In Telephone, an online exhibition organized by the Satellite Collective, a web connecting 315 artists in 42 countries was structured around this Breton fisherman’s prayer: “Oh god thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” Starting from that central message, each artist communicated to the next through a variety of media, from drawing to dance, resulting in over 50 threads in an art version of the game “telephone.”
The online platform for Telephone launched yesterday, mapping the paths of interpretation and revealing the original message to all the participating artists. Helped along by a Kickstarter campaign, the call for artists first went out in 2013, gathering interest in the exquisite corpse-like experiment from around the globe.
“Of all the parts of the message, the most sustaining element was water,” Nathan Langston, who directed and conceived of Telephone, told Hyperallergic. “There’s the water of the original message throughout almost all of the threads.”
The first painting, by New York-based artist Jana Weaver, shows a naked woman launching a folded paper boat into the sea beneath a canopy of stars. It inspired New York poet Bob Holman to write “Naked Night,” which asks the reader to sing of “[t]he poem that floats / Its message across / The land that recedes / To the stars themselves / The recipients.” In the hands of Salt Lake City-based musician David Williams, those words translated into a 10-minute composition in which an electric guitar picks a repeating theme against the tonal vastness of a single sustained chord. From that recording made in the Utah desert, Portland photographer Tom Patterson documented the trail of a pipeline from an abandoned pumping station all the way to a towering waterfall. Those photographs were transformed into a painting by Jakarta-based artist Charles Shuster, and then New York-based Todd Bryant turned the pipeline into a surround sound digital space in which nature sprawls around the industrial ruins. “It’s enjoyable and surprising to see how the art forms talk to each other,” Langston added.
Viewers can browse by medium or location in addition to clicking through the different paths. Imagery like the paper ship resurfaces in surprising ways, such as a video by Amsterdam-based Akmar Nijhof in which blue paint is smeared away from its folds, or a boat of photographs in a sculpture by Janet Van Fleet in Cabot, Vermont. 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.
“This was a moment when it seemed like the thread would spin off and become totally abstract,” Langston explained. “But this thread ended up producing some of the most ‘accurate’ conclusions. Sharleene’s work was assigned to Dustin Hamman, a musician in Portland, Oregon. Somehow, as if by magic, the message re-emerges from his music.” His layered composition eventually has the lyrics “drifting to the surface” appear from the noise, and concludes with the sound of crashing waves, calling back the Breton fisherman through the artistic chain.
View the Satellite Collective’s Telephone exhibition online.