The audio artist and creator of The Heart opens up to Thomas Curry about her latest project, Mermaid Palace – an audio company-cum-artist collective
“Oh my God, it was terrifying. I was so scared!” says Kaitlin Prest when I ask her to think back to December 20, 2017, when she released the final episode of The Heart after nearly a decade working on the show. “It was my home, it’s all I did. That was my life, that was my everything.”
Far from peddling glossy, lovesick stories about meet-cute-moments, the podcast was as visceral and full of life as the organ it’s named after. Thoughtful, intimate and richly sound-designed, The Heart shared stories about gender, sexuality and identity through a feminst lens, scooping up an armful of wins and nominations from some of Europe and America’s most prestigious radio awards. Created by Prest and a tight-knit team of producers – Mitra Kaboli, Phoebe Wang, Rider Alsop, Samara Breger, Sharon Mashihi and Jen Ng – The Heart was a true original.
Much like its namesake, the history of the show’s evolution is a messy one. In 2006, three sex workers founded Audio Smut on community station CKUT in Montreal, Canada. When they stepped down two years later, Prest and a collective of queers formed a new team for the show, ditching two-way interviews in favour of pre-produced stories which were playful, entertaining and sonically visceral. Slaps and screams reverberated through the studio doors as they experimented with campy radio dramas. They hosted workshops and developed installations. They created abstract audio-art. They put contact mics in “places where the sun don’t shine”. But no matter how explicit, how esoteric, the show went out without fail at 6pm (drive-time) the last Wednesday of every month.
“I had my hands in all different kinds of media, but I was broke,” says Prest. “I was extremely broke. I was working as a waitress to pay for rent and college.” Theatre was too expensive to make (the sets, the props, the venues, the lights); film too. Even the visual arts were out of reach, “I couldn’t pay for canvas, I couldn’t pay for paint – I was literally making art out of garbage”. Audio, however, and her second home at CKUT, offered a creative outlet. “The station had equipment they would lend out. There was no amount of money you needed to spend. It was you and the recorder and your own mind.” That access, combined with the inherent intimacy of the medium, began to exert an almost magnetic influence on the young producer. “Creativity comes through restraint. The challenge of trying to represent life with just sound was (and still is) a really exciting one for me. People always talk about the intimacy of audio, especially with podcasting – it’s just me talking to my microphone, speaking to an individual. I’m in your ears, I’m in your mind.”
Still penniless but hooked by the promise of this newly discovered medium, Prest took Audio Smut with her to New York in 2011, convincing Kaboli to join her in search of public radio recognition. “Our whole mission was to get on public radio and they just kept saying no, and no, and no, and no, and no, and never,” she says. The duo changed name and changed tactics: “We changed from Audio Smut to The Heart. It was something we felt we had to do to access a wider audience. People in radio kept telling us that Audio Smut was too off-putting for a certain category of people. What they meant was that straight white men, the gate-keepers, would hear the word Audio Smut and think, ‘This isn’t for me.’”
Around the same time 99% Invisible creator Roman Mars had raised some $600,000 on Kickstarter to fund a new collective of creatively-minded podcasts that broke with convention – it was just the kind of opportunity The Heart needed. In 2014, the show was invited to join the newly launched Radiotopia. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a level of joy that high at any other point in my life,” says Prest. “We’d been working our asses off making this show on the very margins. We felt very much like ‘those weird people over there’. We were so desperate for institutional support, we were desperate to get paid for our work, we were desperate for recognition. If it wasn’t for the invention of podcasting I would have stayed on the margins for the rest of my damn life.”
So began the next several years at The Heart.
Prest and her team put out a wealth of remarkble stories, each focusing on some aspect of queer love, identity, sexuality, trauma or selfhood. Pansy probed the softer sides of masculinity, Silent Evidence – which was nominated for a Peabody Award – provided space for journalist Tennessee Watson to process her childhood sexual assault, and No shone a spotlight on the damaging vagaries of consent.
Eventually though, doubt began to creep its way in. “Every person that’s ever made anything that’s any good wonders, ‘Is this all I’m made of? Is this all I’m good for? Will I be able to do something else? Will I be able to make something else without these people? Without this crew?’” That feeling, combined with a punishing release schedule and the strict aesthetic vision they’d created for themselves began to take its toll. The team had new versions of themselves that wanted to emerge, versions that were being held back by the very show they’d worked so hard to build. They agreed to separate. For Prest, parting ways with Kaboli was particularly tough. “I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do anything without her. You know?” she says. “I still miss working with her. Every once in a while I’ll think, maybe we should get back together?”
Prest returned home to Canada. There, after years spent longing for the recognition of public radio, she and long-time The Heart collaborator Phoebe Wang were invited to make a six-part drama, The Shadows, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “When the CBC green-lit The Shadows and I realised I’d have a whole year to work on these six episodes, that was a dream come true,” she says. A fictional story, The Shadows straddles documentary, memoir and abstract confessional in its tale of a young artist struggling to make great work and find great love. Probing the anatomy of a relationship – a crush, a choice, a resentment and an ending – the podcast considers what happens when we’re faced with an impossible decision that can’t be undone. Her switch to autofiction was in part motivated by a growing ambivalence towards documentary. “At a certain point it becomes unfair to call it truth,” says Prest, “because it’s truth from one point of view. No matter how many interviews, no matter how you try to share power, if you’re the one cutting it together, if you’re in charge of the framework through which the story is being told, it’s your perspective.”
Though widely praised by critics, The Heart’s No mini-series was perhaps the most instrumental factor in pushing Prest to try her hand at fiction. Over the course of No’s four episodes we hear how a once-close friend, ‘Jay’ (not his real name), coerced Prest to mutually masturbate with him in what she describes as an “ambiguously consensual” sexual experience. She stresses that what happened was not rape, nor is she sure she considers it assault, but the nuance of that discussion and Jay’s decision to be interviewed for the podcast was lost on some listeners. “That story went to the masses and not everybody listened to it with a sophisticated or nuanced ear. People were saying ‘cut that guy’s dick off’. Does it warrant that reaction? No! For him as an individual, that interview kind of fucked up his life. I don’t ever want to do that to somebody again.” Though we label it non-fiction, documentary storytelling necessarily requires that the facts are arranged into a narrative arc, says Prest. There is a beginning, a middle, an ending. Time is compressed. You focus on scenes or moments which create emotional impact. “Anytime you tell a story that involves other people – which all stories do,” she says, “there’s a power dynamic. Grappling with that, grappling with how to do it ethically, is going to be a lifelong question.”
Last month, Prest took perhaps the most significant step in her ongoing journey as an artist and creator with the launch of Mermaid Palace. An audio company in the same vein as a dance or theatre company, Mermaid Palace brings together a collective of producers, writers and artists to create podcasts, audio-installations, live performances, films and television. The company is focused on creating works with “a strong social justice, political mission or self-expression,” she says. Alongside her long-time collaborator Sharon Mashihi, Prest wants to provide audio-makers with the support to craft stories with as much time as authors might have for their next book, or filmmakers might have for their next movie. “Recognising the social and cultural capital that me, and the people who made The Heart and The Shadows, have accumulated,” she says, “we now have the power to raise people up. It’s not as big as This American Life, or 99% Invisible, or Radiolab, but we can take people who nobody in the industry is recognising and showcase their talent, their brilliancy and their strength in the same way Radiotopia did for us.”
Sharing some of The Heart and The Shadows’ aesthetic outlines, with Mermaid Palace Prest hopes to foster a new cohort of queer, feminist storytellers. “By financing people who have points of view that are outside the dominant culture,” she says. “By giving them space and time, a platform, and an audience. By centralising their voice, we can help people make work which engenders self-confidence and self-respect that you can bring with you everywhere you go afterwards.”
Asking For It – a queer, contemporary take on the Goldilocks tale – will debut with CBC Podcasts in February 2020. Appearances – a drama about one Iranian American family doing their best to hide their true selves from each other – will debut with Radiotopia in May 2020.