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Please Leave Your Life Story after the Beep

I felt so fortunate to stumble upon a post at The New Inquiry yesterday about artist and award-winning filmmaker Sheryll Franko.

The post featured an hour-long interview with Franko, and the interviewer asked the artist about her new installation “I’ll Get Back to You as Soon as I Can”, an archived arrangement of Franko’s old voicemail messages. Listen to the first few minutes of the video for samples of the voicemail messages, if you don’t want to listen to the full hour interview. I will offer some highlights here.

In the interview, Franko admits that her art is based in the connectivity of people. She likes for art to be accessible, for it to exist on the “street level”, as she calls it. She wants to bring people together with her art.

Her latest piece was inspired by a box she kept over the course of 20 plus years; the box is filled with notes, mixtapes, and tapes from her landline answering machine. She even found ways to record voicemails from her cell phone and saved them all over time.

Franko felt that she wanted to reconnect with that part of her life, and she felt fortunate that she had saved some of it. At around minute 19 in the interview, Franko talks about how great it felt to be on the receiving end of letters and mixtapes.

At age 25, Franko felt like she had endured so much change in both technology and her own life. As she remembers them, the changes happened very quickly, and she had no choice about whether she wanted to participate in those changes. This project comes partly out of frustration.

Anyway, I was so interested in Franko’s project because I felt it related directly to a topic that I explored briefly in a blog post, “Commitment Is Calling the Landline“. In my post, I wondered if people were more committed and more active communicators before cell phones and the Internet. Calling someone on the landline meant effort, and setting up a time to meet them, well in advance, meant commitment.

I definitely believe that a time before cell phones and the Internet meant that more people were open to making real connections. Franko believes that connection relates strongly to our moods, which are influenced by our ability to reach out to another person and find reciprocation.

As she says in her interview, “There’s something beautiful about writing someone a letter or making someone a mixtape. What you were doing was creating a mood for somebody.”

She offers some great examples, one of which includes having a fun night in New York City and coming home to pockets full of phone numbers and business cards. She cites things you can touch vs. things that can disappear and offers the example of her mother giving her a postage stamp to write a letter to a long-lost friend; at the very least, the friend might stumble upon the letter years later and remember that time in her life.

Toward the end of the interview, Franko mentions an encounter with an art critic, who told her she must be narcissistic to think anyone would care to listen to personal voicemails she had saved over the years.

I stopped for a moment and thought about this – why doesn’t her “self-absorption” bother me? I made it pretty clear in another blog post (Stop Trying to Pick Lint from Your Bellybutton) this week that I was sick and tired of reading things written by navel-gazers.

Is Franko a navel-gazer? I don’t think so.

As the interviewer mentions, someone else might save all her voicemails, but she might not know what to do with them or how to present them in a compelling way. If you can present something that’s personal in a way that creates a narrative, then why not? How is using the inventory of your life different from writing a fictional novel and sharing it? If the character is compelling, then the reader is getting something more than just listening to someone blab.

Personally, I am really fascinated by the one-sided narrative that Franko creates with her voicemails. They paint a picture of a missing character – I say “character” because who knows if Franko is creating a portrayal of herself. She could have arranged the voicemails in such a way as to obscure their original context.

I really like the idea of “necessary narcissism” that Franko and the interviewer explore. Says Franko, “Maybe I suffer from some level of loneliness because I want to stand in a place and talk about my voicemail messages.”

The installation is a “personal and private installation”, which means that Franko wants to learn something about herself, about culture, and about relationships. And I think we can all stand to learn something from her discoveries (or attempts).

(Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography)

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