Phoebe Petrovic ’18 is a radio star. Only a junior in college, she’s reported for national NPR programming, produced pieces for Guardian-reviewed podcasts, and landed a producing role at NPR’s show Here and Now. At Yale, she’s the founder and executive produce of Herald Audio, and serves as the teaching assistant for Mark Oppenheimer’s ’96 GRD ’03 advanced podcast class.
Since the June of last year, Petrovic has been working with the Yale University Art Gallery to produce a podcast to accompany the exhibit “Small-Great Objects: Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas.” I sat down with Petrovic to talk about the podcast, storytelling and the power of audio to shape how we interpret art.”
Q: How did you start working with the Yale University Art Gallery?
A: That happened over this past summer when I attended THREAD, which is Mark Oppenheimer’s workshop conference. It was three days in New Haven called Storytelling in Modern Media, and the way that it works is that you submit some piece — It can be any sort of medium — and you have workshop groups throughout the day. It’s also a way to meet and greet other story tellers. On the third day I was introduced to Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, who is Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman-Joan Whitney Payson Senior Fellow in the Education Department at the Yale University Art Gallery. She had submitted a packet of objects and information and a basic write up about this exhibition that was going to go up in February. She said that she really wanted to think about how to tell a stories with objects as part of the exhibition process, and she was thinking that maybe she wanted to do some sort of podcast.
Jennifer and I got lunch at Junzi, and she threw out her idea, and was like, “This is my exhibition, and I want to do some sort of audio guide but I don’t want it to be a boring voice of the museum, the kind of institutional dry guide that you normally hear in that sort of setting.” So we brainstormed different ideas: What an audio guide would even sound like? And we decided that we wanted to bring the characters of Anni and Josef — who are the center of this exhibition — to life.
I think it [the podcast] was a reaction to what is normally done. This is the first project that YUAG has ever done — first radio/podcast project, but also an audio guide project of this type. I also believe it’s one of the first of its kind in the country, in terms of there being a dedicated podcast series for an exhibition, that takes the storytelling ethos and has this different sound. So it was sort of a reaction to the general type of audio guides where the voice of the museum is very didactic or pedantic, and talk to you about an object in a nonengaging way. And what Jennifer really wanted to do, the reason she was thinking about audio to begin with, was because this exhibition, she thought, was really all about stories, and she was trying to figure out how to communicate those stories. In the exhibition, all the objects are art or objects they collected, or they made, photographs they took, and then letters they wrote over several decades of traveling throughout the Americas. Anni and Josef are the reasons why all these objects are in this space, it was something they collected, made, or reacted to, and Jennifer, through her years researching in Spanish, German, and English, for this exhibition, came across all these great anecdotes [about Josef and Anni], all these fun little details that she thought built it up to this great story, or collection of stories, who showed who the people were, and she wasn’t sure how to articulate that. How do you show that in a museum if you just got, you know, a painting on a wall, and wall text explaining “he made this” and “this is the title, and this is the materials it’s made with”?
Q: So how did the podcast, or the ideas for it, come together? Can you take me through the process of making it?
A: At the very first lunch meeting over the summer, we sort of brainstormed a whole bunch of different things and decided that we wanted. We wanted it to be people and story driven and to take you, sort of, along with them, through their journey, and so that idea of sort of travelogue was what informed the process. Jennifer decided that she was going to organize the exhibition geographically, so you start in Mexico City, then you go to Oaxaca, and there are two different places in Oaxaca, you got to West Mexico and Peru and we decided that we were going to do a podcast per section of the gallery. And sort of tell the story of what they did in each location, so that was the initial plan, and then the way that it actually worked.
But at any rate, Jennifer had all this wealth of information and the way we decided it would work, was we had a conversation about “this is what happened in Mexico City, this is what I want to get across” and she would provide me with the fact sheet that had dates and locations of places they went to, things they did, relevant objects that were going to be there, their impressions — and a lot of that came from letters — and then it would have relevant quotes from letters that she would translate from German or Spanish for me. And she would sometimes sketch out how she imaged the plot would go.
We talked a lot about how we were going to make this a story, and how it has to have a beginning, middle and end. Jennifer would provide me with the materials, the factual materials, and then I would script on my own for the most part, and then send it to her, and she would provide edits or we would talk about it. And then we would go back and forth a couple times, and then send it to editorial.
What that was really interesting for the first couple goes, as well as one of the main challenges of this project, was balancing the narrative storytelling ethos with the expectations of an academic institution like the YUAG. We were trying to wrestle a little bit of flexibility in the way we presented the information. The museum needs to be precise, and it can’t be unfactual, and it can’t be vague, and we were trying to sort of break out of that and be sort of more conversational and accessible. So that was one big thing.
Q: So, the idea of a podcast for an art gallery raises a lot of questions about audience interpretation, as well as how the audience engages with, and view, objects. Were you thinking about the relationship between narration and the objects when creating the podcast?
A: Yes. What we were trying to do was to create, sort of, a more immersive experience. Often, paintings and objects in a gallery can be evocative but they can also be inert, especially when they are in these vitrines, when they are walled off from you. And so we were hoping that through the podcast, through creating and including the sound of the excavation site where they would have been walking through, where they would have found some of the objects amidst rubble of different ruins, we were hoping that we were able to recreate in some way that experience Anni and Josef had of actually finding and connecting with these objects.
Q: How would you say the podcast, with the audio and narration, differs from reading that on a wall text? What do you think the difference is for the viewer?
A: I do think that it’s a different experience. And I think it’s because they are happening at the same time: you are looking closer at these objects but you also have the context of how they were picked up or ascertained. If you take a leap of faith with me — you can put yourself in the scene in a way that you might not be able to envision what it feels like or sounds like to be in [these places] if you are just looking at one object.
Q: Do you think that actually this exhibit and the podcast is making a larger argument about the way art objects are seen in the museum? Is this offering a different perspective on what it means to visit a museum and what you’re seeing in it?
A: I would hope so. It is, very fundamentally, a very fancy “behind-the-scenes.” It’s about how these objects came to be. My goal and hope was to introduce visitors to Anni and Josef as people which is sort of more fundamental and essential than “artist,” “collector,” photograph, thinker, lover. … I think of what you said about the story behind how the object got into the box. My parents are artists, and I live in a house that’s full of their pieces, and their pieces are in galleries — but my connection to those pieces are living with my parents and knowing the sort of the philosophy, experience, memory and emotion that goes into that. And I’m very fascinated by those personal things that inform the work that you make.
Q: We don’t always consider radio as fine art, and the juxtaposition of a “fine art” gallery with audio, and putting them together, is interesting. Do you have any broader thoughts on how artistic practice and radio come together? Because I know this is somewhat of a departure for you — You usually work in journalism.
A: It’s a weird departure from the work that I do, but it’s also a convergence. I always sort of say that if I didn’t want to go into radio — this is prior to Trump’s election — I would work in a museum or gallery. My parents are artists and I grew up in a glass studio talking to them about the difference between art and craft, and their lives have provided me with an example of what it actually means to be an artist. And I love that world. But then I also do journalism for NPR. And so the fact that I was able to make a podcast, was able to be creative and also deal with academic research, but present it in a narrative that was slightly more imaginative, had more interesting prose, and was set to music and sound, all while working in a fine arts institution — It was a kind of dream come true to me. So, personally, this feels like the perfect synthesis of these different parts of myself.
It felt really good to produce the podcast. And that might be a banal thing to say, but we received definite comments and criticisms about the project, and I still listen to the podcast and cringe sometimes. But, despite some of the flaws, I think it does work. I think this sort of medium does work in a gallery. It’s an opportunity to engage and look in a different way. The thing about radio is that you are listening to people’s voices. In our project, we had voice actors read the letters of Anni and Josef — so it wasn’t their physical voices, but I think it was their emotional, intellectual, spiritual voice that was coming through. We were reading their words from their letters. And I think being able to look at a textile that Anni did while hearing something that she wrote about that textile — with that leap of imagination that you take, with radio, allow her to speak to you — I think that can be a pretty remarkable experience that you don’t get otherwise, and audio is the only way to do that. So with our project, perhaps this is something that we will see more in the future.