was playing back at triple speed. I hadn’t thought about the fact that when I scan the world with my eyes, time is a factor. How much time do I devote to taking in the information around me? It could be a long, contemplative stare. Or it could be a quick glance. With technology you can skim content more quickly by speeding up and slowing down the audio. This is a factor for a lot of time-based work or digital media that is removed from a controlled environment. Once the sound waves are cast out there, you don’t know exactly how they will be received. Someone could be listening while they are jogging or on the train to work. They might miss the first part, fast forward through something, or repeat parts they like.
Lynn Manning filled me in on the technologies used by people with vision loss. Lynn is a writer and a performer who happens to be blind. I asked him if he had a preferred way of delivering stories and content to his audience. I was thinking of the differences between reading on a screen and reading a traditional bound paper book. He replied that however people want to read is how they should get their information. On the other hand, during a group discussion with people who are low or no vision, I learned that there is a value to the tactile experience in addition to the audio experience. A school teacher who is blind said that strictly auditory learning may hinder the grammar and spelling of children with vision loss. Or for example, if you have to give a talk to a crowd, having your presentation in Braille in front of you can be a big help. Otherwise, it becomes a burden to memorize everything. Hearing from people with vision loss expands my understanding of the limits and possibilities of sound and touch as carriers of information. The structure of how sound is experienced, the phenomenology, is something that’s of great interest to me.
I’m giving a guest presentation about the project with an audio aesthetics class at UIC. The instructor, artist Deborah Stratman, is really smart about using sound and other sensation in her projects. I’m a huge fan of her work. For homework she asked her students to read excerpts from Helen Keller’s book, The world I live in. Keller wrote: “Touch brings the blind many sweet certainties which our more fortunate fellows miss, because their sense of touch is uncultivated. When they look at things, they put their hands in their pockets.” This is something to consider with sound too. When we listen, we don’t have to keep our hands in our pockets. It’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in combining touch with other senses for the GARLIC & GREENS book. I’m hoping that engaging other senses will create an opportunity for slow listening, an experience that’s portable but not just about slogging through information.