Open air vault, chamber without walls, Listening Booth is a public project offering five minutes of attentive listening in public settings. It is founded on the effect of being listened to, even for a brief period of time.
Listening Booth is enclosed not by a structure but by regard. The materials are simple: blue painting tape, two chairs, a small table, a small ceramic duck, undivided attention. The chairs are set up in a public place and as people walk by, they are welcome to sit down and talk to an attentive listener. The following options are displayed on the table, and participants select the way they'd like the listener to respond by placing the duck next to their choice.
b. Yes, mm hmm's, nodding etc (non-lexical back channel responses)
c. I hear you, etc; (verbal, neutral responses)
d. Offering a story, example, or analogous situation;
e. Offering advice, questions, comments, etc.
After five minutes, the listener bows and says Thank You.
Listening Booth provides a form to explore one of my most abiding interests: language and interaction, and it allows me to offer something that has been of enormous benefit in my own life. I love the experience of feeling something untangle through conversation. To the extent that I can offer this to another person, it is because I have been so fortunate to have been listened to so deeply.
In this, I draw from the intimate listening offered in Dokusan and Daisan. Another influence is the experience of Village Zendo workshops in which we've worked in 5-minute dyads (when did people stop saying "pairs?"). In those workshops, I am so often struck by how much happens in those five minutes and how sharply I remember some of the exchanges.
The project also draws directly on my work in Linguistics in discourse analysis, which looks closely at the intricate structure of interaction. At the heart of it all is poetry, which is a prismatic experience of listening. I have been fortunate in the teachers I've encountered whose nuanced listening has helped me hear my own work more fully. And of course, conversations with friends, the feeling of being "seen" through being heard in daily interactions, all inform this project.
As a poet, I always have my ear cocked, and this formalizes this process, letting the listening be the actual piece itself, taking the emphasis off the product. I am not documenting the participants' actual speech; rather my emphasis is on creating a context for heightened attention. Attention itself is the medium. People can talk about whatever they'd like, something preoccupying them, a problem they're trying to solve, a personal narrative, something they need to tell someone else, but can't (yet), etc. This direct interaction mirrors writing poems – as when someone tells me that a poem has somehow "listened to them" and addressed something in their own lives. It's weirdly satisfying to remove the mediation of a poem. Of course I will keep writing poems, but I feel this process will inform my writing in ways I can't know yet.
I love human speech, so it's partly just that simple. I get to listen to people talking.
On a more conceptual level, listening in this way provides an opportunity for face-to-face conversation on the street when much public conversation now happens with either an absent listener, i.e. on a cell phone, or an absent speaker, i.e. with an iPod. I'm curious about how direct listening slightly shifts the general brisk forward momentum of traffic in public spaces, allowing a small temporal dilation, a softening and widening of attention.
Listening is a constant practice. Once when I was in a poetry workshop and felt I was talking too much, I wanted to see what it would be like to listen more openly and relax that constant posture of response. Of course, it was amazing, what came forth, what had always been there, but I had been crowding it out. So it became a theme for that semester, and in a craft lecture class one night I noticed, Wow, I'm actually listening! At this point I started on a cascade of thoughts: hey look I'm listening, wow listening is great, see what happens when you just listen, etc. and then somewhere in there I noticed I had no idea what Stephen Dunn had just said. So in some very functional way, Listening Booth is simply an opportunity to practice listening.
Inevitably, comparisons to Story Corps arise. I love and admire that project, and feel it arises out of a kindred appreciation of the value of direct interaction, but the primary difference of Listening Booth is that my interest is not in documentation, but just in the experience of what happens in the interaction. Taking the emphasis off "keeping" the content, I hope, allows people to feel less hindered in talking spontaneously in an unfamiliar context.
I remember once seeing a painting in a student storage area at Yale that was entirely a sliver of reflected light. That painting has actually been a great influence in this project, with the analogy being that what is "made" over and over is the sense of being listened to. Not the peach, but the gleam on the peach.
I did this project for the first time as part of Southern Exposure Gallery's Day of Public Art in December 2007. It was instructive to see how a line of blue masking tape on the sidewalk created an enclosure, and how someone's bearing would lighten in just five minutes. That event gave me a forum to develop the project and feel part of a larger energy of the day.
The primary discovery that came early in that day was that I did not need to be the listener. I had originally conceived of the project that way, that I would be the main listener, and there would be "guest" listeners, but on that first day I saw how people not only wished to be listened to, they wished to be in the role of listener. At first, I was surprised at this, thinking people always have that available to them, but there is something about the formalized nature of this process, where they can listen in a focused way, that makes it very inviting. The experience of that first day helped me realize that the project was basically a very simple framework for attention.
Just as we can walk away from a sculpture with a heightened sense of some aspect of form in space, participants walked away from these 5-minute interactions with a sense of the different "weights" of interaction, for example, the quality of silent attention, vs. advice. Among my influences in this are my Ph.D. work in Linguistics, the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson about conceptual frameworks; the sculptor Elizabeth King's work "Pupil" and her book Attention's Loop; Bachelard, the Poetics of Space.
There is a journal that participants are invited to write in after they've sat in the Listening Booth. Someone wrote, "I set the booth to freestyle and pretty soon it was calling me on my stuff. These are beautiful days." I loved the way how he said, "set the booth" as if it were some kind of instrument. Here are some other entries from that journal:
How often do we get listened to, fully? If everybody got this several times a week/as needed, how would the world be different?
Very receptive to my particular problem. Sometimes it's nice to get feedback from someone without a vested interest in the outcome.
This is an inspired idea. You are like a catalyst, letting all these things people are thinking get out and moving. Thank you for helping.
5 minutes? Through a little everyday doorway, I found strong feelings just beneath the surface, a kind heart, caring eyes, brings it all forth. Thank you. Amazing.
It was lovely to share that time with a stranger. I've thought before about the desire to connect with a stranger in that way. One of the nicest urban experiences is having such an unexpected moment of connection.
Open ears dispel fears. Listening Booth is a grand idea. Thank you for the conversation. Take care!
Many friends* have joined me in offering the project around San Francisco, mostly in Dolores Park so far. One afternoon when we were at Dolores Park, I was handing out fliers on the hill and handed one to a guy on his cell phone. He interrupted his call to ask me about what we were doing, and then got back on with his friend, "This is the coolest thing. This chick just came up and said she'd listen to me." He got off the phone and kept asking me,"Will you really just listen to what I have to say?"
Later, he showed up and sat down in the booth. I was struck by the way his whole frame of reference for someone listening to him was scatological, as if anything he'd ever shared with anyone had been received as such. I felt glad to be offering him an experience of being listened to that was perhaps more neutral than what he was used to. Most of what he talked about centered around breakup heartbreak, pain which, for the first time, he was experiencing unanesthetized by drinking or shooting heroin. Thanx 4 letting me dump on U, he wrote in the journal. Then he left and came back at the end of the day for another session. I mostly just nodded as he unspun what almost seemed to be his first sensations of pain, and noticed for himself that he could survive them without being drunk. Though I had said almost nothing, he said, "You're pretty smart, for a chick."
Further plans for the project include offering a series of writing workshops with an emphasis on listening. And I want to explore offering the project in different contexts, hospitals, offices, schools, etc.
This spring, From April 6 – 20, Listening Booth will be installed in the Project Space at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County. The Project Space is a studio that is open to the public five afternoons a week, and so anyone passing through the space will be welcome to participate. I'm very much looking forward to exploring the project in that context.
Listening Booth is very portable, and I'm looking forward to having it in New York on my next visit. For more information, visit www.listeningbooth.org. I welcome anyone interested in being a listener to get in touch here.
* Special thanks to: Rev. Victoria Austin, Maria Christoff, Ken Fiedler, Shamala Gallagher, Jennifer Karmin, Camila Kraus, Doug Miller, Maria Montijo, Vyasa Prassad, Judith Randall, Corona Smith. «back