Karen Michel, Audio Anthropologist

Beacon resident has a question for you

As a self-described audio anthropologist, Karen Michel asks, observes, records and processes the results of her examinations. She poses seemingly straightforward questions, compiles the responses, adds her observations and creates “performance documentaries” with the audio, film and connected objects. 


Karen Michel

Her method has yielded a substantial body of work, most of it broadcast by National Public Radio — including on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” — and its affiliates.

Most recently, Michel has been training her recording equipment on Beacon, where she has lived for three years. She moved just before the pandemic after a peripatetic life that has taken her from Brooklyn; to northern and southern California; to rural Alaska (replete with dog mushing), where she lived for 12 years, some of them spent in a whaling village above the Arctic Circle; and to more northern parts of the Hudson Valley. 

On Saturday (Nov. 4), at 8:15 p.m., as part of the Beacon Bonfire Music + Art Festival, she’ll be at Beahive, with microphone in hand, to discuss her past projects and her work-in-progress, “What Matters?” The event is free for Bonfire ticket holders and for anyone whom Michel has previously recorded.

Michel describes the forthcoming documentary as a performance and presentation of answers, reflections, photos, music and objects. Like its predecessor, “Live? Die? Kill?,” it puts questions into play for on-the-spot replies. 

For “Live? Die? Kill?,” Michel traveled around the country following 9/11 to ask strangers what they lived for, would die for and would kill for. (She has since dropped the “Kill?” component, feeling it was inappropriate in this ever-more-violent world.) The edited responses, augmented with visual and aural motifs, will be shown at venues in Beacon in April.

what matters logoFor “What Matters?,” which received initial funding from Arts Mid-Hudson, Michel is asking: “In these divided and difficult times, what matters to you now?” She spoke with passersby during the Spirit of Beacon Day from outside the Howland Public Library and will continue collecting responses at Bonfire. She expects to share the results at KuBe in Beacon in the spring.

“The pleasure of this work is helping people tell their stories,” Michel explains. “It’s collaborative.”

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, she aspired to be an arts journalist but wound up studying sculpture and photography at San Francisco State University. As part of her education, she had to take courses in many different media, and “as a result I never looked at any type of art as just one thing,” she says.

“When I morphed into being an audio anthropologist, it came about partially through realizing the importance of observing everything possible,” she says. “I get clues from the way someone moves, an inflection. Someone might barge in, or, on the other hand, someone might hunch. What is it about them they don’t want to reveal? There are surprises; it’s astonishing what people say or don’t say.

“People are afraid they’re going to give a wrong answer,” she adds. “Some interviews last five minutes, others more than a half-hour. There are people who want to be heard, to have someone listen to them and value what they say.

“My fundamental interest is how do people approach each other? In the last few years we’ve become an us-and-them society. That is not how life is, or what humans are about. Everything has become digitized, including emotion. 

“From studying linguistics, I learned how to deconstruct: What are the real specifics? As an interpreter, I de-codify these from one to another. My writing is at least as important as the tape itself. I want to make them visual to the ear. I’m trying to reach as many senses as I can.”

Michel has received many commissions, awards and fellowships over the years, including a Fulbright fellowship to travel to India and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to travel to Japan. She also has won a Peabody Award.

She was the first audio documentarian to be appointed the Lehman-Brady Visiting Fellow in Documentary and American Studies at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. She says it was there she developed the presentational format she has used most often since. “Performing is a stretch for me, and I like scaring myself,” she says.

The second annual Beacon Bonfire will take place Nov. 4 and 5. For passes, see beaconbonfire.com. Beahive is located at 6 Eliza St. To hear an episode of “Live? Die? Kill?,” listen below or visit bit.ly/kcrw-live-die-kill.

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