Welcome to this ‘This Sexy American Life’ and in this act Mary Gould and Daniel Makagon make up the sound curation duo digitalcityscape. Together, they create short audio documentaries on alternative sexuality in urban life. Their first two pieces in this vein were set in Chicago — Daniel’s home base. Leathermen follows the excitement of the International Mr. Leather Competition and Convention and the The Politics of Desire interviews the legendary Mistress Cleo and Chester, the curator of the Leather Archive Museum.
Recently, Mary and Daniel have moved their efforts southwards, as they explored the experience of the home owner who hosted last month’s Female Ejaculation Demo. Check out their St. Louis work here.
SEX+STL: What inspired you to make audio (instead of say, video) documentaries? What do you think that we get out of focusing on sound, and leaving the visual aside?
Mary: Well, I work with multiple types of media, still and moving image and sound, but I’m attracted to working with sound because it’s the most intimate medium for the audience and subject. Regardless of the project, my work involves asking people to share a story with me and potentially a larger audience. Audio is appealing for me because it allows for the transmission of meaning between two people–the storyteller and the listener. With audio the listener has the opportunity to create their own mental image of the story, which requires a level of participation that is different than the experiences of watching video or looking at a photograph.
Daniel: Yeah, like Mary, I don’t work exclusively with sound but that is certainly my primary mode of production work. For example, when doing long-term research projects I like to make photographs of people and places, but unless I am working on a longer research project, I tend not to carry a camera. I came to audio documentary through a quest to find alternative ways to represent fieldwork I was doing. Maybe 12 years ago I was doing a study of loud car stereo systems and thought that sharing that study through sound was a natural fit. I loved being lost in the sounds as I was editing that story and enjoyed the ways that the people I worked with could be heard directly…….their voices telling their stories.
SEX+STL: Does all of your work have a kind of local focus?
Daniel: Mary and I have known each other for a long time but we started working together a couple years back and have bounced back and forth between stories about St. Louis and stories about Chicago. What attracts us to these stories is a combination of the local and the global. For example, Mary and I worked on a short piece we titled The Politics of Desire. Using this piece as an example of the local and the global: the way that people struggle to negotiate their sexual desires in Chicago is not unique to Chicago, but the ways those desires can play out in Mistress Cleo’s dungeon will be different than in other cities. Some of that has to do with Mistress Cleo and the unique features of her dungeon and some of that has to do with the cultures and sexual practices that shape and are shaped by life in Chicago.
Mary: Daniel and I both do work that explores the urban environment, which means that we primarily do research in the cities where we live. Now that we’re both living in the Midwest, we’ve found ways to collaborate on projects that are of mutual interest. I grew up on the East Coast and Daniel on the West Coast; part of our interest in doing local research is our own exploration of a part of the country we are both still getting to know. As Daniel said, there are many global phenomena occurring in both of our cities, but there are also many experiences that are specific to our individual cities. For example, the Leather Archive and Museum and International Mister Leather Competition are recognized around the world (in certain communities), but they are also firmly rooted in the culture and urban landscape of Chicago. The same is true for your organization, SEX+STL which probably exists because of the culture of St. Louis and the lack of options for kinky men and women in the Midwest.
Daniel: I guess what we’re saying in a long-winded way is that we are drawn to stories that are connected to the cities where we live but we also like it when those stories can be of interest to people who live elsewhere because those people can hear something in the voices and sounds that help them see their own cities in new ways as well.
SEX+STL: You’ve done three pieces on sexual subcultures now. What’s interesting to you about that topic?
Mary: My research generally tends to focus on what I call the “underbelly” of culture. I prefer to study the people, places and practices that are conceived of as deviant or transgressive. Daniel and I both do work that digs under the surface of what is considered acceptable by mainstream culture. Plus, this work is just more fun and we hang out with kinky people with interesting lives. The last three pieces we have produced took us to “the dungeonest dungeon in Chicago”, the home (and wardrobe) of an International Mister Leather contestant and a female ejaculation party.
Daniel: (laughing) Yeah, I think getting shocked by Mistress Cleo’s electric wand is far more interesting than interviewing a local politician about plans to add extra trash cans near a bus stop. But to follow what Mary was just saying, I also think we’re both interested in relationships between public and private life in an urban context….how people try to find some balance between who they are and want to be and how cities provide interesting and unique options to make sense of those interests, desires, hopes, and fears. I don’t know if that fully answers your question. Luckily Mary spoke directly to the question, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that these three audio pieces that have focused on sex positive issues and identity are part of larger interests that we both share about urban space, identity and place, and alternative narratives about how we live and could live.
SEX+STL: Can you tell us your plans for your next project?
Daniel: I have been working for a couple years now on a sonic map of Chicago neighborhoods. I’ve worked on this with some students and colleagues to gather stories about neighborhoods and sounds in those places. There are 77 neighborhoods so this is going to take a long, long time. My goal for the project is ultimately to inspire other people so they start telling stories about their neighborhoods and then contribute to the larger project. I also have been talking with Serpent Libertine of SWOP Chicago about doing a piece together about the End Demand laws in Illinois. She and I have both been swamped but hopefully we’ll get to that soon. And I’m sure Mary and I will …
Mary: …we better keep working together … I think we’ve just recently found a little niche for ourselves. I don’t think that there is another audio documentarian duo reporting on sex positive issues and lifestyles in the Midwest! One of the most enjoyable aspects of our collaboration is that ideas, and, eventually a project emerge from our everyday conversations with each other. I’m sure Daniel and I will cook up another idea over the next few months.