For Found magazine, it starts with something discarded: a letter, to-do list, sketch or Polaroid rolling end-over-end down the street in a brisk wind, fetched by a sharp-eyed urban archeologist.
For PostSecret, it begins with a postcard, anonymously sent to a home in Germantown, Md., containing a long-held, possibly scandalous secret.
Then the viewers’ work begins: Where the text leaves off, the imagination takes over. Like a classicist, the viewer can try to reconstruct the conditions that led to the creation of this artifact, to fill in the subtexts, to take that shard of a masterwork — whether a clay pot or a human life — and complete it with all the clues known about its context. Or, he or she can play it as it lies, respecting the inscrutable nature of the found object.
Davy Rothbart of Found magazine and Frank Warren of PostSecret will share these found fragments and anonymous secrets when their Found vs. PostSecret tour rolls through Fountain Square’s Big Car Gallery on Nov. 15, raising money for local and national nonprofits while spreading the gospel of curiosity in your fellow human beings. More exciting than your run-of-the-mill literary reading, Found vs. PostSecret will not only feature dramatic presentations of found material and postcards — “I’ll try to read them with the energy and emotion that they might have been written with, and I get a little bit rowdy and carried away,” Rothbart says — but also a live song cycle based on found notes performed by Rothbart’s brother Peter Rothbart. In addition, Frank Warren will give a speech that should answer the most commonly asked questions about the PostSecret project.
Secret on a postcard
In 2004, PostSecret’s Warren invited people to write a secret on a postcard and send it in to him anonymously. He’s since received 175,000 postcards at his home address, and he’s published a small fraction of them in several PostSecret books and on his Web site, postsecret.com.
Warren, 42, spectacled with a graying beard, lives with his wife and a teenage daughter at his Germantown home. He thinks that by using his home address for PostSecret, he has made himself seem more vulnerable, and that people have been convinced they could send him their secrets because he had already taken a risk by opening up his life to them.
Rothbart, 30, a former Chicago Bulls ticket scalper who is known as the point guard of Found magazine, co-founded (with Jason Bittner) what has become the clearinghouse for found ephemeral materials. Rothbart is more hip-hop than art-school hip; his long sideburns, silver necklace and tweed cap, as well as press shots posed beside Cadillacs and holding basketballs, might be an unexpected look to someone who first heard him through, for instance, his piece on meeting Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child and an adult, one of several stories by Rothbart broadcast on public radio’s This American Life. But it’s not gangster chic: Rothbart and Rogers have a gentle, unsophisticated style in common, and both have made it their work to pass on the stories of the people they’ve met on a walk through the city, trying to expand the worldview and imagination of their viewers.
Warren compares the projects: “I think they are both projects made possible by new communications technologies like blogs and virtual communities. And I think both of them are ways to uncover the extraordinary inner lives of people, kind of a way to get through that ordinary surface and discover the real, kind of personal poetry, humor and humanity that unites us all, that would just be lost if not for these communities that developed that look for it and find and value it.”
Found came before PostSecret — Found’s first photocopied zine was published in 2001, paving the road for widespread acceptance of Warren’s egalitarian project. Warren tells of his first meeting with Rothbart: “I was inspired by him, and once PostSecret started running, I sent him an e-mail, and he graciously called me back. We talked for a long time, and found out we had a lot of things in common, and he graciously invited me to some of his performances and allowed me to give some talks, which was just such a nice thing for him to do, because it allowed me to see his interaction with his audience and to learn how to find my own voice. So when we decided to go out again later this year, I was really excited.”
Found’s Davy Rothbart remains gracious when he talks about PostSecret: “There’s something really powerful about reading the secret of a stranger and relating to it. Maybe you’re struggling with the same thing in your life, and you’ve probably felt isolated in that struggle. And all of a sudden, when you see that a stranger has dealt with the exact same thing, it’s a revelation, and I think you feel less alone. It makes you feel like the dark things in your life are more forgivable. Even just reading other peoples’ secrets offers a kind of liberation. Some of them are funny as shit, too.”
Student challenges the teacher
But in this tour, the student will challenge the teacher: Much like Celebrity Jeopardy, Found and PostSecret will fight it out to determine which charity will get the most money from the night’s take: PostSecret will represent the National Hopeline Network for the whole of the tour, while Found will partner with a local nonprofit at each stop. Two-thirds of the proceeds for the night go to the winner, with the remaining one-third left for second place. The nonprofit of choice for Found in Indianapolis is The Second Story, a recently founded organization that will conduct creative writing workshops and offer tutoring to local schoolchildren (see sidebar).
Warren is tightlipped about the main event: “It’s either going to be a mixed martial arts match between the two of us in the cage, or thumb wrestling, one or the other. You’ll have to come to see which one.” Presumably, some events will also deal with the found notes and postcards themselves.
For those that want to contribute more than the proceeds derived from the $15 cover price, there’s a VIP option: Kick in $65 and, pledge drive style, you’ll get a special reception with Rothbart and Warren an hour before the show, front-row seats and a bag of Found and PostSecret treasures. The extra $50 will go directly to the charities. Those tickets are available online at http://foundvspostsecret.com/.
Big Car Gallery event manager Shauta Marsh thinks the Found vs. PostSecret tour is perfect for her space: “It falls in line with our mission statement to bring in a lot of different stuff, and we’ve done a lot of found art shows in the past.”
Dirty Found, the X-rated offshoot of Found magazine, dropped by Big Car earlier this year, and Found magazine (without PostSecret) did their first show at the gallery in 2006 (Found’s only other show in Indianapolis was at the Melody Inn in 2004). Not only does the mission statement fit like a glove, Big Car’s Jim Walker was a contributor to the second Found book: He passed along a found drawing that he appropriately titled “Vampire Santa.”
While Found tours almost non-stop, this is the first visit by PostSecret to Indianapolis, and one of the few dates in the Found vs. PostSecret tour.
More with PostSecret’s Frank Warren
Warren has exhibited PostSecret online and in art galleries, and has put together four books worth of secrets, the most recent of which is A Lifetime of Secrets, a collection of postcards arranged roughly in a timeline from childhood to old age.
Warren reflects on the different forums in which he exhibits secrets: “I think of the project itself as a collection of secrets that I share with people in different ways. When I share the secrets on the Web site every Sunday, I feel as though I’m sharing the immediacy, the fleeting nature of secrets in that form. So I think of those secrets at postsecret.com as living secrets, and then when somebody sees those, they see that somebody’s carrying that burden right as they read it, and the next week it’s gone. And I think of the book as more of a lasting archive or a testament in which I can really tell the stories in a full conversation between the secrets, and between the book and the reader. And then in the art galleries, I think of those shows as a way to show the tangible side of the postcard, the front and the back, and the full quantity; I like to show a lot of postcards at those exhibits. And then I also share the idea of the project when I tour on college campuses and talk about it there.”
At the show, Warren will share postcards that haven’t made it into print — either in the books or on the Web site — often because they incorporate copyrighted material into the design.
Warren will donate some of the proceeds from the Found vs. PostSecret tour to the National Hopeline Network, which runs the suicide prevention hotline 1-800-SUICIDE. Warren has been involved with suicide prevention and awareness since college (he’s won an award from the National Mental Health Association for raising funds for suicide awareness). He explains how he linked up PostSecret with his involvement with suicide prevention: “The issue of suicide has touched me in a number of ways: I’ve lost a family member and a good friend to suicide. But I don’t think there’s a direct connection between secrets and suicide. It’s just that, when I started PostSecret, I was a volunteer answering the hotlines at 1-800-SUICIDE, so I knew the good work they were doing.”
Community Museum Laboratory
Certainly, a few finds from Indianapolis have found their way onto the pages of Found, but what about local “found” art projects unrelated to Found magazine?
On the night of the Found/PostSecret show, in a project called COPY:COPY, Fountain Square’s Community Museum Laboratory will pass out ready-made artwork (photocopies) to those that drop by their space. Founded in March 2006, CML is a volunteer-operated space that’s loosely affiliated with the Herron School of Art and occupies a storefront on Prospect Street near the nightclub Radio Radio.
Cindy Hinant, a founding member of CML, sums up her approach (and partly CML’s) to “found” art: “I think found art involves anything that’s external to you — it’s artists responding to things in their immediate environment.”
Consistent with Hinant’s take on finding, CML devoted a recent show to Peppy Grill, a 24-hour diner tucked between art galleries and knitting shops on Virginia Avenue that serves up greasy hamburgers to tired cops while sharing wafting fumes of brown grease with passers-by. Hinant and compatriots prepared a photography series on the game Touch Masters: Sapphire Edition and passed out fliers to community members that urged them to visit Peppy and try to beat their high score.
October’s Map Lab project challenged Herron sculpture students to map sites, sounds and behaviors in Fountain Square, and many of the resulting pieces incorporated found materials. For his piece “Rows and Rows,” Brian Runge collected bricks from a nearby abandoned building, piled them in a circle and placed rusty fencing and dried flowers in the middle. Nathan Winship Smith collected weeds from locations around Fountain Square, taped them to notebook paper, labeled them and arranged the pages around a square column with a weed on top. Robert Hall’s “Underneath our Feet” was more of a performance piece, the results of which were displayed in the gallery: He “excavated” dirt from a sidewalk crack in front of the gallery, working diligently before onlookers on the show’s opening night of Oct. 5.
In some of her own work, Hinant explores the wonderful world of Lisa Frank stickers, creating busy pastel collages that juxtapose unicorns, hearts and rainbows in an onslaught of cute. Preparation for a typical piece involves a visit by Hinant to a chain art store to pick up roughly 200 sheets of stickers (not exactly found, but at least re-appropriated), which she deploys to create landscapes with tessellated-style repeating stickers and glittery magical beasts.
For COPY:COPY, CML will accept entries submitted by Nov. 11 that can be photocopied and distributed in quantities of at least a hundred each (firstname.lastname@example.org for more information).
Local finders: Anna Rae Landsman
When she lived in Chicago, local artist Anna Rae Landsman was an enthusiastic finder. She and her roommate covered a refrigerator with found photos. “I was very much into Found magazine and things that were discarded or lost,” Landsman says. “That was my way of making a community.” She had been waiting for something like Found when she picked up the first issue.
Landsman began using found materials, like paper bags or duct tape, out of necessity; a poor student attending the expensive Chicago Institute of Art, she couldn’t afford to go out to Hobby Lobby whenever she started a new project. (And while she may have a little more money these days, she still tries to look around the house for materials before she buys anything.) “I had to use materials that I knew I could manipulate, and I really started getting into materials that are cheap,” Landsman explains.
But Landsman always found ways to make her materials consistent with the message of her work. For instance, for her piece “Nightmares as a Child,” Landsman was looking for a way to express how there were incidents that happened to her as a child that she believed were nightmares at the time, only to find out eventually that they really happened. So, she used flimsy paper bags that would eventually disintegrate to suggest how memories can change and be altered.
The Second Story
If nothing else, Found and PostSecret are an encouragement to honest self-expression, and suggest that you don’t need power or a sophisticated command of English for your thoughts to be important. “It was a twist of fate” that youth writing workshop The Second Story became the nonprofit of choice for the Found vs. PostSecret event, according to co-founder Ken Honeywell; his office at Well Done Marketing is just behind Big Car Gallery, and Big Car’s Jim Walker and Shauta Marsh let loose one day that Found was looking for a nonprofit to team up with for their Indianapolis stop. But it’s serendipitous that a youth writing workshop would be affiliated with Found: Found’s Davy Rothbart is a member of the 826 National Advisory Board and has participated in events at 826 Michigan, located in Rothbart’s hometown of Ann Arbor.
Earlier this year, four Hoosiers took a trip to San Francisco to observe the goings-on at 826 Valencia, a youth writing workshop created by Dave Eggers and his compatriots at the atavistically hip publishing house McSweeneys. The four westward explorers — Honeywell and Scott Woolgar, partners at Fountain Square-based Well Done Marketing; Matt Mays, founder of Boost Media/Entertainment; and Mark Need, director of the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic at the IU School of Law — were impressed enough to try to create a similar project locally, calling it The Second Story. Their project is not organizationally related to the “826” satellites that have launched in New York and Seattle, but in the same spirit of trying to get kids to expand their imaginations, encouraging them to tell their own stories, and to not just settle for those seen in cartoons or movies.
The Second Story is in the planning stages: The organizers are still looking for a director who can begin to develop educational programming, and a good deal of money needs to be raised before the nonprofit can take over even the first story of a building, let alone the second. Until they stake out a space, some programs and tutoring sessions will be held in schools, and others may be run out of Big Car Gallery or the Wheeler Arts Community. Regardless of where it lands, The Second Story plans to offer after-school writing tutoring to Indianapolis Public Schools students by spring 2008.