“The Generosity Echo” originally appeared in Communication Arts (Typography Annual, Jan/Feb 2013).
Like many designers today, I spend a great deal of time in the cloud—connecting with friends and followers on Twitter and other social media platforms. These tools are important; they allow us to amplify our work and broadcast to a larger design community with incredible speed and ease. And I’ve come to rely on my network as a kind of support, generously encouraging me with valuable feedback, or even friction.
But do these tools actually let us engage in deeper conversations around our work? While I treasure the constant connection to the crowd, I find it difficult to slow down for more focused interactions unless I’m physically present. For me, the opportunity to go further in a discussion around my work—to explore, to learn, to grow—best occurs when it can mediate both digital and physical worlds.
So I decided to take my work outside. Not just out into the elements, but beyond many of my normal boundaries as a designer. Frustrated with my own addiction to the screen and propelled by my need for richer connections, I stepped outside the studio, curious to discover new kinds of encounters.
Working on a commission for the b-side multimedia arts festival (part of the London 2012 Festival), I carried a twelve-volume set of books entitled Weymouths out into the windy streets of Weymouth, England. I had created the books over the course of a year, investigating the connections and disconnects between two towns named Weymouth (one in England, the other in Massachusetts). Three hundred books were printed and I gave them all away, one by one, to people I encountered in the small town. For twelve days, I bicycled the books around in a wicker basket and set them up in highly visible areas—at the town clock, in a public square, at the bakery. I unfolded a large piece of printed fabric with a small sign that said “free books” and stood nearby as people reacted—looking, pointing, commenting. Most threw confused glances my way, without slowing down. Once in a while, someone would pause and approach me to ask, “What’s this about?”
Invariably, they were delighted to hear that this was an art project. And yes, they would love to receive a free book.
I know what it’s like to work on something precious and deliver it to a client or a gallery, or to post it to my blog. This was different. By bringing the books outside, and opening myself up to chance conversations and surprise, I was able to watch the project come alive in ways I couldn’t predict. By provoking the audience and giving the books away, I came face-to-face with people stretching to accept art and design in an unexpected context.
I felt totally exposed, like a performer on stage. No amount of market research could have prepared me for the uncertainty of standing in the street with my work, waiting for an interaction. In my twenty-year career as a designer, I’d rarely come into contact with the people I visualized while designing. In Weymouth, I experienced the vulnerability— and privilege—of meeting every person who received one of my books. And I witnessed the remarkable, real-time creation of conversations and community around my work.
Aside from UX designers, rarely do I hear my peers referring to the end users of their design work as a community. Print designers, especially, tend to think of their audience as isolated individuals, perhaps because of the private nature of reading. And the ability of a print designer to communicate with the recipient of a finished piece is fairly limited; we’re typically removed from the end user by a distributor, be it client, agency or publisher. It’s also common for a print designer’s work to reach its end recipient as a purchase, which tends to separate creator and audience. Because Weymouths was a commission for an arts festival, I was able to remove the commercial barrier of book distribution and give the work away for free.
What I quickly discovered at the start of the twelve-day “performance” of Weymouths was that the free book was simply an excuse for interaction. By giving the books away, I removed the dead-end feeling of completion that often accompanies a financial transaction. Instead, surprised by the more open-ended gesture of gift-giving, the audience was quick to engage and reciprocate with their own sense of shared value. At the very least, a conversation was exchanged. Many of these chats were the start of friendships; all were fascinating.
On day one, within two minutes of setting up my first public book encounter, I met Pete, the popular proprietor of Aunty Vi’s Tea and Cake Shanty on Weymouth Beach. I gave him Volume #1 and Pete fell in love with the project. Acting like my agent, he encouraged his customers to go get a “rare book;” for days, he spread news about Weymouths across town. The following week, he took me into the Dorset hills in his truck and we ended up in the forest where allied forces slept before departing for Normandy on D-Day. Pete’s appreciation for the project was so great that he was moved to share his own Weymouth with me, generating new connections across time and space.
On day four, I gave two books to an 82-year-old man at a pub. I learned that Geoffrey was a retired astrophysicist from Oxford. He was eager to share his work with me and drew me diagrams of his experiments, telling me that they explained exploding twin dwarf stars in distant galaxies. A few days later he gave me a copy of one of his papers, published by the Royal Astronomical Society—“Mass-transfer bursts and the superhumps in cataclysmic variables.” I was humbled by Geoffrey’s interest and generosity, and immensely inspired by his ability to reveal something sublime in the minor exchange of book and conversation. The next day, Geoffrey told me that he was saving one of my books to give to a friend.
Sally, a Weymouth artist, was moved to spontaneously compose a composition for a music box, based on one of my books. She performed it for me and an audience that had gathered for a talk about my work at the local bakery. One elderly woman, who listened to the performance and then read through every one of the books, thanked me “for creating this fascinating social networking project.” I watched as the spirit of gift-giving reverberated throughout town. The books were creating a community.
By the end of the project, I had received several gifts in return: books, notes, original artwork, countless stories and powerful memories that will stay with me forever. I continue to be inspired by all of the encounters. The community that formed around my books was small but seemed expansive in its ability to generate new meaning. In each connection, regardless of what was exchanged, my audience countered the books with their own sense of the meaningful, and passed it on. Sometimes, the shared action touched one or two people; other times, it expanded and bounced around town. I called it the generosity echo.
Weymouths was an experiment in orchestrated serendipity and small-batch community- building. It’s not exactly a sustainable model; we can’t give everything away. But try it for yourself, at any scale: see what happens when you let go of some of your work—and your assumptions. By stepping outside and returning to the face-to-face—and confronting the fear of an unknown audience—you may re-discover the power of real-time conversation. Sometimes the only thing that separates your work from an engaged community is being present.
Wednesday 1 August / Day 3
This morning I took today’s edition down to Aunty Vi’s and Bev happened to come by with her dog Zorro. Bev has been letting me use her bicycle and Pete gave us tea and cake and we sat on the sea talking about sailing, business and activity around town—small talk but talk full of life about the state of things right now. Town chatter that makes me feel I can pretend to be a local.
Pete told me to get into his truck with him. I did and he just started driving out of Weymouth and up into the neighboring Dorset hills. I didn’t know where but he seemed to have an agenda, so I went with it. He pointed out tumuli at the top of a ridge and suddenly I was seeing them everywhere. This was genuinely thrilling for me—evidence of prior civilizations, many thousands of years old, in plain sight. Permanent scars on the landscape. They belonged in the project but not—I was happy to be experiencing them right now, in Pete’s truck, as a result of the work.
At this point Pete stopped the car abruptly at the side of the road and said he wanted to show me something. We started walking into dense woods and he told me that this was the forest (“Came Wood”) where American soldiers camped out in WWII before departing Weymouth and Portland for the Invasion of Normandy, 6 June 1944. A bit further in Pete showed me the ruins of a large anti-aircraft gun, the base rusting into the forest floor.
More remains, evidence of life beyond us, before us. Things left behind, no longer there. Not quite gone.
Later Pete stopped the car again, this time in an old military lot to show me the original stone for the town’s monument to the American D-Day soldiers, now laying on its side. The new monument stands on the Weymouth waterfront.
Back at the bakery, a conversation about geology, Mary Anning and evolution. Today’s edition (Weymouths Volume 3: Sense / Weymouth can refer to) features Google searches and tweets about both Weymouths, and one in particular triggered a conversation about the perception of Weymouth within the town and in the surrounding areas. Weymouth as a “far out” place—and how this works both in the town’s favor (to preserve certain aspects of local culture) and against it (as a way to isolate).
Mid-afternoon, b-side hosted a group of Dorset artists on a tour and I gave a casual talk about the project, and distributed today’s edition. There was great energy in the room and an appreciation for what I’m trying to do here. Encouraging and deeply satisfying.
At the end of the talk one of the artists told me that she used to know Aunty Vi and Pete when he was a child (below left). Juliet Harwood (right) gave me a CD of her choir’s music, the cover illustrated by fish embroidered by the choir—that’s hers at the front, leading the choir, and her husband at the tail, leading them up from behind.
I had a visit from Charlie at the very end of the day, just as I was about to leave. Charlie told me that “in the spirit of Weymouth,” she had brought me a book. She said that she wanted to select something as close as possible to the year of my birth, so she found this directory of all citizens and businesses in Weymouth and Portland from 1971, a sort of pocket yellow/white pages. Inside, she signed a beautiful old postcard with a harborside view of Weymouth, probably from around the same time, depicting a train that no longer runs there. Here’s that view today.
And that elderly man who interrupted my conversation with Jack at the Old Rooms Inn back in March—Charlie knows him well. Geoffrey’s stories about studying astrophysics at Princeton and becoming a double-don at Oxford in the 1960s are featured in volume one, so she’s sending him over to see. I’m grateful and not surprised that this connection was made—I had no way to get in touch with him. She says he’ll be deeply moved by it.
I’ve given away 60 books since Monday.
Again and again I introduce the project to people who immediately respond with their own life stories. The work is growing larger, far beyond what I can see. It’s larger than my own creative energy. Weymouths is about giving the work up—releasing it and letting it circulate into the community.
It’s an understatement to say that my witnessing this manifestation of connections and community here, as I distribute the work, is a privilege.
This was one of those days that I’ll remember for a long while. I woke up at the Dead House feeling nervous, thinking about today’s public book encounters. I’m comfortable as a quiet observer, especially in public. Knowing that most of today would be spent gathering attention and making a spectacle of myself (however benign) made me anxious, for sure. I knew this would be difficult. At various times I thought about how I could just drop the entire thing, throw out all the books, etc.
I was due at Bev’s house to pick up her bicycle at 9 a.m. On the esplanade along the way I was spotted by Julie, an artist I’d met in London at BookLive. She’d told me that she might drive to Weymouth to get one of the books on the first day, as research for her Ph.D. dissertation on archives (“Archive as Activity”). Julie, who had slept in her car on her trip down from Sheffield, was sitting on a bench and called out to me, and we exchanged a few serendipitous screams and laughs. Was wonderful to sit with her and talk about our journeys and the excitement of being in this fantastic place, and the circumstances that brought us there. Hers was exactly the beautiful burst of energy I needed to get me going this morning.
A bit later at Bev’s house I listened to her talk about her life in Weymouth while she made us coffee. Bev is a friend of Jane’s, who features prominently in volume 1, and through this connection I was generously offered Bev’s bicycle — absolutely perfect in an old-fashioned, big-wicker-basket kind of way.
Back at the bakery, I loaded up with today’s edition (Volume 1: River / The Interviews) and made my way to the northern end of the promenade (the “prom”). I set up in front of Aunty Vi’s snack shack, right on the sea, at exactly 10:45 a.m. By 11 a.m. all of the books were gone. It happened so fast but I spoke to everyone — Olympic ambassadors, students and their teacher from Peru (several copies of volume 1 are on their way there now). A family who vowed to take one to give to a friend who would appreciate it. Someone who said they would be back every morning to collect the entire set, making me promise I would be in the same spot every day. Somehow, 20 copies were suddenly gone, just like that.
Everyone seemed genuinely interested. Enthusiastic, even. The spontaneity of each encounter fed the energy for other people who came by, and each moment rolled into the next. Was such a great feeling.
Peter, the owner of Aunty Vi’s, was the most enthusiastic. He was the first to approach me, within 30 seconds of setting up, offering me free tea and coffee and calling out to everyone passing by to go get a book because “they’re rare and you’ll be one of the twenty!” Our temporarily shared territory created a bond and I was reminded of Lewis Hyde’s “territorial gifts” (exchanging a mint with someone sitting next to you on an airplane, for example).
Later, at Phoenix Bakery, I set up the reading room for the afternoon and had visits from an Italian language club. I gave them an extra copy of volume 1 that I found, and they vowed to pass it around and share it. Fellow b-side artists Frances Scott and Niels Post and friends came by, and an Irish family who had traveled to Weymouth, MA to visit relatives there. And Joff Winterhart drew me and the books and the visitors for a good part of the afternoon.
Jane and I shared a marvelous conversation about generosity and the giving/gift part of the project. She reminded me that the connections coming out of and into this project are human. That this exchange keeps us alive.
Meanwhile, Aidan the master baker was busy making delicious things downstairs.
Artist’s talk / 8 August 2012
Later today I fly east, landing at Heathrow and making my way to south west England. By tomorrow afternoon I’ll be in Weymouth, Dorset—site of the London2012 Olympic sailing games, just in time for the live broadcast of the opening ceremony on the beach.
And on Monday I start the performance (installation, publishing?) of Weymouths, my b-side Arts Festival commission. I’ve been exploring and producing Weymouths for more than eight months, so needless to say I’m excited to see what happens with these public book encounters. This is a kind of culmination for the project, but it also starts something new and unknown for me.
I’ll be giving away Weymouths in 12 installments, beginning Monday 30 July, with “Volume 1: River / The Interviews.” The last day will be Friday 10 August, with “Volume 12: Light / 1,485 colors.” If you happen to be in Weymouth look for me on the esplanade each morning, and at Phoenix Bakery in the afternoons, where I’m setting up a reading room installation upstairs.
I’ll try to post daily updates here, so follow along. If I can find wifi I’ll tweet my location each morning.
I finished the last book in the series of 12 today, so the design of Weymouths is complete. Or rather, the design of the books is complete—I still need to create the reading room experience for the installation in Weymouth, England 27 July – 12 August. The total work is starting to come into focus. After the next six proofs arrive I’ll photograph the entire set.
An extraordinary week in Weymouth, England. Asking around, informal research, chance encounters. Lots of walking, observing, absorbing. There’s a richness there in Dorset. An appreciation of a spectacular landscape, a wealth of history and a kind of modest pride embedded in the character of the place. Not boastful in any way, but genuine, palpable and charming.
My interest is understanding identity — in the character of a place and in making visible the texts, images and stories that are just below the surface. But also in the moment: the experience of walking down a path, a view out, a conversation. Feeling one’s way in the landscape; sensory cues, a way in.
A single, large volume makes more sense now, not twelve. An edition of 250 or more of the book will be printed, bound, numbered and distributed along the Weymouth Esplanade, with an indoor installation somewhere else in town. The book will be a scaffolding structure to view in and branch out from the connections between characters and places along the Dorset timeline. I’ll use maps, images and texts.
One of the essential structures I discovered this week was the Coast Path, originated as a route for the coast guard to patrol for smugglers. I followed this remarkable Jurassic Coast trail for miles on either side of Weymouth: Abbotsbury and Chesil Beach at one end and the ruins of the ancient Roman temple on Jordan Hill (with a perfect view of the Osmington White Horse) at the other. The geo-historical bookends of the South Dorset Downs limestone ridge to the north of Weymouth. At the center, the Coast Path crosses Town Bridge — the heart of Weymouth — and directly over the mouth of the River Wey, the town’s geological namesake.
Every mention of Weymouth evokes the River Wey. The river is the reason for the town and earth’s slow work is embodied in its name, and in several place names of the area. The five-mile length of river begins its journey up at the wishing well in Upwey, broadens at Broadwey, and empties its wide mouth into the sea at Weymouth.
From Jane of Chickerell, a geography lesson.
In Weymouth, Massachusetts, the town name evokes more of a misplaced geography. There, Weymouth points elsewhere: across the ocean but also back in time, to a moment when one people forcibly replaced another. Contained within the original 1642 deed between the natives and the Dorset pilgrims is the germ of a complex story: the Charity, Thomas Holbrook and the Wessagussetts (today living on in the name of the town yacht club); the beginnings and dissappearances of nations, fueled by greed and arrogance.
From Jim of Weymouth, MA, an American history lesson.
From Jack of Weymouth, England, the ten bobs tour and memories of chance encounters in Massachusetts.
From Bob and Colin of the Isle of Portland, a bottomless library of images.
Philip Larken, the British poet, said that Weymouth is delicious. From Sally, Simon and Rowan, warm food and company, and a tremendous generosity of spirit.
All of them revealed delicious Weymouth to me this week.
And here is another Weymouths story: a transatlantic reconnection, a corporate agreement. In 1999, Walmart Stores Inc. purchased ASDA, a large British supermarket chain with roots tracing back to J.H. Hindell’s Dairies in 1920 Yorkshire. Today, it’s the second largest retail chain in England and a key part of Walmart’s international strategy (“part of the Walmart family”). Walmart store #3200 is on Middle Street in Weymouth, Massachusetts and an ASDA Superstore is on Newstead Road in Weymouth, England. A cultural “exchange” that began 350 years earlier gives way to this final flattening out and another deed — American corporate greed erasing cultural difference and local economies at a global scale. Olympic anxiety about empty storefronts is widely reported, while small businesses in Weymouth worry about what’s to happen when the games are over.
View Weymouths in a larger map
My hope is to unravel some of these connections and stitch them back into the book as evidence of larger structures (time, geoglogy, chance) and more inimate ones (conversation, experience, memory).
For the next several months I’ll be focused on Weymouths, a 12-book project I’ve been commissioned to produce for the 2012 b-side arts festival in the UK. The work will be installed during the summer Olympics in Weymouth, a seaside town in Dorset, England, where the official sailing competitions will take place.
From the project proposal—
Weymouths explores memory, geography and cultural identity through site-specific books that draw upon the linked histories of Weymouth, Dorset (UK) and Weymouth, Massachusetts (USA). Created for the 2012 b-side Multimedia Arts Festival and installed on-site at festival locations, 12 publications will be released to visitors during the 13-day festival. Among the goals for Weymouths is to create moments for rich, page-by-page engagement in the environment for the ambulatory visitor—the printed book as a participatory art project.
The 12 volumes will be produced and presented as reliquaries of collective memory—bound containers holding text, color and imagery. Historical records, lists, archival imagery, on-site photography, tweets, interviews, maps, street names, Google Street View, Wikipedia and other raw source material will be assembled into open, thought-provoking narratives—real and imagined.
Beginning with the 104 citizens of Weymouth, Dorset (UK) who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1635 to found Weymouth, Massachusetts (USA), the 12 books will be a celebration of temporal connections, disconnects and other trans-geographic structures that continue to hover between the twin towns, as well as a chance to “re-see” cultural identity in real-time.
Each volume will be produced using a print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine (EBM). Limited editions of 20 (a total of 240 books) will be installed at various festival locations. Each day during the festival a new volume will be revealed and installed, beginning with Vol. #1 on July 30 and ending with Vol. #12 on August 10, 2012. The books will be free to anyone exploring Weymouth during the 13-day period; they will slowly disappear from the installation sites as they are discovered and enjoyed by their new owners. Weymouths will encourage a slow, alternative presentation of time and space for visitors as they explore.
Weymouths is part of an exploration that began with Venetian Suite and continued last year with Memory Palace and 273 Relics for John Cage. Each draws together ideas about memory, place and the image within the contained book form.
Someone recently described Memory Palace as a spectral archive, which I define as traces and histories, memories of or like a ghost, collected and contained. This articulation of my book works appeals to me. The spectral archive favors the forgotten and conjures a shapeless narrative, more liquid than linear. A book of associations, loaded with suggestion and unspecified meaning; a dream tool. A rumination machine. The spectral archive is crafted with specificity, but it’s experienced on the user’s own terms, creatively and without restriction.
I want to produce this work publicly, like I did in Rome. As I generate stuff, even fragments of ideas, I’ll post them here.