TelephonE

 

Project at a Glance:

This international arts experiment used the childrens' game Telephone as an impetus to generate 315 original and interconnected works by artists from 159 cities in 42 countries and present the project as an interactive online exhibition. The entire project took five years, although was only run in earnest for two years. Tools used included Stackedit.io, Ruby on Rails, Postgre SQL, jQuery, Unicorn, Vimeo, Soundcloud, Kickstarter, Fetch FTP, Google Drive, HipChat, Google Analytics, Sketch, Adobe PS, Excel, colored pencils, scissors and paper. Skills used included project management, concept mapping, communications, curating, fundraising, and event planning.



Selected Quotes About Telephone:

"While this is not the first project to link artists, certainly, it has seldom been done on this scale.'" - New York Times

"The quality of the art varies, but it’s fascinating how some of the original message endures even when transmitted through performance, installation, painting, prose, and any other of the diverse media. For example, Johannesburg-based artist Sharleene Olivier’s ethereal, murky embroidery inspired a sound piece that circled back to the project’s original message." - Hyper Allergic

“Telephone is basically a performance of something that every artist already knows, which is that art is not made in solitude; it’s made out of other art.”W. J. T. Mitchell, professor of media and visual culture at the University of Chicago

"The tension between what is sent and what is what is received mirrors the suspense in any act of communication." - City Arts Seattle

“I’ve never really seen anything like it."Bob Holman, poet and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club


Project Summary:

This project used the game of telephone to test the translation of information by passing a message from art form to art form, a process known as ekphrasis. So a message could become a painting, then a poem, then a photograph, then music, then dance, and so on. The structure of the game was exponential, meaning that each finished work was assigned for translation to multiple artists. We found that there is a huge quantity of latent information in works, including highly abstract and ambient works, that isn't generally acknowledged by current criticism. 

You can click on any of the items in Contents to jump to that section. 



1. Concept

This project used the game of telephone to test the translation of information by passing a message from art form to art form, a process known as ekphrasis. So a message could become a painting, then a poem, then a photograph, then music, then dance, and so on. The structure of the game was exponential, meaning that each finished work was assigned for translation to multiple artists. We found that there is a huge quantity of latent information in works, including highly abstract and ambient works, that isn't generally acknowledged by current criticism. 

Telephone Homepage

Telephone Homepage


2. First Iteration

Initially, this project was entirely analog. It involved me physically delivering works of art to artists' apartments in New York. The problem was that there was a huge lag, sometimes months, while the original, translative work was being created. In some cases, artists never finished, meaning that lots of time was lost. The first iteration of the game lasted a little over a year and stalled out at eight works of art. 

However, the small string of works was deeply compelling. The eighth work clearly contained much of the information of the original message, even though it had passed through some very ambient forms. It was a good failure. 

One of the earliest works in Telephone, a painting by Jana Weaver.

One of the earliest works in Telephone, a painting by Jana Weaver.

Profile picture of me by Dina Litovsky for the New York Times.

Profile picture of me by Dina Litovsky for the New York Times.


3. Relaunch

I knew that the concept worked but wanted to test it on a larger scale, deciding to relaunch with two differences. The first was to conduct the entire project online. This would allow us to expand our pool of participants worldwide and would cut down on the need to physically deliver works. It also gave us the ability to display all forms - music, video, photos and other types of digital content - for example, one of the works turned out to be a 3D rendered video game with a full soundscape. 

The second variation was that, instead of assigning each finished work to one other artist, each work would be assigned to multiple artists. This created a redundancy so that various threads could continue to evolve, even if a single artist dropped out. It also allowed for comparing various translations of a single source.

This structure presented its own challenge as that it made the project grow exponentially. If the project had been completely automated, twelve clean iterations would have generated 177,147 works of art, which would have been difficult to process as there were only three of us working on the project.

An early physical prototype of the exhibition map. Each slip of paper is the last name of a participating artist. 

An early physical prototype of the exhibition map. Each slip of paper is the last name of a participating artist. 


4. Back-end

Satellite Collective’s Technology Director, Daniel Talsky, pointed out at one of our first meetings that we needed to establish file naming conventions for the works with a fairly simple parent-child node form. So for example, 0018_0058_LastName_Film would indicate that this was the 58th sequentially assigned artwork, was based on the 18th work, the artist’s name, and the art form type. By naming files uploaded into our FTP using these conventions, the site could pull the list of works automatically.

All artist bios had to be edited and then marked down using Stackedit.io. We stored and imported all music entries using Soundcloud and housed all film and video works using Vimeo. 

The finished map of Telephone. The concentric rings laying out the iterations was much more condense and compelling than earlier linear designs. Each dot is a work of art, color-coded by art form. 

The finished map of Telephone. The concentric rings laying out the iterations was much more condense and compelling than earlier linear designs. Each dot is a work of art, color-coded by art form. 


5. Design Process

The goal was to convey to the user the translation process of information as it passed from art form to art form. The highest goal of this project was to convey the almost telepathic am In order to achieve that, the basic user flow took its inspiration from Choose Your Own Adventure books (which took their inspiration from early online hyperlink fiction experiments). 

The primary way to view Telephone works is by starting at the opening prompt (the secret message that was originally passed) and traveling out through the branches of the nodes. Users can see the work, enlarge it if it’s an image, read the artist’s bio, and see and choose to view the works that both proceed and follow that current work.

Another way to view the project is to look at the Map View, a beautifully rendered visualization of the Telephone threads by Matt Dabrowiak, in which the iterations ripple out concentrically from the original message. Here, as in the primary view, the individual art forms are delineated by color. As users hover over nodes, the artist’s name, art form and location are displayed.

The home screen also features a Browse button, which allows users to filter works by medium and or by location, a guided Tour, an About button, Essays section, Links and Sponsors button. 

Individual artwork page. Shows previous work and following works. The more info tab pulls up artist bio and more specific specs of the work. 

Individual artwork page. Shows previous work and following works. The more info tab pulls up artist bio and more specific specs of the work. 

Browsing art works by physical location.

Browsing art works by physical location.


6. Future Iterations

This project was conducted before I enrolled in the User Experience Design Immersive at General Assembly and, in retrospect, I see all of the flaws so clearly. Most of what I see is what could have been done better. 

Firstly, the landing page doesn’t clearly express the purpose of the project or how to interact with it. A user would either have to know what Telephone was already or go through the extra work of reading through the About section, taking the Tour, or experimenting through trial and error with the main navigation. That’s a lot to ask.

Secondly, the in-game navigation is fairly good and the map is cool but the relationship between the two is not easily apparent. For example, when a user is looking at a work of art, they can see the work inspiration that directly proceeded it and the works that came after but it’s difficult for a user to know what iteration looking at without clicking all the way back to the beginning. That’s important- for a user to know if they are on the 10th or 4th iteration. And if the user goes to map to check where they are, there’s no indication of location on the map unless they find their dot by hovering over it. I would count this as a system status heuristic issue.

There certainly should have been a “Browse by Artist.” Many of the visitors have come because of the involvement of one or two artists that they know and want to quickly find. Even the participating artists had difficulty finding their own work. Also, on the browse pages, the scroll bar on the right only appears once you start browsing and isn’t readily apparent. “More Info” should have been labeled “Artist Bio.” The purpose of the Tour could have been more explicitly stated.

Nonetheless, with a budget of $6,000, with three team members, we pulled off an exhibition with the footprint of a large institution, breaking 100k hits from 2,596 cities in 112 countries in the first month alone. For a tiny arts project, that's not bad. 

Celebrating the launch of Telephone at the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan. Concurrent parties and get-togethers took place all over the world and Telephone artists from all 42 countries were speaking to each other via video chat. 

Celebrating the launch of Telephone at the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan. Concurrent parties and get-togethers took place all over the world and Telephone artists from all 42 countries were speaking to each other via video chat. 


7. Process Improvements

Firstly, by more carefully codifying the guidelines by which works were assigned out to artists, we could have delivered cleaner results. In order to program assignment, each work would need to have a memory of the art forms and locations that had already been in the thread and, based on a set of rules, know which type of artist to which to assign itself.

This would have also allowed a lot of the work to be automated, cutting down on the number of full content audits and manual formatting that had to be done. Because the project grew exponentially, we had to cut it off at a certain point.

If the assignment, upload and labeling processes were automated, we could have grown the project to thousands or tens of thousands. Twelve clean iterations in which each work was assigned to three artists would have generated 177,147 original and interconnected works of art, but the three of us couldn’t handle anything close to that manually.