Programs/Publications

Feature article from the July 2013 AIRblast

Wage/Working

Two producers, eight weeks, and a jukebox

Brooklyn-based AIR producers Laura Hadden and Tennessee Watson just wrapped up their stint as this year's "AIR Live Interactive Residents." With a $10,000 stipend from AIR, they spent eight weeks at Wave Farm in upstate New York, a rural oasis run by the nonprofit arts group of the same name (formerly free103point9).

While there, the two devoted their time to making a media installation they call Wage/Working, which blends the stories of local workers with data about wages. Here's their report.

We've spent the last two months in a part of New York state nestled between the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. We followed a cheesemaker, a forester, a bike shop owner, two restaurant owners, a bartender, a lawyer, a skateboard maker, a nail salon owner, three inmates, an artist, a ski lift operator, and a second-grade teacher as we documented their search for what Studs Terkel would call their "daily meaning as well as daily bread."

We were both introduced to Studs Terkel during our work in community oral history and storytelling projects. We were compelled by his approach that drew from a storytelling tradition that honors individual experience. It also brought together a full spectrum of stories on the same topic in order to illuminate the institutions and systems that shape a collective experience. Like Terkel, we yearned to bring stories into conversation with one another. We were also interested in using data to find patterns in individual experiences. What would it mean to bring the oral history tradition that Terkel had popularized in cahoots with data, using time as the unit of measurement?

That question led us to the heart of our project Wage/Working — stories from workers from across the spectrum, edited to a length that corresponds with the amount of time it takes for them to earn a dollar, creating an inverse relationship between monetary value and time. Those who earn the least are given the most time to speak. The actual value of time can be experienced and internalized by those experiencing the installation, drawing attention to the contrast between the workers at both ends of the range and profiling workers across the spectrum.

THE JUKEBOX

We were talking over our concept when we came up with the idea to house the stories in a jukebox. The idea and symbolism resonated. The jukebox's history is that of a relic of working-class social spaces. With our jukebox, a listener would need to pay a dollar to hear how long it took another person to earn a dollar, which would allow the listener to reflect on the value of his or her own money and labor.

We weren't entirely comfortable with relying solely on the privatized access to the stories, though. We were also interested in using transmission to explore income inequality by playing the stories simultaneously, with one story fading out as workers earned their dollar while other workers continued to toil away. Using radios, we were able to broadcast these stories and juxtapose the democratized ideal of radio versus the privatization of material via the jukebox, acknowledging the power that those who can pay for these services have on the lives and experiences of others.

The jukebox (which we purchased on eBay and had freighted to our residence at Wave Farm) was largely successful as a platform for our project. As radio producers, it is a rare delight to see physical artifacts of your work on display in public. The other aspect of the jukebox as a framework that we love is the ability for individuals to come together and curate a shared listening experience in public space, a rare opportunity in a world increasingly dominated by headphones and mood music.

One of the challenges with the jukebox framework, however, is the decision of whether or not to charge participants for the listening experience beyond the installation date. The jukebox now sits at the Cairo Public Library where, as of this post, it continues to charge one dollar per play (the money will be split between the library and WGXC, the community radio station affiliated with Wave Farm). Although the dollar exchange for a "dollar's worth of story" is one of our original central concepts, it does seem to limit its appeal to an audience that is largely used to getting free content on demand, and its position within a library, one of the central free community services, can feel like a bit of a contradiction. Eventually, the jukebox will travel to public libraries and community spaces throughout Greene and Columbia counties. Each move to a new space will happen in conjunction with an oral history and field-recording workshop for the residents. Workshop participants will generate new material for the jukebox. It is our hope that the project can travel throughout the WGXC listening area until all 100 of the jukebox's available CD slots are filled with Wage/Working profiles of Greene and Columbia county residents.

FIELDWORK

For media makers who cherish fieldwork, this residency was a dream come true. Throughout our residency we let ourselves get lost, taking the long way from town to town, reading road signs, getting out of the car to investigate local spots, and trying to get a lay of the land as to what businesses and jobs fueled the local economy. And although we created PSAs calling for participation, which played on the community radio station, and put up flyers across two counties, it was the old-fashioned hitting the pavement and making connections with local residents that led us to most of our interviews. We featured 12 interview subjects in our project and of those 12, six came recommended by other residents, four were folks that we approached directly, and two were the result of contacting an employer who then referred us to a particular employee.

As outsiders in this community, we realize that the success of our project would not have been possible without community members introducing us to their own contacts and networks, and we are absolutely grateful for their openness and willingness to help us. However, one of our biggest challenges in the beginning was when we began conversations about our project, people would immediately refer us to unique small-business owners and artisans who they felt would have a particularly interesting story to tell. It wasn't until a few weeks into the project when we really began to notice this pattern emerge and realized that this tendency made perfect sense — small-business people and artisans rely upon their ability to market their work through personality and storytelling, making them seemingly the perfect candidates to represent the best of what their community's economy has to offer. As we were nearing the end of the project and noticed some particular demographics and occupations we wanted to make sure were included, we instead asked for specific help finding participants with those jobs (for example, a teacher). In the next iteration of this project, we hope to rely even more closely on data to better represent the community we are working with and ask for specific help representing those demographics earlier in our process.

At the same time, in the future we would also like to spend more effort pursuing stories about people working in aspects of the economy that are not adequately represented by data — whether they work in informal economies or are undocumented by the system for other reasons. It was important to us to have the prison economy (comprising two of the largest employers in Greene County) reflected in our project. On our first day of residency, we called the public relations department at the New York State Department of Corrections and (after much back and forth) finally arranged an interview for our final week of the residency. Although we had hoped to wrap up interviews weeks before, we both recognized how crucial this story was to depicting a huge portion of the local economy that is often invisible to the naked eye. Although we ended up not pursuing every single story idea that came our way, my advice to producers embarking on projects like this one is to pick a small number of stories, angles, or people (perhaps even just one) that you feel are essential to your project, work on securing access as soon as possible, and remain flexible enough to drop everything else in order to pursue it.

Initially, we were self-conscious about the moment in the interview in which we asked participants to calculate how long it took them to earn a dollar. Talking about wages is practically taboo in our culture, so we were anticipating a very negative response from our subjects. We were surprised how open most of them were and how willing to talk about the intimate details of their finances. We were even more surprised at how little self-employed people knew about how much money they made per hour. Through all these conversations, we came to understand how the porous divisions between work and personal life complicate that equation of minutes per dollar and how the framework of the project itself was flawed and limited in its own way.

As in most projects, the more interviews we did, the better our interview questions became. In the beginning, we struggled to balance being present in the interview and allowing it to flow naturally with the need to strategically ask each interviewee a similar set of questions because the stories had to be in conversation with each other. We wish we knew how many of our interview subjects felt they were adequately compensated and appreciated for their work, but that question didn't really come up until we spoke with a second-grade teacher in one of our final interviews. In retrospect, we think we should have leaned a bit more heavily on pre-prepared questions. But who knows what other interesting insights would have been lost along the way.

Our original idea was to edit one track for each participant, but after spending upward of an hour with each person, we found it nearly impossible and almost disrespectful of the subject's time with us to disregard such a huge portion of what they said. We ultimately decided to cut multiple tracks on the same "album" (a disc featuring multiple tracks for each participant) for many of our participants. Each individual track corresponded to the amount of time it took the subject to earn a dollar. We liked the idea that by creating "albums" instead of "singles," we were treating our interview subjects more like rock stars with a canon of wisdom rather than one-hit wonders.

Our final question for each interview was a fairly generic one that many of us use in our work. We asked whether they had anything they would like to add. During our interview with three inmates on work assignment at Greene Correctional Facility, one of them answered with, "Thank you for taking the time to hear about what we do and making us feel like what we do matters." It was then that we realized one of the fundamental truths of this work: interviewing is a way of showing respect. And I'm sure Studs Terkel would agree that there's no equation, question, or concept more important than that. 

 

Laura Watson is a documentary media artist who previously worked as the media and communications manager for The Moth.

Tennessee Watson’s career as a multimedia producer includes several years at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in North Carolina, where she instructed classes and coordinated a radio project for teens called Youth Noise Network.

Laura and Tennessee would like to get more jukeboxes and do
Wage/Working in other communities (for example, in their childhood hometowns or in Brooklyn, where they currently reside). If you’d like to collaborate with them on a Wage/Working jukebox in your town, let them know! You can reach them at wageworking@gmail.com.