Jack And The Bag Of Death

Intro from Jay Allison: Sometimes our friends recommend stories we should feature. Nick van der Kolk of "Love + Radio" told us about this one, a story by his student, John Freyer.

Nick writes: "I sometimes feel like a hypocrite assigning a vox pop to students, because my relationship to it is so ambivalent, much like my relationship to the gym. I procrastinate and make excuses, but whenever I finally get around to it, I feel like a million bucks. It's thrilling to get to speak with folks I would never normally get the chance to interact with. And in the age the internet, a system largely designed--for good and for ill--to stamp out all serendipity from life, the randomness of doing vox is one of last, best ways to create moments of heartfelt, moving coincidence, such as in the case of the result of John's assignment."

Check out how John inadvertently captured a story within a story. Just wait for it.

Listen to “Jack And The Bag Of Death”

Last fall at the very end of the semester I saw a poster in the hallway of the art school at Virginia Commonwealth University for one of my favorite podcasts, Love and Radio by Nick van der Kolk. It turns out that it wasn’t a poster for the podcast (Do podcasts have posters? They really should!) but rather for a graduate level documentary radio class that van der Kolk was teaching at VCUarts this spring in the Department of Kinetic Imaging. I wished that I was a student again so that I could take his class. It turns out that one of the benefits of working at VCUarts is the ability to take up to two classes per semester tuition free. This January I registered for Nick’s class and took my seat in the classroom as a student rather than as an instructor. I hadn’t been on the student side of a classroom in more than ten years and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to shed the “let me show you how to do that” mentality that comes with ten years of teaching experience.

Old Dog, New Tricks

I teach film and video production courses and even have an audio podcast assignment built into my syllabus. So I wasn’t sure what I was going to learn in Nick’s seminar. The first day of class let me know that I would be learning a lot. For one, Nick’s favored form of audio capture is with the onboard mics of an H4N Zoom recorder. Having taught the Zooms for the last five years, I would normally bring out a host of cardioid, shotgun and lavalier microphones with boom poles, long runs of xlr cable and windscreens and show my students how to use them rather than the onboard mics, anything but the onboard mics. I quickly relearned that radio production is not film production, and that microphone proximity is the key factor in audio quality, not expensive Sennheiser shotguns (although they are amazing).

Without having to worry about seeing audio equipment in the shot, I was instructed to get the Zoom as close to my subjects as I could (a fists length away) and to record in stereo using one of the X/Y mics for my subject and the other one to record my questions. Nick also taught us about how to avoid plosives when working so close to your subject. My favorite production trick that Nick shared was one he uses to get people comfortable with the unfamiliar equipment that we use with its giant foam or furry windscreens — he scratches his face while holding his equipment in his hand. It works!

The End is Usually the Beginning

This audio piece was recorded as part the Vox Populi assignment in Nick van der Kolk’s seminar. We were instructed to go out and conduct interviews with strangers in public. I chose to look for interview subjects at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) on Super Bowl Sunday. I asked people the question: “If the VMFA were the NFL and the works of art on the wall were the teams in the Super Bowl of Art, which piece of art would you root for?” My first interview was with Vixi Jill Glenn who was visiting from Boone, North Carolina. Nick instructed us to always leave the tape rolling and equipment in recording position even after the interview questions were answered. After Vixi finished telling me about her favorite Rodin sculpture at the VMFA, she revealed that she was a “Keeper” of the Appalachian Jack tales, which include a series of more than a hundred stories about the Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame. In this piece Vixi Jill Glenn tells the Hicks’ family version of “Jack and the Bag of Death.”

Listening and Learning

I learned to listen again this semester. Both in the field and more importantly in the classroom as a student. It was such a gift to be on the student side of the classroom, to be reminded of what it is like for my students in my own classes. Face to face, one-on-one conversation is a large part of my current art practice. My work tries to create space for people to slow down, unplug and listen to each other. But listening while engaged in conversation is different than listening while allowing other people’s stories to come to the fore. I had to shut off my natural instinct to provide verbal feedback to my subjects. I had to resist sharing my own anecdotes related to the topic at hand. I had to slow my own thought process down so that my mind wasn’t making the rapid connections necessary to be a good conversationalist. I had to listen.

John Freyer

John Freyer

John D. Freyer teaches in the Department of Photography and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of the book All My Life for Sale , the co-creator of the PBS television series pilot Second Hand Stories and is currently in production on a short documentary/fiction hybrid film commissioned by the ICA at VCU. Freyer has been a Fulbright scholar, a fellow at The MacDowell Colony and an artist-in-residence at the Fanoon Center in Doha, Qatar. Freyer’s social practice works include: Free Ice Water, Recovery Roast Coffee, Free Hot Supper, Walm-Art and his Live IKEA project where he and social anthropologist Johan Lindquist lived in a model apartment in IKEA Singapore for three days. More information about his work and practice can be found at temporama.com.

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