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The Generosity Echo

“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.

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Weymouths

Weymouths
A book work in twelve parts
Public book encounters with Paul Soulellis
Reading room installation upstairs at Phoenix Bakery
Weymouth, England
30 July – 10 August 2012

Artist’s talk / 8 August 2012
2:30 p.m.

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.

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A preview of Weymouths Volume 1.

Test book just arrived from Edition One Books in Berkeley, CA. This is Weymouths Volume 1—The Interviews.

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Right okay, that’s what triggered my—

Spreads, round 2.

These are more final. Getting ready to send a test file to the printer on Monday (300 pages).

The thread that creates Weymouths Volume 1, The Interviews is my conversation with Jack in Weymouth, England, which references and then connects to my conversation with Jim in Weymouth, MA. But at the heart of the book is the flow of the River Wey itself, its formation lovingly detailed in the geology lesson by Jane. Jane’s section is another branch of the interviews — Jack, Jim, Jane and Geoffrey — all touching, mashing, looking at and flowing past one another. The book (and the river) bring them together.

Weymouths, the twelve volumes:

River The Interviews
Light Color Index
Erratic 40 Views of House Rock
Memory The Benches
Image The Postcards
Burial (Preservation) The Canoe Room / An Agreemt Betweene ye Inhabitants off Wamouth concerning there Land sold now to ye Towne off Wamouth, 1642
Strata Geology of Weymouth, Portland and Coast of Dorsetshire, 1884
Disambiguation The Twenty Weymouths of Wikipedia
Sea Loss of the Catherine, 1846
Ship The Coming of the Hull Company, 1923
Moon Moonfleet, J. Meade Falkner 1898
Puritan The Maypole of Merry Mount, Nathaniel Hawthorne 1837

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Structures

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).