In this post OHMA student elly kalfus (2017) interrogates Luis C. Sotelo’s efforts to get people to position themselves in another’s story through audio walks.
Luis C. Sotelo is the Canada Research Chair in Oral History Performance and Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at Concordia University. On March 29th, Sotelo presented about his work as part of Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) program year-long series on oral history and the arts.
Sotelo has been interested in listening for most of his life, embarking on “word fasts” and cultivating opportunities for strangers to listen deeply to one another. Sotelo started his workshop by asking questions about the form and function of listening, including “Is responding part of listening?” In response, Sotelo shared about his recent project, Most Convenient Way Out, an audio walk centered on the experiences of Colombian child soldiers.
Most Convenient Way Out began when Sotelo was commissioned by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration to create an artistic, sensory experience for people attending the Association’s conference to help them better understand the issues, though the project now lives on in other forms for a general public. Sotelo decided he wanted to “position” audience members in the head of a former Colombian child soldier, and do so not just with words but with an entire spatial experience. First, Sotelo needed a story to ground the audience. Due to privacy concerns, Sotelo found it difficult to locate former children soldiers in Colombia, so instead he hired a voice actor to record passages from an anonymous autobiography, entitled A Born Winner, written by a child soldier who got out. Sotelo then mapped out a route to accompany the audio, and asked young men who were at risk for being recruited as child soldiers to play the role of “accompanier” on the audio walk. Ultimately, when audience members show up, one at a time they are asked to select an accompanier, whom they walk with in silence during the entire walk, while they listen to an account of life as a child soldier.
What made the kinetic and spatial elements of the experience stand out? Rather than simply ask the audience to listen to and empathize with the audio story, Sotelo wanted to situate the audience inside the body of the character whom they are listening to, without exposing them to actual danger.
In an audio walk, very often the focus is on the person’s story, or the person who is sharing the story with you, right? So that’s the focus. And in, in an audio walk the other focus is basically, what’s the connection between the story that is being told and the place, right? Why here?
For me, here, in this audio walk, I’m trying to experience, to experience, to redefine that relationship, and I’m trying to say, the focus is not the person- the other person’s story, the focus is you as the listener walking here.
To make this shift in positioning, the route Sotelo chose for the audio walk was difficult – it was set in a public place where there were people running about their day, human and machine noise, and it required some physical and mental exertion for tasks such as climbing stairs. As a result, the audience does not simply lose themselves in the audio story – in fact, at some moments they cannot hear the audio over the unscripted sounds arising around them.
Sotelo believes this duality – of being in your own head and body while also being in the mindset and imagined body of the person you’re listening to, and all the while facing a teenager you just met and who you are not allowed to utter a word to – makes for greater empathy and understanding. I am not so sure. I fear that centering yourself in someone else’s story, particularly when you hold a different cultural, racial, gender or religious identity, risks essentializing someone’s experience; in seeking to understand someone’s experience, it is possible to lose sight of what they want to communicate to you about the experience.
Sotelo’s work raises many questions for me – Is it moral to try to create empathy for a group of people you have never spoken with, let alone asked for permission to share their stories? When does an attempt to understand someone by placing yourself in their shoes become voyeuristic and appropriative? Is empathy about focusing on ourselves or others? And why do we listen in the first place?
Like Sotelo, I am interested in helping people understand others’ experiences. I think these are critical questions for anyone seeking to build empathy for individuals who do not share their identity to ask.
To learn more about Luis C. Sotelo’s work, check out his website: storytelling.concordia.ca/content/Sotelo-castro-luis
elly kalfus is an Oral History MA student at Columbia University. She comes from a prison abolition background and is currently organizing Ballots Over Bars, a campaign to document Massachusetts prisoners’ fight for the right to vote over the past 40 years.