Monday, November 16, 2009

Following Piece 2.0 : Are you following me? by Stella Untalan

Everything is about following.
Are you following me?

I was intrigued by the { following 2.0 } project at many levels. Not the least of which was my twitter handle : stellth. Stellth is one side of me. Stellth is a silent observer, an investigator, a documenter. Stellth is unseen.

Being an observer is essential to stimulating the imagination. Observation and imagination were key to my process in this piece.

I decided that I would use small identifying details in my tweets to hold the thread together for my followers. In this way, if their attention lasped or a tweet or two got past them they could fill in the blanks and recover. It made entering the piece at any point viable. A follower didn’t need the whole story to become engaged and then follow.

Living in a walkable city made picking subjects and logistics easy. I selected someone by a physical attribute: hair color, jacket, bag. I was never really close enough to hear any of the conversations of the individuals that I followed. This is where I mixed the factual and imaginary.

© 2009 Stella Untalan

The first person I decided to follow, a blonde woman I often see on my way to the gallery, avoided me the first day. I had to decide if I would skip her and follow someone else as my first subject. I decided against it. I imagined that anyone who knew I was doing the piece would wonder what happened. That would be all for the good. Intrigue from the start.

Twitter / stellth: The woman with the blond h ...

My first tweet:

The woman with the blond hair put on her raincoat, took her umbrella and headed up 18th street. #fp20

and then :

How had she avoided me all day yesterday? #fp20

Early on I decided that I would wait if the blonde woman disappeared from view. I would wait as long as it took until she reappeared. On the very first follow I waited from 10:40 AM until 1:56 PM. While I waited, I thought out loud sending a few tweets to keep connected to the story. Letting my followers know I was still making the piece.

tweets :
I'm waiting. For her. #fp20

I have no idea how long it will be. I imagine it must be a meeting, an appointment. 45 minutes? an hour? #fb20

Methodology : observe and let the story unfold, improvise.

By the time the blonde woman emerged I had a couple replies from followers on twitter and Facebook. They asked me, who is the blonde woman? why are you following her? One person asked me if I was stalking... I gave them the link to the project post. They were intrigued and excited to continue following the piece.

I had lunch with a friend who asked me outright, who is the woman? Do I know her? I replied : Follow.

I had decided not to map my actions or use photos in my tweets. I wanted the narrative and my followers to use their observations and imagination to extend the story. They sent me tweets asking, what store, what cafe?

tweet :
The bag is TINY. Thinking about what could be inside. Can't be a pastry can it? #fp20

Dragonfly Cakes - Petits Fours - Petit Four - Home

When I tweeted about the TINY bag a whole flurry of questions came at me. Guesses. I would reply. More guesses. Links to reference materials about different kinds of candy and French pastry. It was an amazing interaction. Surprisingly, the most investigative responses happened on Facebook (I import my feed). Maybe it was because people knew me and felt comfortable.

tweets :
I'm thinking of a name for the woman I am following. Should I name her so that this stream sounds less impersonal? Not her real name. #fp20

The response was a resounding NO. I was pleased. I didn’t really want to give the blonde woman a false name, and my followers agreed.

The last interchanges with my followers were around the sister that visits the blonde woman. I assume it is her sister; they look so much alike. My followers suggest that whatever was in the TINY bag was to share with the sister. A special treat they enjoyed together when they were young and that they still share today.

tweets :
She's coming back out. A car has pulled up. A rental car. I can see the little enterprise e logo. She's greeting the driver. #fp20

The blonde woman is opening a gate for the car to enter. The woman in the car is parking. They are hugging. #fp20

My unexpected joy in making this piece came from the interaction with my followers who were open to writing the story with me. Imagining and embellishing as the story unfolded.

The idea of a cover of the Acconci piece on twitter and compressing the timeline fits our current culture perfectly. All of the performances can be viewed on Twitter using the search term #fp20.

Are you following me?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Those Who Follow

While developing my concept for Following Piece 2.0, I realized that it would be difficult to follow subjects on foot as Acconci did in the original piece, since I live in the suburbs, and not NYC. I shared my intention to participate in the project by posting the @Platea blog post which announced the performance on FaceBook. There was an immediate response from one of my “friends” stating that the piece would amount to stalking, saying “ ... if someone followed ME and tweeted about what I was doing, I'd be freaked out and angry and would probably call the police.” Yet this same person posts to hundreds of people about her daily activities, blurring the line that separates public from private as it exists in the social phenomenon of cyberspace vs. real space.

Because of these initial concerns, and to avoid any misconceptions, I decided to come up with a performance that was different yet in keeping with the Acconci piece. Coincidently, I had been working on the Gagnon family genealogy and had done some fact-finding on the origin of the name.

First, a definition - stalking (the act of following prey stealthily)

Research shows that my family name could have originated from either A) The nickname for an aggressive, belligerent young man, or cruel person from the Old French gagnon “mastiff” or “guard dog” or B) Derived from the Old French “gagneau”, which means “to till or cultivate”. Since my ancestors were farmers, I personally think that option B) is more likely, but if the name indeed came from A), an “aggressive, cruel person” or “guard dog” would probably “follow prey stealthily”. That was it! I was excited that I had developed a concept that was innovative and yet was still faithful to the original.

My plan was to post about my ancestors from as far back in history as possible, chronologically to the present day. Without the internet to do much of the research, my cover of the piece would have been impossible. I realized that instead of just names following one another, these names had existed and had been real people. The story started in the year 1532 with Barnabe Gagnon and finished with me. I previously had a compiled genealogy and even have been to visit the original family home, La Gagnonnierre, in the Perche region of Normandy in France, so I had my tools at hand to start.

@joanie_s_c START: The year 1532. Those who follow. Barnabe Gagnon is born in Tourourvre, Perche, France.

Image: La Gagnonierre, Tourourvre, Perche, Normandy, France

What I didn’t realize was that I would get so affected by these former “just-names” on paper. I became obsessed about these “now-people”, wondered what they did for a living, where they lived, how they survived the crossing to New France, and what they did when they got there.

In my research, I learned that the houses that the three Gagnon brothers built when they arrived from France in Chateau Richer, Quebec in 1635 are also beautifully preserved, as I had witnessed with the farm in Normandy. All the houses are still lived in and commemorated with plaques documenting the family history. The homes which I had previously imagined as shacks, are still impressive. I found that rather than continue as farmers, the Gagnon brothers became shopkeepers shortly after they arrived in Canada. I found ancient land deeds and marriage and death certificates.

@joanie_s_c The year 1635. Those who follow. Pierre Gagnon and his brothers leave Normandy for the New France, now Quebec, Canada

Image: Pierre Gagnon's home in Chateau Richer, Quebec, Canada. Built in 1652.

When they moved to the US, I also learned that my grandparents lived in Nashua, NH before moving to Lawrence, MA, where they stayed until they died.

@joanie_s_c The year 1911. Those who follow. Theodule and Aurore Gagnon move to Nashua, NH from Quebec, Canada

Image: The Gagnon family, 1911. Theodule and Aurore with daughter Reine at left.

@joanie_s_c END: Those who follow. Joan-Marie Estelle Gagnon, Lawrence, MA. Portrait age 5

Utilizing the power of social media, specifically Twitter, my tale unfolded. At one point Quebec News picked up on my posts and started re-tweeting my storytelling. Many of my own followers told me that they were finding my story very interesting and were looking forward to the next “installment”. As a result, my performance evolved into a many layered re-enactment of Following Piece:

1. One generation following the other (My original plan)
2. My new interest from following and learning more about my ancestors (Resulting in unexpected discoveries)
3. Other people began following my story (Social media’s affect on my story telling)
4. Quebec News picking up on my performance and re-tweeting to their followers (My family story had suddenly gone very public)
5. In turn, those who follow that news agency now followed my story (New anonymous followers)

Incidentally, I also found in my research that there are hundreds of Gagnons who are artists. Some I knew about, for instance, the well-known Canadian artist Clarence Gagnon, but there are also many contemporary artists. I’m not sure if this is coincidence or a trait that has been passed down through hundreds of years. I’m fascinated though, and definitely will be investigating this possible common factor.

In the end, the stalking fears turned out to be unsubstantiated. While Acconci’s piece evolved without many people noticing, the result of using social media to create “Those Who Follow” caused hundreds of people - quite a substantial audience, to follow the performance of my Following Piece 2.0 which merged the past with the present. All of the performances can be viewed on Twitter using the search term #fp20.