Soon after 9-11 producer Karen Michel moved from a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn to Pleasant Valley, NY.
Overt patriotism wasn't so unusual at the time, but still, Michel wanted to know more about her new flag-flying neighborhood. So she selected sites within a 30-mile radius or a 30-minute drive of her country-suburban home and asked anyone who'd answer three questions: "What do you live for? What would you die for? What would you kill for?" This story distills the responses of more than a hundred interviews into less than a quarter-hour of radio.
Based in upstate New York, Karen Michel is an independent radio producer who got her start in media as a guest on Art Linkletter's Kids Say the Darndest Things. She has lived and worked in Alaska, Mexico, Japan, Greenland, India, Canada, Kenya, Nepal, Madagascar, and other geographies real and imagined. Her academic training is in visual arts and cross-cultural education; she's been an exhibiting artist (jewelry, photography, drawing, and holography) and a teacher.
Michel has received many awards and fellowships: Peabody, Robert Wood Johnson, National Endowment for the Arts, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Fulbright/Indo-U.S. Subcommission, among them.
Karen Michel conducted the "Live? Die? Kill?" experiment in Durham, North Carolina, when she was living there in 2006; you can hear the southern version at the Center for Documentary Studies Web site.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Karen Michel
Why did you choose these short/big questions to ask? Was part of your intent to create a time capsule of attitudes about life and death today?
I'm fascinated by how casually people seem to choose their words: as if living and dying were casual, not conscious events. People talk about dying for a good meal, killing for a chance to be on, say, American Idol, etc. It seemed to me that the three questions distilled most political and spiritual philosophies; that may be claiming far too much, but it's a stab (ooh, a wound). That, in answering, folks couldn't be casual with their words, but intentional. Not a time capsule, but a space capsule, by limiting geographies to within a 30-minute drive or a 30-mile drive from a specific starting place (my home in Pleasant Valley; my home in Durham).
What surprised you most about the answers?
I was surprised at how readily strangers shared their answers with me and especially that people seemed to assume that I agreed with whatever their position was. The latter, more so in the South.
Why did you decide to end the piece with the teenagers instead of the seniors?
I end with young people only in the Pleasant Valley version. Life is transitory; death, I think, too. Young people, in their invincibility get that life goes on and is to be savored as it happens. The really old realize they are about to experience another part of that continuum. Either way, there's the continuity of life, and of personal expression.
Do you think that if you conducted the same experiment in ten years the answers would be different?
Yes, I do. I'm hoping to revisit the questions in the Pleasant Valley area within the next year, if I can. I suspect that the first time, so close to 9-11, the answers were colored, shaped by those events. Now, I'm not sure what affects answers to questions of impulse, core belief, and mortality.
After interviewing approximately 100 people, how did you decide what to include in the final stories?
How to select? Content, a variety of content/answers. If, say, seven people said "family" I didn't need them all, unless they defined family differently or had different reasons for that response. Whenever I was surprised, that had to stay in.
The Hare Krishnas in North Carolina surprised me at first, and then I found that the Friends had some similar answers, a wonderful confluence. So, in that case the surprise was the difference in venue and physical appearance (the HK's and the Friends don't exactly dress the same, and the HK's temple was in a geodesic dome, not a rectangular structure) but similar attitudes toward killing.
Being articulate is a plus, too, as are different tones and rhythms of speech and I'm always looking for variety of gender, race, age, etc., without artificially manipulating the numbers. It's mighty tough to whittle down the hundred or so to a number that I can realistically use. But, just as in producing a "regular" radio feature, I'm keeping mental notes as I record and then make a few notes in a notebook right after, noting the "hot" stuff.
Occasionally I'll use nothing from a venue, though that's rare (happened in Pleasant Valley because I was so caught up in the process I couldn't stop recording.) By the second time through -- in Durham -- I stopped when I returned to the beginning. Sort of like Alice and the advice given to her by the Red Queen. Live? Die? Kill? became a looking glass.
The TCF is always interested in how to transform radio into a public experience -- and we know that you presented Live? Die? Kill? in front of an audience at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. Please describe the program and how the audience responded.
At CDS I gave a documentary performance; a presentation, with some visuals, of the answers to the questions and how I felt about those responses. This time I'd asked the three big, little questions to people within the 30-30 restriction of my home, behind the CDS in Durham. I photographed each responder holding a small dry erase board on which they'd written their name (first, last, their choice). Two dozen or so of these were made into canvas images that were grometted on the corners and hung around the perimeter of the tent that was the event venue. The performance began with a band, Doc Thompson and the Documentarians, singing the Live? Die? Kill? song, with my students in Finding the Voice as chorus, giving their answers to each question (a montage of their prerecorded voices/answers played as people took their seats).
Then I came on, giving some of the background, playing a few excerpts from the Pleasant Valley version. And continued to explore whether answers differed north-south (they did; there's a different type of expression in the south) and then, the answers I received in various venues. I talked, played tape, reflected. At the end, audience members were invited to give their answers, and a number did, including several teens. Then I was asked to give my answers, and the performance ended. The band played, more alcohol was poured, dancing and general carousing occurred. It's the kind of event I'd like to do more of: live documentary.
So what are your own answers to: What do you live for? What would you die for? What would you kill for?
I think that I live to ask questions, hear the answers and then do what I do, namely, tell others. I also live to try to help, in whatever small way, to alleviate suffering -- or, at the least, I try not to add to it. Die for? Perhaps trying to do the above, perhaps die while trying to live. Kill? I don't kill, not mosquitos, nada. Occasionally I think I inadvertently kill with words. I'm trying to work on that.