Tomorrow at 3:15 PM, the film 1000 Journals will screen at the Kabuki. It’s a light but inspiring documentary about an experiment in collaborative art; it first attracted my attention because the creator of the project (the prime mover, if you will) is a San Francisco native who’s still around, so far as I know. You can read about the project here or get a sense of it from the film’s website. If you have any affinity at all for projects like this, or even if you’re just interested in collaborative art in general, I highly recommend you make time for the show and check it out. My review starts below and continues after the jump.
Take a hardbound journal — one of those sturdy 6×9″ sketchbooks from an art supply store — and write a little user’s manual on the inside covers: Take this journal and add something to it. When you’re done, give it away to somebody else. When it’s full, please send it home.
Then give the book away, and wish it a wonderful journey.
Back in the year 2000, “some guy” in San Francisco had this idea, and he carried it out. And then he repeated it 999 times over the course of a couple years, sometimes leaving the books in public places, at other times mailing them to people who had heard of the project and wanted to participate. What ultimately happened to the journals he sent out? Whose hands had they passed through? What contributions had they made to the pages?
To answer these questions, Someguy (the handle he’d adopted to keep the focus on the project and off of him) made a website where people could report journal sightings, and contribute scans of the pages they’d added before sending the journal on. And in 2003, one journal actually made it home, the first of some twenty that eventually would.
Well over a thousand people have contributed to these journals, and director Andrea Kreuzhage faced the challenge of tracking down as many as she could. Ultimately she made contact with about 500 of them, and her interviews with some four dozen of these make up the substance of the film; as the subjects speak, the camera turns from them and pans over images of their contributions.
The artwork is frequently stunning, when not simple and heartfelt; however, the film is just as often a showcase for a lot of puerile and awful work. But that criticism is beside the point. These are journals, after all. At the beginning of the film, Someguy repeats the truism about childhood creativity being stifled by adult responsibility. But he has a deeper point: this project is not about the artwork that may or may not result from it, nor is it even about getting the journals back. To quote PostSecret, the project is about the inner lives of ordinary people, and the journals are meant to be a semi-public venue where those lives can be expressed, artistically or otherwise. It’s revealing that Someguy’s original inspiration for the project was actually the graffiti in certain bathrooms, where, if not painted over, conversations and shouting matches and tags and obscene doodles and cartoons eventually grow to cover the walls and ceiling.
Many of the interviewees have compelling or memorably poignant stories, but the greatest interest lies in the perspectives they offer on the project and on the nature of creativity in general. It quickly becomes an ongoing conversation about what, exactly, it means to contribute to a collaborative work, and in particular to a communal journal. Is it art? Is it a diary?
For me, the exploration of this question is the single most interesting aspect of the film. When a man contributes a Christian sermon and his wife writes in a Robert Frost poem that has meaning for her — authentic expressions of their inner lives, and of their life together — he is dismayed and angered to find his pages drawn over with violent imagery, and the poem completely pasted over. “What kind of person would do this?” he asks. The culprit turns out to be an attractive, well-adjusted young woman. Why did she change it in that way? Well, a guy she knew actually did it, so she ventures a guess: maybe he thought it would be more interesting with guns. Why did she paste over the poem? Well, it wasn’t a very interesting page. When she is shown how the original contributor reacted — by tearing off some of the paste-over and writing “what’s the matter — don’t you like Robert Frost?” — she is simply nonplussed. What’s the big deal?
The conflict is illustrated in stark terms later on, when a different man creates a spread replete with offensive imagery and language, and thoughtlessly connects this with the name of a woman waiting for the journal. Unfortunately, the imagery happens to strike at her most sensitive vulnerabilities. He never dreamed that she’d take it so personally, but then he’s an artist where she’s a diarist. He understands the project as communal art, where she understands it as communal intimacy. For her it’s a matter of the heart, not the head. So she views his contribution as a kind of sexual violation, and in response, “kills” the journal. The scans of those pages are all that remain of it.
Overall, 1000 Journals is light and low-key, but ultimately inspiring. You find yourself wanting to participate, or to launch a similar project of your own. (The offshoot project, 1001journals.com, will provide a way for many similarly inspired to do just that.) Perhaps the best way to respond to this film is to go out and start a collaborative project of your own. For my own part, I know that my next creative project is likely to start with a few pages in a nice 6×9″ sketchbook, and a list of friends to give it to when I’m done.