Listening for what is possible
Last year we published our first series of audio encounters, conversions with some of the brightest minds who continue to inspire us and our wider work. Today we are closing this series with two new encounters from Panthea Lee and Candy Chang, a reflective audio walk from Gemma, and the first of what will be a new series of encounters which will take a slightly new form.
The audio encounters that are available on our website and podcast feed make up just a part of the audio we have created at New Constellations over the past year. Across all of our work, audio is an important tool we use and I wanted to write about why we choose to work with audio at New Constellations; the value it adds in our work on projects that focus on harnessing the power of collective imagination, and how it can help us shape a collective, thriving future.
We are aiming to experiment and push the boundaries and expectations of how audio is used and as we develop our practice, I’ll continue to share some of the things I notice and learn as we go.
When we listen to something, we hear a voice, a description or a single sound, and with our minds we fill in the gaps and build a picture of what our other senses are not picking up. We fill these 'gaps' with our individual understanding of the world, our hopes, our fears. And this is as much informed by our personal experiences as it is our culture.
People talk about the power of audio to transport people. Through our work, we want to transport people to a place in which they have the space to imagine new futures. We’re using audio because of its unique power to spark the imagination of the people we are working with. In a multimedia world that is more visually focussed than ever, we want to create new spaces to hope, think and feel our way into different futures.
Our exploration into audio began with the first series of audio encounters — conversations with people who have ideas and thoughts that can guide us to the future that we must all work together to create. They are an important part of our research, as much as they are a way of sharing our ideas with the world. We use the word encounters, and not “interviews” or “podcasts”, because from the start we wanted to push ourselves to deeply consider our making process and question the expectations of these forms and how they are consumed.
Many of the people we have spoken to make a living from their ideas, and from communicating these ideas. The reality of this means that people are very used to delivering sound bites and summaries of their work in interviews, talks and panel presentations. This is an efficient and necessary process which takes work and skill and is valuable to people who want to understand an idea or approach. But this does tend to mean that everything sounds the same.
A quality of many interviews I love is the ability for an interview to steer their interviewee or interviewees into surprising territory whilst ensuring it arrives at a final, satisfying, desiination. Keep your ear on the road. Done well, an interview should be revealing for the interviewee as much as it communicates to the audience. With our encounters we wanted to take people off their own beaten track, and to coax people away from the familiar to question and explore their answers, and themselves, in more detail.
Desire lines or “Free-will ways” as Robert McFarlane has called them, are paths made naturally, in defiance of planners, made by the repeated pressure of hundreds of people’s feet as they try to get from one place to another. Like slime mould, they are organic, efficient, useful, and beautiful.
Initially, our plan was to travel around the world meeting people, spending time with them and recording our conversations as we got to know one another. We would hang out. And we would have our recorders there to see what emerged as we spent time with people in amongst their lives instead of over Zoom. But we were making our plans at the beginning of 2020, and very quickly it became apparent that the pandemic meant that this would not be possible. Before Covid-19 was in existence, we had set out to capture an important moment in our collective history. That moment was not a global pandemic, but the final form of the encounters has been shaped by the mood, and sheer practicalities, of this time in our history more so than we imagined.
We quickly decided on a Radio Diary format. It’s a tried and tested way of making intimate, personal portraits in sound that can cut to the heart of a person. We would send a recorder to our interviewee who would record themselves, at their own pace and in their own time, responding to a series of questions (prompts) that we sent to them in advance.
On the face of it, the format sounds fairly straightforward but careful planning was needed to support those participating to ensure a coherence and structure to the series. It’s something we spent a lot of time on trying to get right. We came to see the process, which took anywhere between several weeks to several months, as an elongated interview and a journey which we embarked on together. An experience which we as interviewers, albeit not present, worked carefully to create a different kind of space for. We were always very conscious of the generosity of our participants - it was a huge gift of time and attention- and so we did everything we could to make the experience valuable for them as well. These encounters worked best when participants began to feel their way through what came to feel like a truly co-created exploration of an idea or series of ideas, and of a person and their work.
People recorded their responses over time in a way that fitted their schedules and personal patterns, allowing them to properly live with and formulate a considered response to a question. This gave the encounters an intimate and personal quality, and we were delighted that so many of the participants told us they came to value the experience as an almost meditative tool.
We did find that some pre-agreed structure and plan was helpful. The encounters seemed to work best when there was a fixed period of time to the interview and an element of structure in terms of recording times. The people who committed to doing this over a fixed period of say one or two weeks were able to formulate clearer ideas and found the experience more rewarding personally.
As part of our onboarding, we started the process by sending our participants a pack in the post. This contained a personal letter from us, the recording equipment, and a series of prompts sealed in several envelopes. We wanted the experience to feel personal, organised and simple, and within that provide the space for people to put their own spin on both the process and responses. Examples of the prompts included:
Tell a story/Make a broadcast from the future. Describe where you are. Tell us how the world is different?
Find and hold an object that has a deep meaning for you. Spend a few minutes, in silence, holding it. Describe it and tell us how it makes you feel and what it represents.
The prompts were split into several themes and the envelopes were opened one by one over the course of the encounter. The participant read and considered them, and this was a jumping off point for the thoughts and recollections they put to the tape. They were designed so that they were open-ended, but would keep the conversation focussed and bring a structure to the episode, and to the series as a whole. Some prompts required consideration, time for thoughts to macerate, whilst some were more immediate, and asked for engagement with a specific object, person or place. This was a really great opportunity to ask things that would not work in a face-to-face interview.
We decided to send out recorders not just to ensure the recordings were of a high enough quality to create the intended piece but for several other reasons. We wanted to free people from their computers, and the recorders we chose enabled this as they were small and mobile. Our recorders allowed us to record in nature, in a way that was often embraced by participants. Many of the participants took the recorders on trips and on walks around where they lived giving another special quality to the recordings.
For me, part of the magic of these recordings is their breadth and difference and this is as much about how they were recorded as who recorded them. Some people set time aside each day to record their thoughts at their desks; some recorded in their beds before they drifted off to sleep; some kept them tucked in their bag to bring out when a thought hit them. In every case the choices the individual made about how to record told us something about them, and that is reflected in the sound and tone of each encounter.
There is a wonderful coherence to the series, in part from the structure of our process and our editing decisions, but for me the similarities in tone and content are more than this. As Gemma has written about in greater detail, part of the kernel from which New Constellations unfurls is the sense that we are going through a time of enormous and collective transformation. What I hear when I listen to the encounters is that people are feeling the same things. Beyond the consensus of experience, bubbling under the surface there are smaller, quieter and sometimes stranger similarities between the subjects people choose to approach. So many people spoke of the comfort of being by water, and, strangely, three people talked about StarTrek. There’s a subtlety to the encounters that captures something of the moment we lived through, and the format has allowed for this to be unearthed, showing us that people all over the world, working on different things, with different backgrounds, are quietly feeling many of the same things.
The encounters work as stand alone introductions to people and their work. But they also tell a story together. We want these to be experienced as a constellation. For this reason we released the first series of the encounters all in one go. We hope people dip in and out and draw their own connections between the people and ideas, as we did in making them and absorbing ourselves in the ideas.
I’m writing this at Gemma’s house in Dartmoor, the same place we met almost exactly two years ago and where, with some others, we bashed out a plan to make the first series of encounters. A huge part of our work is not only connecting and presenting people and ideas but doing what we call “patterning”. Earlier today Gemma and I went on a walk and she reflected on the first series and spoke to some of the ideas that were emerging. We are releasing this today as a full stop to our first series.
The world feels very different to how it did at the beginning of 2020. A world before the pandemic. The first series of encounters felt right for this time, or at least it became what it was because of the forces that shaped it. It’s been hugely exciting to work on something with such creative freedom, and to encounter and hear from so many interesting voices. And it’s pleasing to see how they have been received, by over 40,000 people all over the world.
We will continue to create and explore using audio, but are looking forward to experimenting with the form of our encounters and to see what direction they take.
You can listen to the encounters on our website, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Full transcripts are available on our website and the YouTube versions have closed captioning.