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Pick up a payphone, hear a New York story

Jenny Winfield
Jenny Winfield on the New York installation that provided a hotline to the past

Last year, New York based project ‘Recalling 1993’ matched up working payphones on the city’s grid with an event from 1993 specific to that street corner. All you had to do was pick up the phone and dial 1(855)-FOR-1993, and you were told a short story.

The installation was launched by ad agency Droga5 to promote the New Museum’s ‘NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star’ exhibition, which explored a pivotal time when social and cultural pressures, political agendas, crime and art all collided in the city. The project, which featured over 150 recorded oral histories from locals, transformed New York’s 5,000 unused but operational payphones into artistic and educational playthings. It seems we now desire ‘high performance’ objects that aren’t just fully functioning – but can teach us and entertain us too.

What’s more, we are social beings, and it’s somewhat ingrained in us to get to grips with our territory: if you know your ‘hood the best then you belong there the most, right? In New York, this sense of geographical identification goes down to the block and even building level.

Sounds like change

Trendy visual infographics have become immensely popular over the past 5 years or so. This seems to have developed out of a sense of uncertainty and mistrust in the world: visualising the invisible means we can attempt to understand it better. However we’re now seeing a backlash against this obsession with making everything tangible. Over the past year we’ve had The Barbican’s Rain Room as well as a host of giant scale light installation projects from Japan to Lisbon, demonstrating our cultural appetite for the immersive, enchanting and unusual. The surreal is starting to become a valuable source of escapism.

Auditory media are especially good at capturing our imagination. Without visuals, we’re free to more creatively interpret what we hear – so we’re now starting to see an influx of projects that are delivering information through sound. Using audio recordings in situ can feel more stimulating compared to a gallery show of curated photography. Recalling 1993 was essentially about art: the stories were meant to project images into the listener’s mind of events from 20 years ago so people could create their own mental panoramas.

What’s more, we’re seeing that the cultural value of listening is on the rise. New York is particularly good at storytelling; it’s home to the incredibly successful not-for-profit The Moth, which draws people across the city to hear first hand personal stories live – without notes, without judgement. As the name suggests, people are drawn to stories like moths to a flame. This certainly holds true when we think about the cultural value of stories. Storytelling is a universal human behaviour, like playing, eating, grieving and laughing. We need stories. Projects like Recalling 1993 show that history can be delivered as stories without the use of digital media – we just need to listen.

NYC 1993: the New Museum

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