An exhibition here in Ottawa by Germaine Koh. As described on her site:
A vintage telephone (resembling a direct taxi-line or service-centre phone) sits on a counter top in a public place accessible to a wide range of people. The phone's dial has been replaced with an LCD screen that informs the viewer that when he picks up the receiver he will be connected with a random participant. Each time the handset is lifted, the phone dials at random one of the project participants, who have agreed to receive calls and have conversations with strangers at all hours of the day. The volunteer participants, from a wide variety of backgrounds and communities, will have been solicited through a variety of local media and means. The interactions are not recorded or otherwise determined in any way.
It's also described as "an open-ended experiment in behaviour between unseen strangers". I am becoming more "artsy" as I age (gracefully I hope) and think this is a fun idea to explore but my science/quality assurance background is asserting itself a bit. This is open-ended, because there is no definite initial hypothesis, plus there is not really any systematic method to gather data - no recordings, no forms, no surveys. Feedback via email is welcome and I'm sure there is a comment book - if more metrics are added, does art then become a social sciences experiment? Or can it be both?
At any rate, being semi-retired with lots of spare time (ha!) I signed up and got a cell phone from the curator (Emily Falvey). There are 10 of us, and I think some spares on the sidelines in case we don't all last the whole game. Gallery opening was tonight at 5:30, for this and several other shows, so quite a crowd. They were attracted not only by the art but I think also by the yummy trays of nibblies scattered around. Shortly after the opening speeches the calls started, and most were quite interesting. It was a pretty noisy location, with the phone in the crowded hallway outside the gallery rooms, so I wandered off to the Byward market area. Conversations were remarkably relaxed from people, and during normal hours it will be a nice area for a chat, end of the hall, phone on a table, chair by it -all it needs is a glass of wine and an ashtray. Oops - not in Ottawa!! At any rate, people would start off saying they were calling from a phone that was part of a show at the gallery (I knew that), so I would say I was answering from a phone in the Market. That tended to get the conversation going, things like where I was, why I volunteered, then into a bit about them. Some would even pass the phone onto a friend - saying, "Here - talk to this guy." Then I would get to eavesdrop on their attempt to explain to their friend what was going on, before passing me on to them. At the same time I was busy doing my stuff too, so one young lady had to listen while I ordered food at Saigon. The first call was from someone in visual arts actually, that prompted my graffiti personality to the fore so we swapped web sites. His is quite interesting. Of the 6 or so calls I got in the evening, most seemed young, and all quite willing to chat. It is conversation between strangers, but there's the comfort of anonymity the phone gives. One caller did ask if I was the guy that had just told him to f**k off, I said no but if he wanted abuse he could call again and press "2".
Calls will be 9 to 9, Tuesday to Sunday, I think. But it's not as if we're all on a help desk - if I need a break or have something else on, I'll just turn it off. There's no voice mail on the phones- no point really, it's all about the call.
Sept 1 - update. Germaine was nice enough to quote some of my comments on her web site - and a link back to here. I'll just add updates to this post, rather than create new ones.
I've had 1-2 calls a day since last week, most young sounding, more males than females. There are a little more if there is an event going on and more people hanging around the hall. Although, that means more noise, with a lot of "pardon? pardon?." Most start off cautiously, explaining where they are, some joke around to keep the interaction superficial, some are more inquisitive. No lengthy chats so far.
One caller doesn't like using phones in general but he tried it out anyways. We discussed that while it is calls between strangers, one of them (me) is not that strange -in that I'm aware of the concept and ready to make it work. I'm not at the stage yet of answering "Pizza, pizza, may I take your order?".
Another admitted staring at phone for a while before picking it up, because he didn't know what to say. I should drop by the exhibit and see if people have doodled any "things to say" hints on the tabletop. We sometimes worry too much about saying the wrong thing, or sounding silly - we certainly are willing to give even complete strangers "permission" to judge us. I'll have to follow up with the curator if they have any school tours through the gallery, that would certainly extend the range from inquisitive to smart-ass.
Most have been quite polite. I took one call even though I was busy on another phone, because I didn't want to miss my one call of the day. We chatted briefly, and she was quite understanding of my hurry. I certainly haven't found any that were, as R. (another volunteer) found, "obnoxious and condescending"
I did have one young woman that called me just after my lunch and insisted she was calling from China, and that it was a lovely sunny day there. Inventive, but not a science major.
Sept 28 update - Still here, still getting calls, but less frequent. More like 1 every 2 days, not 1-2 a day. The first week of September was none at all, I checked with the gallery and was possibly because when more (5?) volunteers added my name was accidentally deleted. Fixed, but means with more volunteers to share the load less chance of getting picked by the random dialer so carry a quiet phone around. A difficult balance, some like me can keep the phone on all day, others have jobs or school so have to leave it off, so visitors to the gallery can get either several unsuccessful tries or connect right away. Part of the Calling a Stranger experience.
Calls have still been quite varied, ranging from a quick hangup to those that chatter about the gallery. Some say they tried several times before getting a live voice. Most explain where they are calling from, and then admit to apprehension over calling a stranger and not knowing what to say. We then discuss the concept, many are quite interested in the details, how does it work, what do other people say, but then seem to run out of steam. They seem reluctant to share much about themselves directly, so I often ask them about the other exhibits there by Germain. Many have seen them, some are intrigued, some are amused, some are confused. A good thing. Some are tourists, so I end up being a mini-tour guide, suggesting they try touring the Market area or Sparks Street mall or a game of Frisbee on the Parliament Hill lawns. Some are so monosyllabic and shy I give up trying to draw them out.
Some highlights from the dozen calls I received:
- one call late at night (10:15) surprised me, as the phone normally shuts down at 9. Caller said galleries and offices were all closed down, he was just wandering about. I asked if he was a bored burglar, he admitted he was (note-check with Gallery if they are missing anything)
- the afternoon of the Dawson college shootings (Sept 12) a young woman chatted for a while, asked where I was from and why I was doing this. I asked her the same, she was here from Montreal with a bunch of friends on a school tour. I mentioned Montreal was a scary place today - she didn't know what I meant. So I had to break the news to her. Gently in case she had friends there - she didn't, but thought it was peculiar that rather than using a new outlet, she picks up a phone to talk to a random stranger and gets the latest updates. A few minutes later, another call, another woman from the same tour group.
That's it for now - gotta run - Sun newspaper is doing an interview today with the curator of the exhibit, Emily Falvey and they want a pic including a volunteer.