When COVID-19 shut down the art world last March, disrupting artistic practices everywhere, Seattle user experience developer Nathan Langston took matters into his own hands, creating a collaborative online project. It grew into TELEPHONE, a massive online exhibition featuring work from 950 artists around the world, 50 of them from Washington state.
“We just needed to do something during this time, just to keep ourselves going” through “this miserable, apocalyptic year, that’s just been so filled with loss and death, and the murder of George Floyd and the gigantic protests and wildfires that made it impossible to go outside … just incredible amounts of difficulty,” he said. “I hope that we’ll look back on this [and] be able to see that we did something beautiful.”
TELEPHONE, which debuted online Saturday and is free, is inspired by the childhood message-distortion game, in which an original phrase is degraded with each whispered exchange within one kid’s cupped hand over another’s ear.
Similarly, each artist participating in TELEPHONE received another artist’s work and translated it into a work of their own, whether it be painting, sculpture, music, literature, film or dance. The only work a given participant sees is the piece that precedes them. When the new pieces were completed, TELEPHONE staff passed it along to two or three other artists who created their own work in response to it; the game wasn’t linear, but unfolded into numerous directions at once, then reversed course entirely, with multiple works assigned to just one artist, who created a single work inspired by others’ contributions.
“The game begins with a single message, is passed through approximately 1,000 artists, and concludes with a single work of art,” write the organizers.
This entire collection of original, interconnected works is being simultaneously published as an interactive, digital exhibition at phonebook.gallery.
It’s not the first time Langston has attempted it. He began a low-tech version of TELEPHONE when he was living in New York several years ago. The aim was similar but employed real-life transfer of objects: “It was literally me taking paintings on the subway to another person’s apartment.”
The game of telephone itself is ancient. “I’ve been able to trace it back to at least the 1700s, when it was a parlor game amongst the aristocracy,” said Langston. “I think it was called ‘Consequences.’ But it’s probably much older than that.”
And there’s a long-established tradition of overlap between art, play and theft. Langston cites Black Mountain College and the Bauhaus movement. “The Surrealists played a game called ‘Exquisite Corpse,’ but they didn’t invent it either,” he said. “They stole it, too, which is kind of the thing … the whole point of telephone is to take something that came before you, that was whispered to you, and to turn it into something new, and that’s what we’re continuing to do, and I hope other people will copy us.”
Langston published the results from his earlier inquiry into applying the concept of telephone to art in 2015, and didn’t plan to revisit it. “I never thought that we would do another one,” he said.
Then the pandemic hit, and he embraced the possibility of starting a similar project online, where it would be relatively cheap and required no physical contact. (Langston estimates his total cost for TELEPHONE at about $150.)
He enlisted help from colleagues in the tech world. “I started by asking some of my friends at Microsoft,” he said. “And then I hit up some folk at Amazon and Facebook … I would say that one vast untapped resource is that some of the smartest people in the whole world are working for companies in our area, like Microsoft, and Amazon and so on and so forth.”
He found support from brilliant minds otherwise engaged in boring projects — programmers and engineers who “can build anything.” With their assistance, he staffed the project, aiming to reach artists, people feeling lonely amid the isolation of the pandemic, and “young folk that would look back at this time and see when things got incredibly dark, artists … did their job.”
And they did. Artists joined by word-of-mouth, eventually in the hundreds. “The distance that we have passed our secret message, which started in Seattle, is 7,684,788 kilometers or 4,776,126 miles,” said Langston.
Regardless of what kind of public response the project receives, Langston said the important part is over. “TELEPHONE has already done the job, the main job that it was supposed to do, which was get us from March 2020 to 2021,” he said.