For the past five years I’ve worked as a freelance transcriber: I download audio files onto my laptop and then type what I hear. I know the name of the client and the broad category that the audio might belong to—market research survey, television episode, child custody hearing—but I rarely know anything more. I specialize in legal transcription: interrogation room recordings, jail cell phone calls, the occasional 911 call, and over the years, more and more of my work has originated from Los Angeles. I live and work in New York State, and until recently I had never been to Los Angeles. It took me a long time to get used to the spelling of “Normandie” and “Rosecrans,” to distinguish between a slurred “Pico Nuevo” and “Pico Viejo,” to begin to expect that none of the interrogations I heard would result in a release, that most would result in a confession, that everyone who passed through those rooms had been read their rights before, and yet no one ever asks for an attorney. I’ve lived almost half of my life in these past five years as witness to a rigged system that has little to do with my “real” life—I’ve witnessed it sometimes from my bed, half-dressed, first thing in the morning.
It was this distance, both physical and psychological, that informed my process as I began to shape what I had heard and transcribed into narrative and image. I outlined the boundaries of the project in my journal in October 2013:
I am thinking more and more seriously about undertaking my own exercise in psychogeography, some kind of map of Los Angeles based on the interrogations that I’ve transcribed, and yet I understand that ethically this is a difficult proposition, not so much for the privileged information that I am contractually obligated not to reveal, but more for that thin fault line between empathy and exploitation—because, after all, what do I have to do with all of these kids from South LA? And yet it’s worse to assume I have nothing to do with them, because of course I do, in a practical but also in a metaphysical way; Chris Kraus defines psychogeography less as a map than as a collection of encounters. This brings me back to ideas about scenic vistas, about nature and wholeness, but in this case I am more interested in the dreamlike qualities of the real, in the strange pauses in phone conversations, in the way that I can look at a Google Street View of the Food 4 Less on Figueroa and know something about that place that nobody else does by some strange accident of commerce and technology.
Eventually titled Monitored or Recorded, the project began as a zine—an attempt to structure textual excerpts with images taken from both my own life and the daily internet searches that help me to fact-check my work. In January 2016, during an artist residency in the Project Space at Visual Studies Workshop, it evolved into a series of digital collages. Maps and landscapes as sites both unstable and uncanny became my focus as I sourced images from Google, from films set in LA, from YouTube tours of prisons and city streets; meanwhile, I scoured the six hundred transcripts at my disposal for conversations about “what I’m going to do when I get out,” for anecdotal accounts of specific neighborhoods and prison communities. Recently I’ve begun work on a third (and final) incarnation of Monitored or Recorded as a browser-based piece, where text, image, and audio collage work together to simulate my experience as transcriber, as witness, as geographer.