“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.
Last summer, Wendy Richmond asked me to be a guest writer for her long-standing Design Culture column in Communication Arts. I was getting ready to leave for England to realize Weymouths for the b-side arts festival (part of the London 2012 Festival), so we agreed that I would think about the assignment during my time there. Soon after the work began it was obvious to me that I would want to write about the performative part of the project, which was new (and difficult) for me.
The result is “The Generosity Echo,” which appears in the total redesigned Jan./Feb. issue of Communication Arts (which also happens to be the 2013 Typography Annual). They’ll post the piece on their site in mid-February and I’ll link to it then.
Thursday and Friday 9–10 August / Days 11 and 12
240 books distributed in twelve days.
I had the pleasure of hosting Frances Scott for a night at the Dead House. A talented artist and lovely company.
Joe Stevens interviewed me for his blog about working with archives, performance, maintaining a creative practice and cultural production in the US and UK.
And then, on my penultimate day in Weymouth, Jane took me for a West Dorset drive-around that she’d been planning for a week. She’d wanted to do this back in March when I stayed with her, but there wasn’t time, so we squeezed in a few hours for a tour, post-bakery.
On the way to her car she confessed that she had an agenda for me.
Two performances of 4’33″
At my talk, someone asked me which artists were influential in my work. I mentioned John Cage and 4’33″ specifically, and briefly described the premise of Cage’s 1952 work: silence, listening, chance, suspension of judgement, awareness. Jane heard this at the talk, and as a sort of going-away gift, she decided that she was going to take me to two powerful places in West Dorset, sit me down in very specific places and give me two “performances” of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in the landscape. She wore her watch for the occasion.
The first location was Eggardon Hill, a mysterious Iron Age earthwork built by ancient Celts and conquered by Romans in 43 AD. A spectacular landscape protected by the National Trust.
Below: my view out from the first performance of 4’33″, looking straight ahead to the sea. Jane sat behind me, about 30 feet back, and I closed my eyes for the duration of the piece. I heard wind, songbirds, sheep, distant highway sounds and crows, all in front of me but coming from various directions, an enormous open-air theater. A soaring, connected feeling that could have continued for much longer, but near-perfect as experienced here with Jane. To conclude the performance, Jane said ok then.
Approaching the second location, I asked Jane if she thought I was performing 4’33″ for her, or if she was performing it for me. She replied, it’s being performed.
The second location for a performance of 4’33″ was an 11th century motte and bailey castle earthwork. Below, the view straight ahead of me. More intimate this time—less wind, my own breath, and the addition of buzzing insects, cows and a distant tractor. A heavy feeling of sinking into the earth, a brief absorption (collapse?) of time and space.
These are significant gifts, these things I’ve received these last two weeks in Weymouth. Moving, meaningful gestures that I’ll remember forever.
On the last day of Weymouths, I returned the bicycle to Bev, who prepared tea. We noticed that her walls match the color of the Sophie Calle book perfectly.
Books 238, 239 and 240
The last few copies of 1,485 Colors (#12) went to a couple from Bermuda, a seven-year-old boy from Brockenhurst, and a Finnish woman, who said that her book (the very last copy of the project) would go home with her to Finland. Finish.
Wednesday 8 August / Day 10
215 books given away in ten days.
I continue to be overwhelmed by the ways in which the project has grown while I’m here. Sally Watkins, my b-side commissioner, actually created new work in response to Weymouths—a musical interpretation/expression coming out of a methodology she has been developing in her own work. Sally generated a score for music box by writing out the names of the voices that appear in volume one (Jane, Jim, Jack, Geoffrey, Barbara). The graphic score is a beautiful artifact, both a visualization of her process and the tool required to play the work (the score is the work). She performed the 60-second piece at my talk in the Phoenix Bakery by cranking the score through a music box, and I am just blown away by her sensitivity to the project, her creative generosity and her spirit.
The form of the piece (150 notes) comes from the 1:150 slope of the River Wey from its source at Upwey as it travels to the sea. The 60-second duration is derived from the 60 ft. drop in elevation from Upwey to the sea.
Later, Frances Scott gave a dinner talk about her b-side film commission, The Miracle Methods Series.
Monday and Tuesday 6–7 August / Days 8 and 9
180 books given away in nine days.
Tuesday was Frances’s last day as an Olympic Ambassador. I gave her a book and she told me a story about how she’d designed a jacket with a map of Portland and a bunny on the back for her London2012 volunteer interview, but was told she’d have to wear this uniform instead. And how she met the mayor of Portland, OR and got into a correspondence with him for twelve months.
Cheap / open / curious
On Sunday, when I changed the message to “Free Books,” I worried about diminishing the work. That “free” would signal “cheap.” It makes me uncomfortable to even show a photograph of the sign here. Of course lots of people are interested in free stuff and I could tell that some who approached me were primarily attracted to the idea of a bargain—a motivation at odds with the traditional art world model (rare = expensive = good).
And then I thought—so what? By giving the work a form that’s instantly recognizable (the printed book), and putting it in the street, I’ve opened it up. Not accessible like on Amazon (whoever wants a book can find it) but available and exposed to a diverse, chance-determined audience. I’ve shifted the barrier of entry from price (can I afford it) to engagement (who is this guy, what does he want). Anyone open to a 15-second diversion gains the potential, later, with the book, for some kind of discovery, big or small. Standing there on the esplanade, I witness people eyeing me, ignoring me, glancing over, looking away, smiling, stopping, nudging, whispering and pointing. For the most part they aren’t on the lookout for art—unlike some of the visitors to the bakery, who have come to see the books. With the town as my stage, standing in the street with my work, I’m coming face to face with key questions—who recognizes art? who wants it? who reads? whose eyes are open? who is curious?
Mass-transfer bursts and the superhumps in cataclysmic variables
Speaking of curiosity. On Sunday I was coming off of Town Bridge on the bicycle, headed to Hope Square. As I passed the King’s Arms pub the door swings open and Geoffrey bursts out with his arms up and a loud “PAAUL!!” Amazingly, he had spotted me from inside the tavern and said he wanted to give me a copy of his paper explaining dynamical instability. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d already found it online and linked to it here (Geoffrey doesn’t own a computer). We arranged a meeting time for Monday.
And so, on the day that Curiosity landed on Mars, I sat with Geoffrey in Hope Square and gave him a copy of Weymouths #8, about the ruins of an ancient Roman temple overlooking the sea in Weymouth. And he gave me his paper about exploding stars, rolled up in a toilet paper tube. The full title is Mass-transfer bursts and the superhumps in cataclysmic variables by Geoffrey T. Bath, published by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2004.
Sunday 5 August / Day 7
140 books given away in seven days.
Since buskers are allowed in front of Jubilee Clock I tried this location for Sunday’s public book encounters. Still too windy for the book blanket but the base acts like a shelf and it faces the sea so this spot is kind of ideal. I set up 20 copies of Weymouths Volume 7: Preservation / The Canoe Room at 10:40 a.m. and by 11:15 no one had approached me and none of the books had been given out, even though a constant flow of people walked by. So I decided to try an experiment—I erased my little blackboard sign (it said Weymouths Vol #7) and changed it to say FREE BOOKS. People flocked over and in 15 minutes all of the books were distributed.
Friday and Saturday 3–4 August / Days 5 and 6
120 books given away in six days.
Twice I’ve been asked to leave the esplanade by beach control, the result of local bureaucracy and a break-down in communication. After several discussions about where I’m allowed to be, I was finally told that I can be considered a busker and set up only in specially designated areas for street performers—Jubilee Clock, Hope Square, the train station and St. Mary’s Church. The irony is that this project about giving and free exchange can only be accepted into the community by mapping it back onto the familiar structure of performing for money.
I won’t pretend that this trip is easy. The performative aspect is exhausting in many ways (emotionally, physically, socially). Each time I give a book to someone there’s some kind of exchange of energy—an explanation, an acknowledgement, a conversation. In the case of beach control—confrontation.
Some of the encounters are turning into relationships—casual, public bonds, but still.
And I find myself monitoring everyone in the bakery, even if they’re not interacting with the Weymouths box. When someone does engage, they tell me stories, frequently triggered by things they see in the books. Sally said I’m sort of acting like a therapist for the town—listening to stories, associations, ideas. It’s endlessly satisfying, but draining.
Sally mentioned the phrase “live art” today. This resonates with me, as does the idea that the work is site-specific and depends on my presence and direct engagement with an audience—in this case, an entire town. Of course I think of The Artist Is Present, and while I don’t dare compare Weymouths to Marina Abramovic’s super-human feats at MoMA, both works are durational and I find myself thinking about her a lot here. What she had to give to pull that off. What she endured, how she survived (and what I’m doing here, without any training). At least once a day I think: I’m crazy. No one cares about this. Why am I bothering? Those feelings are drowned out by others (and by lots of positive feedback) so I keep going, but doubt lingers everywhere in the acting out of this work.
I’ve never done anything like this before.
Dynamical instability is as fundamental a physical process as simple harmonic motion.
I’ve had a few encounters with Geoffrey Bath, the town astrophysicist, whose reaction to the work has been immense. Something happened yesterday. I found him sitting with his morning pint and a cigarette in Hope Square, and gave him two copies of volume five. After thanking me profusely and telling me how he would give the second one as a gift to someone at dinner tonight, we somehow got into a conversation about Geoffrey’s theory of dynamical instability (published by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2004).
He started to explain it, and then I asked him to draw it. He sketched a simple experiment involving a glass of water, an elastic band and a tube. All that’s needed is a light touch to set the glass of water in motion. Geoffrey says that this particular dynamic doesn’t happen naturally anywhere on earth. But then he pointed up and smiled, and laughed. It happens all the time up there, he says—cataclysmic cosmic events. His theory explains the explosions of white dwarfs.
I love Geoffrey’s theory of dynamical instability, even though I don’t understand it. I love that these fifteen minutes he shared with me feel like they’re at the heart of the work. I’ve thought about why for a full day now. It has something to do with the banality of the everyday (the morning pint, the cigarette, the tourists in Hope Square) juxtaposed with larger things. An older man’s need to be heard. Deeper structures that are revealed at a picnic table, on cobble stones, at a pub. Someone opens a hole in the skin of a small town to reveal matter, time and light. Something about what we’re all made of, and the smallness I feel while contemplating an exploding star.
Exchange of energy.
It’s something I tried to do in Weymouths. It’s why there’s a narrative in the work, from banality to poetry, from present to past to time itself.
Daphne thanked me for creating a social networking project.
Weymouths Volume Six: Burial / Extinguished by purchase.
Too windy for the book blanket.
Pete found two women from Weymouth, MA!
A visit from Stephen Banks of Bridport.
Thursday 2 August / Day 4
80 books given away since Monday.
Weymouths Volume 4: Migration / Bound for New England. This is the book that I created for the original b-side proposal. It’s the passenger list of the Hull Company ship—the 104 women, men and children who sailed from Weymouth, Dorset to New England in March 1635. Theirs was the first settlement to remain permanently in what was to become Weymouth USA.
This morning I set-up next to the Boat Project, in Weymouth Harbour. The Boat Project is a beautiful thing (handmade from crowdsourced wood) and it’s a magnet for attention. I thought I could benefit from the energy it’s generating but instead, the book blanket felt small, in a very crowded context. Very different from the Aunty Vi’s effect.
I gave away most of the books in about an hour, and then it started raining.
Charlie found Geoffrey at a nearby pub and brought him over. He’s an astrophysicist and he’s featured in volume one (he overheard my conversation with Jack at the pub in the Old Rooms Inn and told us his own stories about Princeton and Oxford). He remembered me from March and I gave him a copy, and saw him again later, sitting a different pub, book in hand, explaining it to someone else, so I gave one to his friend and another one for him to take to someone else.
Jack and Mairi visited Weymouth, MA and set the whole narrative in motion. He’s the star of volume one! I gave them a boxed set.
I was interviewed by Emily Cooke from Wessex FM.
And The Phoenix Bakery was painted a new color today. Love it.
I didn’t anticipate that people would bring gifts to me, in exchange for books or in appreciation of the project. Whatever the reasons, it’s happened a number of times already and each one has been remarkable. Liz, one of the members of the Italian club who meets at the bakery every two weeks, came by today to give me a guide to the Dorset ridge—accompanied by a long story about a missionary in China, whose bones were returned to the Isle of Portland (I can’t remember it now). And Bev came to the bakery to look at the books and give me this 1918 guidebook to Weymouth.
None of this would have happened if I’d sold the books. By giving them away face-to-face, another kind of wealth flows between the artist and recipient, a reflection in return. A generosity echo.
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.
It was raining when I woke up this morning, so after arriving in Weymouth I decided to skip the book blanket/bicycle set-up and give away today’s edition (Weymouths Volume 2: Sense / Weymouth can refer to) at the bakery. It was slow going, but not without some beautiful encounters throughout the day, until 3:30 p.m. with three books remaining. I packed up the reading room and walked down to Aunty Vi’s snack shack on the sea and there was Peter out on the promenade, waving me over.
Peter read volume one last night and told me that the three Dorset towns that he’s lived in his life—Weymouth, Upwey and Poxwell—are all featured or mentioned in the book, and he was obviously struck by the coincidence. He entered the work and found himself there.
There’s a mountain of content in these twelve books, but I’m discovering that it doesn’t take much to bring this project to life. The books are only a key to access a conversation. A serendipitous connection in the moment, through language, memory or an image. All it takes is a few words.
Earlier in the day I showed the memorial bench book (Volume 11: Memory / Who enjoyed this view) to a couple (behind the tea pot in the photo below) who told me about a bench dedicated to their dear friend at the far end of the esplanade. We started searching the book for his bench and view of the horizon. They said they sit there almost every day.
Peter told me today that “Aunty Vi’s” snack shack is named for his mother, Violet, now passed away. He describes her as a real character and a beloved aunty to many. I was then introduced to the gentleman who would receive the last copy of today’s edition, standing there at Aunty Vi’s getting a tea. Gordon is a distinguished professor of logistics and a regular at Aunty Vi’s. We immediately connected—when I mistakenly mentioned that I was “getting rid of the last few copies” (ugh!) he laughed and corrected me, saying that I was giving him the honor of receiving the last book, and I said yes of course, I was gifting it to him. I don’t like the word “gifting” as a verb but it seemed appropriate here.
After a long search along the coast for the perfect seaside retreat with his wife, Gordon told me that they found Weymouth and knew that this is where they had to live. He says Weymouth is “neither posh nor down-and-out, neither this nor that—a solid place.” They now live on the Weymouth esplanade, overlooking the sea and Aunty Vi’s.