I can’t recall ever playing telephone—the parlor game in which a phrase is whispered into a succession of ears with the expectation that the phrase will become contorted—but I think it’s a wonderful example of the near impossibility of communication and understanding.
Beneath the silly premise, it’s a moralistic game; it serves as a warning not to believe everything one hears. It spells out the danger of spreading rumors and the importance of checking one’s sources. It reminds me of devastating arguments in which my own words are thrown back at me, with a few embellishments, until I am made to sound far less patient and magnanimous than I believe I am. Though it is only a game, telephone clearly articulates the difference between what is said and what is heard.
At the College of Santa Fe, the Student Writers Association and the Photographic Society joined forces to produce an exhibition using the game of telephone (with a few minor tweaks) as a framework for making art. In this version, both a photograph and a piece of writing are created. These works in turn set off two separate chain reactions wherein the next artist in line creates a work in response to, or as an interpretation of, its predecessor. The artists are divided up in such a way that the pieces alternate between written word and image. The result is a playful mixture of works that leap and stagger around thematically in a way that showcases a variety of styles and emotions.
The use of another’s work of art as a starting block is a time-honored tradition. Exquisite corpse, a favorite game of the surrealists, is similar in spirit, letting each subsequent artist add to and alter a work. However, exquisite corpse typically employs secrecy and doesn’t allow for logic, since the artist cannot see what he or she is adding to. It has at its heart a randomness that defies reason, even as it moves toward completion (ie, filling the page).
On the other hand, the rules of the Telephone exhibit provide each artist the time and freedom to interpret the preceding works so that the progression feels linear, if not always lucid. In some cases, the sequence is simple enough to discern, but it is fun to see how far the cord can stretch in only one step.
This theme runs the risk of becoming a shtick. Fortunately the works pull their weight, offering more than just the fancy stitch-work that holds them together. Out of context, the artists and writers manage to produce some memorable images and scenarios.
I particularly enjoyed Liz Lucas’ pitch-perfect story (which took the form of a hand-written journal entry) about the irrepressible hope of new crushes. I also admired Anna Ryan’s soulful reminiscence of an old friend and Thea Light’s subsequent image depicting a girl in the act of daydreaming.
Interestingly, the show’s weak spot is that the pen appears to be mightier than the camera. More often than not, the visual components of the narratives feel illustrative, like the pictures accompany the stories rather than catalyze them.
This is not to say the photographers are weaker than the writers. Rather, in the presence of the stories, the images just seem too literal, bending to the will of the words. This ought to have been offset to some extent because each photo is bookended by stories. Instead, the images continue to function more like a jump-cut or a channel change than part of the program.
Overall, I applaud the efforts of the organizers and the artists involved. The show is enjoyable as an exercise, but it also left me thinking about the nature of inspiration. After all, ideas don’t come out of nowhere. What work isn’t made in this fashion? Telephone deftly foregrounds the interconnectivity that comprises the formation of all art everywhere.
Through April 3
College of Santa Fe Fine Arts Gallery
1600 St. Michael’s Drive