Q&A with Aengus Anderson from the Third Coast International Audio Festival:
Where did the idea for Two Wheels to Nowhere come from? We featured the first episode, but what's the scope of the whole project?
Summarizing the project is project in itself—I don’t even know what genre it falls into! But here’s a try: it’s a story about uncertainty, an audio mosaic of conversations I had with random Americans while motorcycling around the country for three months. The listener rides along with me, exploring America as I take them from one conversation to another. Some of the conversations complement each other, some contradict but, if you step back, they form a bigger picture. These are strange times. From the left to the right, we stumble forward with a nagging sense that something is out of balance. This unease stretches from the personal to the national. It is our common ground. As the narrative unfolds, I try to deal with uncertainty in my own life. For me, it is ultimately a story about accepting uncertainty, but my voice is just one in a chorus.
I’ve always felt very American but, at the same time, America has always felt very alien. There are a lot of Americas, but they don’t overlap much. I was at a point where I was directionless and careerless, so I decided to explore some of the other Americas and see what people there were dealing with. I didn’t have a specific project in mind, but I did have two questions: what is the most exciting thing in your life? What is the most concerning thing in your life?
When I finished the trip I had a drive loaded with hours of conversations ranging from topics like Volkswagen repair and health worries to eco-apocalypses and the morally corrupting effects of genital piercing. Seriously. I had no idea what to do with it, so I put it on a shelf for half a year. Eventually, I began sifting through the audio and decided to give editing a shot. That required a narrative structure so, for lack of a better idea, I wove the conversations together with my own trip, connecting them thematically rather than chronologically. I didn’t want to be in the piece and I’m still embarrassed by how personal it became.
Did you seek out the people you interviewed or were your encounters more spontaneous? How did you approach the conversations and were people willing to speak with you?
Some of the conversations were with friends who couldn’t escape, but the vast majority were strangers. I walked into furniture stores, hung out at swap meets, waylaid hikers, and generally made a nuisance of myself. It was intimidating at first, but grew easier as I realized how incredibly friendly most people are. I recorded 166 conversations and never had a hostile encounter. Got a couple of steely gazes in the Ozarks, but that was probably some kind of initiation ritual that I failed. Many of the conversations stretched for over half an hour and became unexpectedly intimate. What often began with surprise and awkwardness typically ended with a lot of warmth—multiple people actually thanked me for stopping and talking to them! I couldn’t believe that. Still can’t, really. It was a privilege to talk to them.
That said, there are multiple levels to every experience. If I was surprised by how friendly people were, I was disturbed by how carefully we have to dance around politics to keep that friendliness intact. Living in our own little Americas, we demonize outsiders and, every time I approached someone, I became that outsider. The hardest part of each conversation was reassuring people that I didn’t want to attack their beliefs. Once I established that, seemingly low-key people could erupt with breathtakingly angry tirades about the monsters on the other side of the cultural divide. A lot of Americans hate each other. Far more than I expected, more than the handwringing polarization-pundits on the news talk about. That was an ugly thing to see.
What were you hoping to get out of this project? Did your journey exceed your initial expectations?
There was a tiny, optimistic voice in my head saying that America isn’t a pathologically divided country, that we can still agree on a basic vision of reality as we move forward to confront serious issues together. That voice got the wind knocked out of it. Americans do have common ground, but not where I hoped to find it. We share uncertainty, fear, and a notion that the whole system has been rigged in someone else’s favor. Beyond that, I heard little interest in defining common problems, much less in finding solutions. Yet, while fearful uncertainty is hardly the sort of common ground that brings a smile to your face, it’s still common ground, right? The tiny voice is gasping for air, but it hasn’t given up. Two Wheels could have included hours of political vitriol, but it became clear that the real story was a nuanced exploration of how we all face uncertainty. I hope this will, if nothing else, suggest that seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints can trace back to the same emotion. I don’t think I would have perceived America from this angle without working on the project. So, yes, it definitely exceeded my expectations.
What decisions did you make during the editing process? How did you find the balance between your own thoughts and letting the vignettes tell the bigger story?
Before I wrote my narrative, I tried to edit a few of the conversations and results were unfocused and nonsensical. I needed a framework to plug them into, so I broke my trip into a series of vignettes that addressed themes I knew were in the conversations. Then I reviewed the conversations and tagged them by theme: poverty, community, ageing, etc. That helped me compare similar conversations and eliminate ones that didn’t fit as well. After all that, I finally got to dive into the audio and start cutting. Honestly, the dialogue editing was much easier than deciding which interviews to leave out.
As for the pacing, I tried to give everyone enough time to develop their themes, but not a lot more. Nuance got lost, but that let me keep most of the conversations in the 2:00 area, which ended up feeling about right. Overall, I attempted to keep my narrative sections roughly the same length as the paired conversations.
What were some of the central themes that emerged while you traveled through the different landscapes? Were you surprised by the reoccurring ideas?
By the end of the trip, I dreaded hearing that people were concerned about the economy. The economy, which has the potential to be a fascinating theme, was often a stock answer that came out in soundbites plagiarized from the evening news. After a few questions, people who mentioned the economy would typically admit that it hadn’t affected them before moving on to their actual concerns. There were glaring exceptions, of course. I met a woman working at a roadside produce stand in Tennessee who had been living in a tent city with her children for months. The word “economy” carried weight when she said it—it was a real, tangible force that had changed her life in a way that few of us can understand.
The themes left unmentioned were more interesting. While the environment and global warming came up repeatedly, only two people mentioned overpopulation and nobody mentioned water. Guns came up twice and health care only made four or five appearances—out of 166 conversations! That surprised me, especially in the midst of such a contentious debate. Strangest of all, Iraq and Afghanistan only made a few cameo appearances while people were talking about other issues. If you put all the conversations in a time capsule and flung them forward a century, nobody would know that we were fighting two wars.
How did you adapt to "life on the road" and how did you readjust once your trip ended? Could you maintain that way of life indefinitely?
I adapted slowly and begrudgingly! The dirtiness was fine, cooking meals off of a cheap gasoline stove worked uncannily well, and even the chiggers became less maddening. The rain got to me, though. It’s easy to forget nature when most of your life has been spent inside climate-controlled boxes, so it’s humbling (and frustrating) to realize that the quality of your day is contingent upon water not falling on your head. In retrospect, it’s tempting for me to proclaim that getting humbled by nature’s power was a great experience but, you know, I really hated it. Setting up a stinky, wet tent in a thunderstorm sucks. Cliff Bars marinated in rainwater are totally passé. Soggy feet are overrated. Eventually, all that low-level mediocrity fused into a powerful desire to get off the road. So no, I couldn’t maintain the wandering biker lifestyle indefinitely. My wet, hot American summer was a trial. A cold, long American winter would be punishment. Could I regularly spend summers on a bike? Absolutely.
Readjusting wasn’t something I had much time to do. I ended up enrolling in a graduate program and started a few days after arriving in Tucson. That has allowed me to postpone reflection and uncertainty for a little longer.
How did you craft the visual part of your project? Your photographs are mostly scenic and not of people. Was this a conscious decision?
Two Wheels is a barrage of voices, but the majority of the trip was quiet and alone. The photos probably reflect that more accurately than the radio story does. I also dislike using my audio recorder and my camera at the same time; cameras make a lot of people uncomfortable and I didn’t want to hurt my chances of striking up conversations. Those were the only real constraints on my shooting. Normally, I’m a photographic omnivore, equally likely to take portraits as anything else.
What was the most remarkable moment of your trip?
An email. Actually, a series of emails. Not a flood, but a slow trickle arriving over the past few weeks. They are responses to Two Wheels, mostly from friends, but also from a couple of people I don’t know well. They have all been intense—in a positive way, thankfully! The piece is long and I have never created anything like it before, but apparently it has resonated with folks. I didn’t anticipate that, but I’m excited to hear it. If other people enjoy Two Wheels, if it complicates their sense of America in the smallest way, then it is easily the most remarkable part of the trip.
What is next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?
A lot of the best conversations cut from Two Wheels dealt with the tension between community and alienation, sedentism and mobility, rural and urban. I have always been intrigued by the ways different types of communities affect our feelings of happiness and identity, whether physical communities that are based on proximity or digital communities that are based on interest. If Two Wheels explored themes surrounding uncertainty and disquiet, I’d like to go a little deeper and ask how community—or its absence—affects feelings of uncertainty. There are no answers, but many opinions.
So, in slightly over a month I am going to get on the motorcycle again. I have no plans and no destination, but I do have curiosity and time to listen. There’s certainly no guarantee that a story will emerge, though I hope one does. Aside from incredible people, I have no idea of what to expect. And that’s okay.