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A Project Salvages and Installs No-Cost Payphones to Revive a Fading Technology

Karl Anderson founded Futel to salvage no-pay phones, that enable callers to make free outgoing calls or to interact with operators and record messages.

Futel phone installation in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood. (All images by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — One of the authenticating moves that anchored the 2005 movie Brick in the neo-noir genre was the omnipresence of payphones as the means of telephonic communication. Even as cell phones have outdated the maintenance of landlines in the home, we still pantomime the technology of archaic dialing patterns and receivers, indicating that in our mobile-technology era, there is something fundamental about payphones. The Portland, Oregon-based artist Karl Anderson would tend to agree.

Over the last five years, Anderson and a team of tech-savvy volunteers have developed Futel: a series of industrially salvaged no-pay phones, that enable callers to make free outgoing calls or to interact with operators and record messages. The project has since expanded to eight public phones and another at a “houseless rest area,” providing more than 12,000 outgoing calls a year, as well as encounters with Futel services, interactions, and operators.

“Pay phones are an interesting part of hacker history and also a very interesting element of urban furniture, so when I realized I had the ability to deploy them it was just something that I had to do,” said Anderson, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “I like being able to intercept a complex manufactured item after the end of its intended lifestyle, right before it hits the landfill or the recycler, and combining it with other trash, turning it into something new and putting it back in people’s faces. A lot of our apparent prosperity these days seems to rely on a mountain of trash which we are supposed to ignore, and I think we need to make that visible again.”

Users can make calls on Futel phones for free, as well as leave voicemails and interact with Futel operators.

Futel phones are mostly sited around Portland, but the project recently expanded to Detroit’s Core City neighborhood, with a phone installed at 23rd Street and Breckenridge Street in November. In general, Futel is interested in being an interactive, street-level project, but the project also carries an inextricable social mission, in providing a communications portal to growing low-income populations — which are increasingly an issue in the highly economically disparate environs of Portland.

“Any public project is going to need to relate to the people who will experience it,” said Anderson. “And Futel is made to be radically accessible. The installations are made to be put on the street and used by whoever is walking down the sidewalk. They will only be successful if the people in the neighborhood want to use them. There are several origin stories for the project, one is that I lived on a shopping cart corridor between transit and several encampments, and there was a guy who would mow my lawn but he didn’t have a phone, or rather he couldn’t always keep it paid, so he would push his mower on his route and see if I was home. I thought he could probably use a voice mail system, and maybe lots of other people in the neighborhood would too, and I ended up building a phone system around it.”

“I evaluate the success of the components of the project by how they get used,” said Anderson. “And both the artistic and service parts get a lot of use.”

For those who want to experience the project for themselves, the Futel blog has information about existing Futel phones, as well as a wish list for the continued support of Futel infrastructure. You can also call into the project at (503)-468-1337, for access to Futal voicemail, to talk to an operator, or to access the “wildcard line.” The wildcard line is where you can listen to an audio-sampler of voicemails left from the Futel community on the voicemail line. The calls are presented with commentary by Anderson and other hosts, and the vibe is reminiscent of “Calls from the Public” — one of the recurring segments from the thoroughly surreal and brilliant Sifl & Olly Show. But when probed on whether or not the Futel project could be considered part of the surveillance economy, Anderson’s cynicism shone through.

“What the heck do you think Futel gets from its users that could be monetized like that?” he said. “You don’t even need an identity to use it. Anyway, I tell people that when they use a Futel phone, they should assume that someone is listening, but it’s not us.”

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