In the past month, I’ve been stopped and asked for directions by strangers three times. Two were brief interactions, and one turned into a half hour conversation. These encounters made me feel very neighborly, reinforcing that I know my way around my community. They also made me realize that asking for directions isn’t something that happens among the GPS-savvy smartphone demographic anymore, and technology continues to decrease our need for personal interaction.
Whenever I’m traveling, I tend to rely on Yelp to find the services I need in another city. Everyone on the street is walking quickly, probably headed somewhere important, or tapping away on their own smartphone, and I don’t want to interrupt anyone to ask if they know where I could find a cheap vegetarian restaurant within a 3-block radius. Yelp is incredibly handy for such needs. But I believe connecting face-to-face with other people is crucial to creating a sense of community.
“How can I creatively connect strangers in public space in a safe and positive way?” is a central question I’ve explored with my art for years, from organizing flash mobs to street performing with a circus. Three projects in particular come to mind – one of my own, and two others that inspire me.
Every day we see people’s clothes we admire, or someone wearing a funny t-shirt, but it’s not easy to break social barriers and talk to strangers in public. I created the 11 Shirts Project five years ago in a college course called Radical Innovation in Digital Arts. Other student projects made great use of virtual reality, motion tracking, digital environments, and interactive touch screens, but I wanted to use simple technology to connect people in real space in a meaningful way.
The 11 Shirts are an invitation for interaction. The prompts on the shirts included: “The next person to guess my favorite color gets this shirt”, “The next person to high five me gets this shirt”, “…list the first 5 digits of π…”, “…tell me a story…”, and “…high five me…”. Presuming the wearer was wearing another shirt underneath, the shirt could be exchanged and tracked on the website with it’s unique ID number. A month after the semester ended, and I watched the shirts being logged around the country in Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, Buffalo, and many other cities. Unfortunately we didn’t create a maintenance plan for the site after the course was over, and it eventually went down. But the shirts are still out in the world somewhere, and I plan to do another incarnation of the project someday.
Last year I participated in an art installation/social experiment by artist Carolyn Clayton. Carolyn crafted 50 pairs of uniquely colored walkie talkies and sold them on the project website. From her description:
Upon purchasing a piece, one agreed to participate in a platonic matchmaking project. Over the twelve-day duration of the show each walkie-talkie owner was scheduled to rendezvous at the gallery with the owner of the matching walkie-talkie. At this point they retrieved their purchases while participating in a face-to-face conversation with their partner over free coffee, tea and pastries.
In a world powered by technology – the Internet, Facebook, smart phones, video chatting, and online dating, WITHIN RANGE was an opportunity to have a pure human encounter with another person regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, social status or romantic intent.
I purchased a lovely blue/silver walkie-talkie. The woman who bought the matching one and I discovered we had a lot in common during our conversation. Within Range is an awesome model for an opt-in participatory art project to connect random people.
Cruel to Be Kind
Assassins is a popular college campus game in which players try to secretly “kill” each other with fake weapons like NERF guns. Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost created a clever variation on this game in which the weapons are random acts of kindness. The game takes place in a pre-determined public space, within a 3-4 block radius. Players try to kill/eliminate each other with weapons like “Love your shoes!”, “Can I help you carry that?”, “You look great today,” or “Oh my god, you look just like Brad Pitt, I can’t believe it!” – but they don’t know who else is playing the game, so innocent bystanders are often caught in the kindness crossfire. The game rules are freely available and anyone can easily organize a game, read more on the Cruel 2B Kind website.
These three projects have been spinning around in my mind, and I’m currently brainstorming new ways to facilitate creative connections in public. What are your favorite participatory public art projects, activities, or games?