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Local 411....

Fig. 1
Local 411: Private Conversations in Public Space

Ian Pollock and Janet Silk

In Local 411, we use the public phone system to invigorate the historical landscape of the city in search of contemporary public art. The phone is physical; it creates an intimate space that unites people over distance, even across time. The casualness of its power, its transparent movement across vast geographical locations, its ease at accessing people of different classes and cultures make it an exciting media for the subject of public address. Radio, telephone and computers have been called "psychotechnologies" [1]: technological extensions of the mind, with global implications. We are interested in how communications technologies shape the relationship of space and time. We want to talk about histories that can exist in the present and the psychological dimension of the telephone network that speaks of vanished spaces that remain in memory.

Local 411 was a project created to address the Yerba Buena Redevelopment Zone in San Francisco [2]. Here, 4,000 former residents of residential hotels have been displaced to make room for what has been called the "jewel in the crown that is San Francisco" [3]. Groundskeepers continually clean the large grassy area; waste is quickly swept up before it can settle. Surrounding the park are the Center for the Arts Galleries and Theater, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), the George Moscone Convention Center and the Mariott Hotel. More museums are planned for the area. Many non-profit arts organizations are relocating to the area to take advantage of the consolidation of cultural institutions. Gone are the Rock Hotel, the Rex and many others. All traces of the former use of the area have been erased.

Escalating cost of housing have forced the mostly retired former inhabitants into adjoining counties of the Bay Area. Replacement housing, although promised, has not been built.

Local 411 was a temporary public monument that challenged the erasure of memory from the site and questioned the position of the arts in the process of gentrification.

We have worked with voice-mail systems and public phones as part of our interest in public monuments and memorials since 1994. Our earlier work led us to try live interactions with the public, in this case in the form of private conversations about public issues.

We used the public telephones located around the Yerba Buena Garden, inside the Museum of Modern Art, the Moscone Convention Center and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. We used three strategies in multiple languages [4] to relocate memories into the Yerba Buena Redevelopment Zone:


From research of the area and its former residents, we generated short, fictional vignettes. These memories were recorded and added to a message pool in a custom voice-mail system, which could be accessed by telephone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the cost of a local telephone call. The stories were recorded in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Tagalog. The order of the messages in the system changed every couple of days. This way one might start by hearing a story in English and then be exposed to another language, much like how one might come across different languages while walking down a busy street in San Francisco. Users manipulated their touch-tone keypads for simple navigation through the messages. Earlier work in this format was well received by the physically and visually challenged communities. People associated with the Rose Resnick Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco told us our work had become popular because it was easily accessible and not dependent on visuals.


The voice-mail system solicited memories and impressions from the listener/participant. When a response was recorded, it was placed in the message pool and became available to the next listener. The message/story pool grew during the duration of the piece. The messages represented the diversity of the audience and included personal reflections as well as reactions to the piece. An art student talked about meeting friends from Iowa at the museum, a Filipina woman described being haunted by memories of the old neighborhood, and a young girl reminisced about her grandfather's death.


We collaborated with a group of performers [5] and supplied them with historical research about the area. Each performer developed one or more characters from this research. The characters they came up with were people looking for friends or lovers, individuals looking for buildings that were no longer there, and ghosts haunting the phones.

Throughout the duration of the piece we called public telephones located in the area, outside in the park as well as in the lobbies of SF MoMA, Yerba Buena Center and the Mariott Hotel. The performers engaged the passers-by in one-on-one performances. During each conversation, the history of the area was revealed. If the performance lasted long enough, the performance was identified as a public artwork and a second level of conversation took place. Listeners were given the phone number to access the voice-mail system as a way for them to respond or to leave impressions of the area. In this way, interactivity worked its way into the memorial part of the piece.

In a gallery setting, the audience has already agreed to a context for their experience; in Local 411 this was not the case. Calling unsuspecting passers-by and engaging them in a public monument that was non-traditional required that we create a frame of reference while people were engaged in the work---in this case, while they were talking to us on the telephone. The other difficulty we faced was trying to keep the listener on the line long enough and interested enough so that we could establish a conversation.

Beginning our call with a fictional pretense often provided enough confusion or interest to allow us to lead the listener into conversations about the area and the nature of our project. For example, one of the performers would ask to speak to a specific person by name ("Is Jeff there?"). Then when the person who answered the call would report that the person was not there ("Hey man, this is a park"), the response was a lead into a conversation about the neighborhood and people that used to live there.

During each exchange, we searched for holes, gaps in the conversation that would allow us to move into an area of discussion that would activate and remind the pedestrian of the political discourse of the area they were standing on.

We are interested in the connection between the personal and the social and how this connection has an impact on everyday life. We asked people if they thought the cultural centers were worth the displacement of 4,000 people.

This raised the larger issue of how artists are often complicit with gentrification and how an apparently benign cultural center portends doom for an entire class and culture of people who have been disenfranchised and declared public blight.

Local 411 was an investigation similar to our previous work, Area Code, in which the audience moved around the city and used public telephones to retrieve site-specific stories about the area. For Local 411, we continued working through the artifice of story-telling, but also worked within the defined social mores of phone interaction. Because of the improvisational nature of the phone calls, it was very important to be clear about our intentions: the activation of the site through remembrance of events and the foreshadowing of current gentrification in the activities of the past.

People were more generous than we expected---open, even vulnerable. We began to realize the intimate scope of the project. We did not broadcast to a large audience in the live performances; each performance was tailored to an individual audience member. Regardless of the experience we gained, the performances retained their personal nature. By the end of the installation we spoke to downtown executives, conventioneers, security guards, art students, delivery drivers and transients. There are few social contexts in which people agree to participate---often these center around ritual, liminal, transactional or conversational situations. In contrast to the more impersonal voice-mail system, the participants in the live performances were far more willing to respond to the issues in depth. We wanted a memorial that would continue to resonate with the audience after having experienced it, so for us the meaning of the piece lay in the depth of the exchange. The piece was most successful when awareness of the history of the site shifted into an examination of the current issues of housing and gentrification in San Francisco, and this could happen at any time during the experience of the piece.

We continue to explore the potential of the phone for art and have found it to have a unique ability to connect with people because of its transparent and pervasive presence in the environment [6].

References and Notes


Frank Popper, Art of the Electronic Age (Thomas and Hudson, 1993) p. 126.


The project is administered by New Langton Arts, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Presenting and Commissioning Program, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the San Francisco Publicity and Advertising Fund's Hotel Tax/Grants for the Arts and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr., Opening Ceremony for the Yerba Buena Garden and Center for the Arts, 8 January 1995.


The languages used were English, Spanish, Mandarin and Tagalog.


Performers were Tom Barratt, Jonathan Crosby, Judy DeMocker, Sarah Lewiston, Michael Peppe, Kevin Radley and Cesar Rubio.

6. (Fig. 1)

We have just finished version 1 of the Garden of Eternal Time. We will be starting on version 2 soon. The Garden of Eternal Time is located at www.sirius.com/~ps313/garden/

Ian Pollock and Janet Silk, 540 Alabama Street, #313, San Francisco, CA 94110, U.S.A. E-mail: ps313@sirius.com. Web site: www.sirius.com/~ps313

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