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Saturday, August 11, 2007

MacDowell Colony: Landlines

When I was at MacDowell late last year, Oct-Dec, an artist by the name of Anna Schuleit was working on a big installation having to do with telephones for MacDowell's centenary celebration. A few days ago, I got email explaining that

one hundred telephones -- that taboo device at a colony meant for undisturbed creative work -- have been temporarily installed on one hundred trees across MacDowell’s grounds by Schuleit's team of more than 200 volunteers. On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, as the thousands of celebrants walk the grounds, the telephones — drawn from every decade of the 20th century and with 100 different sounds — will begin to ring.

But who will be calling?

Why, it will be YOU. Colony Fellows from across the country and across the decades. It is you, those who cannot be here, who will play the most important role of all: to call and lend your voice to the Colony’s 100th anniversary.


We ask, we plead, we implore, we beg, and we so hope that you, a friend of MacDowell, will dial your phone and tell a story, ask a question, pose a riddle, sing a song or otherwise reach out to meet one of the celebrants on the Colony property for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Your call will pass through an old fashioned switchboard operated by children from Peterborough. They will connect your incoming call, by hand, to one of the telephones mounted on 100 trees spread across the MacDowell property. There, the phones will ring, and the visitors physically present will answer.

I got all excited about this--it seemed propitious that I would be calling from another artist colony, and on my last days here, and I decided I would call and offer the person on the other end of the line a choice between music and fiction. When I called earlier tonight, the switchboard was overwhelmed. I called four times before an operator picked up, and by the time I reached him, he'd been brought down to a low frazzle. Some of the trees around the colony weren't accepting calls, and he wound up trying to connect callers to each other. He had a number of us connected on a party line, and one older fellow seemed very put off by the fact that he wasn't being connected to a tree. The rest of us tried to make the best of things--what part of the word party didn't this old fart understand?--but the experience was a bit like being at a very loud cocktail party at an art school reunion where you don't know any of the other people and you're all blind, a little hard of hearing, and possibly underwater.

Eventually I was put through to a tree, and that's when things really went downhill. I offered the woman on the other end of the line a choice of fiction or music, and when she chose fiction I got nervous. The thing I was prepared to read was the monologue by an eccentric and potty-mouthed black queen, a scene I'd read in high Ebonics with great success at the Jentel Presents presentation at the public library on Tuesday. I figured if I could pull off an African-American Radical Faerie rant at a public library in Wyoming, it would go overjust fine in the MacDowell woods. But not very far into my reading I felt very, very foolish--there was no way to perform this over the telephone. It required space and body language and an audience. "I think I got the gist of it," said my tree woman about halfway through, putting us both out of our misery.

No, that's not accurate--I still had the misery of embarrassment and disappointment to contend with. I'd wanted to contribute something fun and vital to what seemed like such a great project, and for twenty minutes I felt like I'd let Anna and MacDowell and myself down by simply trying too hard (the usual way). Twenty-one minutes after hanging up, though, I remembered that it's an *artist colony*, and that the occasional performative face-plant, while painful, is most definitely the price of learning how to make art.

Here's a story in the New York Sun about the Landlines Project.

1 comment:

Crankenstein said...

I was an adult working the switchboard Sat. night and it was a madhouse. There were a lot of technical difficulties but once we accepted that it became a big crazy event. At least the woman you spoke to has a story to tell. Many people just got connected to other trees and the conversations were along the lines of, "Hi, I'm at a tree. Where are you at?" "At another tree, I'm not sure where." So, you see--you were one of the highlights of the evening. Thank you for calling!