The New York Times artwork feature: ‘Telephone: An International Arts Experiment’ by Nathan Langston
Sometime last winter, Terri St.Arnauld and Frank Yezer, photographers in Austin, Tex., and Maya Ciarrocchi, a video artist in New York, each received an email that contained a song. The tune was by Stelth Ulvang, a musician from Denver, whom they had never met. In a spare recording, on banjo and accordion, Mr. Ulvang sang of a forlorn man and a landscape of smoke and clouds.
All three recipients got down to work, poring over the lyrics, “trying to understand what the artist was conveying,” Ms. St.Arnauld said. Their goal was to make something inspired by the song, and to connect in a mysterious creative experiment.
Ms. Ciarrocchi responded with a video that juxtaposed windswept footage of water, tree and fire. Ms. St.Arnauld and Mr. Yezer, a married team, made a pinhole-camera photo of a solitary man in the charred remains of a Texas forest.
(B) The artist Karen Stabenow submitted this work, an oil on masonite piece, that was the sixth work created for the project.
This chain-linked work is part of a new project that is rooted in the very old children’s game Telephone (also called Operator or Grapevine). The artistic version, for adults, was conceived by Nathan Langston, a Brooklyn poet and composer. He scribbled out the first message and gave it to a friend, who made a painting from it, which Mr. Langston then took to a poet, who wrote a verse based on the painting.
The poem went to a photographer, and a sculptor, and a musician, and so on and so on, until nearly five years later, there are 315 artworks, from some 40 countries, in more than a dozen forms. As a multimedia experiment, it reveals precisely how inspiration — and aesthetic and motif — travel and transform in an interconnected age.
“We were wondering if we were getting it right,” Ms. St.Arnauld said of transferring music to image, “and then we realized that we don’t usually look at art that way.”
(C) Froso Papadimitriou’s “Black Dot Series 06.”
While this is not the first project to link artists, certainly, it has seldom been done on this scale.
“I’ve never really seen anything like it,” said Bob Holman, the poet and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, where “Telephone: An International Arts Experiment” will open as an interactive installation on Monday. Mr. Holman contributed the second piece to “Telephone,” following on the painting he received from Jana K. Weaver. Only Ms. Weaver and two other artists were privy to the original message that started the process: an old fisherman’s prayer. (The full prompt will be revealed to all the participants on Monday; no spoilers here.)
Ms. Weaver’s gouache has a naked, shimmery woman, launching a paper boat into the sea, under a starry sky. That work and two others spiraled out into some 50 branches — Mr. Langston would send a piece to multiple artists, to keep at least one chain going at all times.
(D) An untitled work by Laura Glabman, a photographer from New York.
A surprising number somehow retain a thread of Ms. Weaver’s painting; the coloring and placement, perhaps, or the symbols. At least a third of the total works include water imagery, sometimes springing from abstraction.
It’s “practically telepathic,” Mr. Langston said. “It was shocking to see that same message evolving through all these different art forms.”
Mr. Holman likened his writing process to ekphrasis, an ancient Greek term that refers to translating a visual image into words. With all the different artistic forms in “Telephone,” “It’s got this Dada element, an ongoing spider web of interconnections,” he added. “The more it moves along, the more it takes on a life of its own, a map of its own.”
(E) Roberta Orlando’s photograph “High Set” was her response to the project, and it was the 11th work in the series.
Mr. Langston, 33, came up with the idea shortly after moving to New York from Portland, Ore., where he had played in bands and dabbled in poetry. “I had never lived anywhere except for Oregon; the culture shock was kind of intense,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone. Originally, this was my scheme to meet artists.”
The fisherman’s prayer, a paean to the loneliness of being at sea, felt, in its own way, like a beacon to him, and Telephone was his navigation through an ever-expanding network. At first he tried to physically transport each artwork to the next recipient, but he soon realized that was inefficient, and, after setting the project aside for a few years, picked it up again as an online endeavor.
Word spread across social media and participants emailed their contributions to him, to pass on to the next artist.
(F) A work by the Iranian artist Ramin Parvin, “The Sixth Section,” which was created with a mixture of materials including tree trunks, digital painting and wool. It was inspired by a film and led to the creation of a song and a sculpture. It is part of “Telephone: An International Arts Experiment.”
“I was surprised by how rapidly it grew,” Mr. Langston said. “And scared, too. Many times I would wake up, and there would be 120 new emails in my inbox.”
He read up on ekphrasis and other theories of artistic communication, and tried to assign pieces far across the globe; some branches traversed more than 40,000 miles. “We’ve whispered this message from the earth to the moon and back, many times over,” he said.
Each artist received only the immediately preceding work, with no names or identifying details. Nor did they know who their piece would go to, or what form it would take. A mostly abstract white sculpture by the Dutch artist Harald Schole led to a snapshot of a blue sports car by a New York photographer, Laura Glabman, and to a film about pregnancy by Ben Driscoll, from Falmouth, England.
(G) “Through Endless Blue,” an art work by Darcy Meeker.
Mr. Langston said he was less interested in the qualifications of the artists than in spreading his message. He worked with members of his interdisciplinary arts group, Satellite Collective, including a programmer and a designer, Daniel Talsky and Matt Dabrowiak, to help curate the project and create an elegant website that displays the works as a sort of family tree.
“It’s like proving a theory,” said Ileana Hernandez, a photographer in Boston whose shot of a sailboat in the harbor, is eight artworks removed from Ms. Weaver’s boat painting. “Even if you don’t know the artist, it’s proving that art can really work as a way to communicate.”
W. J. T. Mitchell, a professor of media and visual culture at the University of Chicago, said that “Telephone” “is basically a performance of something that every artist already knows, which is that art is not made in solitude; it’s made out of other art.”
Others have created similar projects: At Pioneer Works, the gallery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an artist-in-residence, Clara Claus, gave musicians including Richard Reed Parry, of Arcade Fire, and the composer Nico Muhly, her abstract drawings; their scores based on her sketches may later be turned into animation or film.
That so many artists are “trying to jump across the boundaries of medium,” Mr. Mitchell said, is very much in keeping with our multi-platform era. “It’s always a question of influence, transference, motifs, moving from one media to another,” he said. “That’s just the way art lives.”
But as in the children’s version of Telephone, in the artistic exchange something was almost immediately lost in translation. Ms. Weaver, the first person to receive the fisherman’s prayer, had an instant negative reaction to it. “I didn’t like the prompt at all,” she said — the religious overtones did not sit well with her. The painting she made, with the moonlit woman launching a paper boat, can be read as poetic and romantic. But, Ms. Weaver said, “obviously the paper’s not going to last in the water.”
“Someone could see my painting as a really lonely, helpless person,” she added, “but really I was just being snarky.”