A couple of years ago when I was still at university, I was behind a project called “I was here” which looked at how people interact with public space and the communities within them. To do this I made a bench, set it up every day for a week in a high-traffic location on campus, covered it in a sheet and with pens attached, essentially asked for it to be written all over, vandalised and defaced. And it was.
What you see in the picture above is from the fourth day of this project, where throughout the course of the day people had scrawled messages of love, animosity, pop culture references, internet memes, poems and emoticons. If you’re interested you can see bigger versions and transcripts of the sheets from the other days here on my flickr.
What I like about this project is the way it makes a usually invisible community materialise seemingly out of thin air, and the sort of narrative of interaction left in its wake. For a start, it’s a good gauge for the mental age of the campus, with each sheet invariably a vast documentary expanse of playful giddiness dotted with gnomic tidbits. While the majority of comments are what we’d call ‘immature’ at first glance (insults, pranks, trolling, innuendo etc.), I think this is more a symptom of the inherently rebellious act of defacing public property, basking in an anonymity we normally never exploit, than on the psyche of passersby. Even if it’s invited it still feels like you’re exposing yourself.
And in many ways the people who wrote on these sheets did precisely that. Every scribble, no matter how unnoteworthy, tells a story. And over the week, these small scribbles morphed into plot points on a much larger narrative arc.
This sheet from the first day sets up some key themes which would reappear throughout the week. One of these are the complex webs of interaction you can see in the top left corner, where someone writes a message, a revisionist comes and adds to it or crosses sections out, and others join in to amend it by drawing arrows and underlining. Most times this took the form of objections to religious messages, but there are other, more humorous encounters, for example, debating the sexuality of ‘Will’ and references to Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Humour was definitely used as a bonding mechanism. Bonding to who though, who knows.
By the second and third day there were recurring characters. E+K confessed their love on more than one occasion, a stickman superman appeared falsely claiming ownership for the project and then vanished. A poetic brick graced the bench twice, as did someone who found the art ‘strangely arousing’, and as I later found out one girl was responsible for a large number of illustrations across multiple days (self-dubbed the ‘I think everybody should like everybody‘ girl).
If at the start of the week the bench was a strange piece of art, by the end it had become strangely familiar and trustworthy. Many advertised their websites or societies and clubs. In a sense, the sheets stopped simply recording the thoughts of passersby and came to represent the preexisting campus community as a whole. On top of this, once I revealed my identity, people felt comfortable writing more personal messages and even mobile numbers. In just one week, very real people had identified themselves on a completely impersonal surface.
Yet there’s something inherently deceptive about all this, and that is, for all the apparent humanity captured on these sheets, almost all members of this fractured community are figments of each other’s imagination. It’s impossible to know exactly who wrote each part when – not only for us now, retrospectively, but also for the people at the time. For them, they were communicating with a statement written by someone earlier who could only be imagined, and likewise, who they were writing to was only an imagined counterpart in the yet-to-be-determined future. Despite appearances, at no point do two people directly connect; the only thing which interacts are our ideas of people.
Splitting hairs? Probably. But something which really came home to me when taking this project out is how we cope with understanding others when we’re not in the same place at the same time.
Instinctively we seem to shape presence out of absence, familiarity out of anonymity, but it’s all done client side. A lot of this is explained philosophically and psychologically by a theory of mind; the ability to imagine what another is thinking, and is an important aspect of healthy cognitive development. However, it’s these asymmetric encounters (that push our ability to develop accurate theories of mind) which are increasingly typifying how we interact with each other online and, ironically, are key to conceptualising connectivity today.
Seeing this dynamic in another context (on a bench) is an important step toward realising that the way we ‘connect’ online is only a small part of a larger phenomenon in the paradox of modern connectivity.
So besides benches, what other invisible communities do we unwittingly stumble into and out of on a daily basis? Where else do communities exist stubbornly outside their constituent’s peripheral vision and how could you make that community more visible? What strange interactions have you had which break the anonymity of modern life? Let me know your thoughts on this and more below.