Monday, 5 September 2011

Welcome to Hello? Are you there?

Booths at King St. E. & Yonge St.
Photo credit: Liis Toliao

This is and will be an exhibition and publication about locating the public telephone booth.

The ubiquitous use of personal cell phones in public spaces has paralleled the slow disappearance of Bell telephone booths from Toronto's street corners. What remains is a smattering of booths near bus stops, gas stations, and high foot traffic zones. This change has contributed to the way we interchange personal space with public space and how we perceive our democratic rights to easy access to communication beyond face to face. At best, we now search for free wi-fi in parks, libraries, buses and city squares to converse with people somewhere else.

Back in the day, the telephone booth was a great example of our propensity to design privatized public space. In particular, the Bell booth design stood as an icon for a unified platform for national communication. Today, it still is the symbol of a distinct national communications agenda, albeit gritty, dirty and street-wise. Many blue panels framed in brushed aluminum over steel frames, encasing a black phone stall were installed across a vast country - a distinct marriage of form and function. Today they maintain the iconic look but each one also changes slightly from the next. Some have lost much of the blue paneling and are made with long panes of clear acrylic, such as the one located at Yonge and Briar Hill, tucked in the northeast corner of St. Clements Parkette. Others are pedestals for light box ads hanging awkwardly off one side to face car traffic, such as the one located among a triptych of booths at King and Parliament.

What still draws us to the iconic telephone booth is the modular form, its ability to contain the person and give us a defined and perhaps nostalgic, perhaps false, sense of personal space and privacy within the busiest of streets. It also contributes to our delicate if temporal understanding that the democratization of communication is within reach for almost anyone who has 50 cents. Our ability to pay per call is swift and clear and it levels everyone to the same plane. An extensive menu of telephoning options does not complicate this basic mode. No long-term plans or contracts, time saving aps or free texting compromising "voice" altogether. There may be a deeper well of opportunities and choices, but our ability to make a call could be really, really, simple… Imagine you didn't carry a personal phone (just imagine!): locating a telephone booth when you need it is really, really hard!

Perhaps our response to the disappearance of the iconic telephone booths - and the fun of searching them out where the city is like a giant antiques market - is purely an exercise in nostalgia, and only one of a succession of losses of manned street furniture replaced by such things as instant teller machines, parking meters, mail boxes and newspaper boxes. All of these furnitures have their roots in services depots with actual people greeting the customer and collecting payment. Even the telephone booth had its beginnings equipped with a heavy door that allowed the attendant to lock the customer into the booth until the completion of the phone call. This prevented the customer from leaving the premises without making payment (See Appendix for a history of the telephone booth). And when the customer did leave, we can imagine a slight exchange: a nod of the head, the tip of a hat, the flutter of lashes, or the flip of a neck scarf over the shoulder toward the attendant.

Our rights to privacy today are nebulous at best. A scan of folks on any particular bus ride may include a soft romance into a headpiece, where we fill in the conversation's details by the glimmer in the eye, the slight smile, the flushed cheeks. Or we may have the good fortune to pay bus fare and receive a bonus theatrical monologue detailing intimate details of a stranger's sexual misgivings, albeit critically flat and one-dimensional. The personal telephone exposes the difference between the tell (to tell into the telephone) and the talk (to talk in and around the telephone). The tel(l) is for a singular and known audience, and the talk is for everyone else. One is personalized and private, another is impersonal and public, and the experiences are simultaneous. brings together artists of varying backgrounds to each perform and/or animate a booth in response to some of these ideas. Artists and writers are asked to consider the relationships between form and function, medium and message, telling and talking… and texting… and more. Specifically, artists and writers are invited to contribute a site-specific installation or short fiction that references a unique telephone booth location. Their work will also include a phone call somewhere, somehow. Once they have completed their "stories", the booth literally gets tagged and documented by us.

The installations are announced as they are completed over a nine-month period, and the exhibition culminates in a (phone)book form. The installations/stories will be collected in a publication by Tightrope Books, and launched summer 2012 to coincide with a exhibition and launch event at the Telephone Booth Gallery.