By: Ben Johnson
Baltimore-based artist Lexie Mountain organized a world record attempt for the longest game of telephone that happened earlier today at the Walters Art Museum. The record was 1,330, set by school children in a soccer stadium in London in 2008. The official count for Lexie’s attempt was 504.
Lexie has been planning this attempt for over two years. To prepare, among countless other tasks, she rolled up over 1,400 yards, 0.8 miles, of string which she personally colored with red marker at one yard intervals, and took that string into the Walters during its regular operating hours, and laid out a winding 1,400-person telephone line route through a museum full of priceless antiquities and people whose careers have been dedicated to caring for them, and despite a certain amount of pushback about laying down string, a thing you can trip on, a liability insurance nightmare waiting to happen, really, through sheer force of will and charisma, she laid out and planned a string route, then, with the help of dedicated museum employee at the Walters, laid down a path in red painters tape, and then was told to remove all the painters tape, and then she and the Walters staff had to lay down the painters tape again after waiting until 11pm last night for a wedding to clear out of the space, and additionally they placed 1,400 hand-numbered black dot stickers at one yard intervals along the entire taped path. The whole thing was as much an exercise in physical endurance and mind-ruining meticulousness for her and a close cadre of collaborators as it was a refreshingly participatory work of public performance art, or for the lower brow among us, a fun silly thing to do on a Sunday.
She admitted to me in what should be noted was a state of exhaustion that she was pretty bummed about falling short of the record. I’m not in the business of deciding how other people should feel. I’d probably be bummed too if, after hours of hunching over something which magnitude can be described in miles, I felt my hard work did not achieve its intended purpose. Say, if I had laid down a series of various hunch-inducing materials for the purpose of a community and conceptual thing I thought would be great, and all I’d ask is that a few hundred people stood on those hunchy things and whisper something to each other in a line, I might under those circumstances feel things other than bummed, and might use the word “bummed” to avoid saying I felt hurt and betrayed.
I also feel strongly that she has a lot not to be bummed about. 502 people agreeing to come into a museum on a Sunday and stand around and play a game of telephone is a hell of a thing. If the name of the thing was 500 Person Game of Telephone instead of World’s Longest Game of Telephone, it would be pretty great. But that’s easy for me to say. I only did so much hunching over the course of volunteering for the event. Lexie is a dear friend.
One truth about humans is that we want a lot of impossible things to happen. We want large and small impossible things, all day long, every day. We want to find a good parking space. We want to fall in love and stay in love with another equally human human being. We want the people we care about to be happy and not bummed. We want to break world records and have our deepest desires for egalitarian community-based participatory public art realized. We want everybody everywhere, or even anybody anywhere, to be okay. And we almost never get what we want. When you consider the nature of imagination, it’s actually physically impossible to get exactly what you want. There are infinite negative spaces between what we have and what we want, and somewhere in the middle between nothing and the impossible but seemingly possible is where we all have to live, and not a one of us is perfect.
That’s what makes us miraculous, though. Have you ever met a person? They’re messy and complicated, and they don’t make any sense whatsoever. And yet everything that people have ever done was accomplished by these weird neurotic inadequate messy complicated nonsensical persons. Pyramids and skyscrapers and rockets to the moon and hellacious basketball dunks: these are all easy to admire, but our current deeply fucked up and wholly inadequate and dishonest and patently unjust system for dealing with each other is also a miracle. It is a miracle to be a person surrounded by other persons, suffering the systematic injustices and traumas that are a part of every life, and yet, with decent enough reason, persisting in general without feeling totally certain at all times that a runaway bread truck is just now about to crash into you. The necessity of this delusion is probably why we have such a thing as an imagination in the first place. Otherwise our species wouldn’t even get out of bed.
Today’s world record attempt game of telephone at the Walters Museum was an unqualified, miraculous success. It was the impossible both imagined and, differently, realized, and it was weird and hunchy and beautiful, and you should have been there for it, though I’m sure you have your reasons. We all do.