How can we keep pre-digital communication’s most pleasurable rituals from becoming extinct?
Ayun Halliday asks Betsey Biggs
The Question and Answer article series joins two creative minds from a range of backgrounds to better understand the transformation of our cities. Enjoy author Ayun Halliday's intriguing question and artist Betsey Biggs' insightful answer.
I’m one of those weirdoes who are rumored to be really into zines and papier-mâché. I also get more pleasure from “social networking” than it’s fashionable to admit. I’m particularly grateful to Facebook’s birthday notifications for helping us pull our heads out of our stressed out, self-involved heineys for however many seconds it takes to send a courteous greeting to a friend…or “friend” as the case may be. My grandmother maintained an address book, a calendar, a large stash of stamps and carefully selected cards for the same purpose. Her world was smaller than mine, but all of her efforts were tangible. I hate the thought that we’re skidding toward a world where the bulk of our social interactions is so easy to the point of being meaningless. Not to mention the fact that one good computer crash is all it would take to erase almost all evidence thereof.
Ayun Halliday asks: How can we keep pre-digital communication’s most pleasurable rituals from becoming extinct?
New York City
Betsey Biggs answers: My first thought when I heard this question was: what were some favorite communication rituals of the pre-digital age? Sending handwritten correspondence back and forth. Playing music with people, using our voices and bodies. The easy weight of a telephone dial, and the way it eased back when you let go.
What do these activities have in common with one another? They all ask you to do one thing at a time. They all have a set of rules. And finally, there’s always something providing a sense of friction to slow you down, engage you and snag you in the moment. In the end, they’re all systems for engaging you with your world in a mindful way.
For the last several years, my creative work has attempted to create systems to answer this question–for other people as well as for myself. I design playful situations with rules that invite participation and that engage creativity through that participation. I often adapt the materials of our contemporary world–mobile phones, digital video, interactive electronics–to create playful systems that slow people down and absorb them in pleasurable ritual.
About a year ago, I was asked by Brown University to create an artwork exploring cultural heritage in Providence, Rhode Island, where the university is based. Cultural heritage is so often a history of the monumental, institutional, and powerful. I wanted a colorful history of everyday people and places instead. I immediately thought about creating a system that would allow people throughout the city to share their stories with one another, to discover the layers of narrative that glimmer beneath each and every place in the city, and frame them for all to see. I wanted a crowd-sourced anthology of the city, only I wanted the stories to be tactile and present in real life.
And then it dawned on me: there already was a system in place to circulate these narratives. It was called the U.S. Post Office. People used to write stories about their lives to one another in the form of letters and postcards. If I could create a set of neighborhood postcards, people could mail their stories of these places to one another, and share their stories that way.
And so was born the Providence Postcard Project. I visited 25 neighborhoods, talking with hundreds of people and asking them what the most meaningful places in their neighborhood were: if they could make unofficial postcards of just their neighborhood, what places would they choose to put on them? I took photographs of each of these places, chose 100 final images, made 10 vintage postcards of each, and unleashed 1000 postcards into the city, pre-postmarked, pre-addressed to me, and with a simple prompt: “When I look at this postcard, I think about…” I tried to make them beautiful so that people would know that their special spots were cared for. I left the postcards in libraries, retirement homes, youth arts centers, bus stations, ice-skating rinks–you name it. I thought I might get 300 of them back. Instead, I got double that: 600 stories about Providence from all kinds of people–young and old, rich and poor, queer and straight¬–sharing the meaningful, quirky, mundane, tragic, hilarious stories of their lives.
I designed shelves for the postcards based on an abstraction of the river that runs through the heart of the city, with the idea that the stories ran through the city the same way the river did. For a month, people told stories to one another as they bumped into each other at the exhibition. Eavesdropping on them was one of the best parts of my day. It was like hearing stories told round the fire.
And now that the postcards have been put away, I like to think that these stories are glisten quietly beneath the city’s surface, reawakened by memories.