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Urban Autobiographies
Geoff Manaugh, 17 Jul 06


In April 2006, a city-wide writing program began in Philadelphia called the Autobiography Project. The program's basic idea was to invite residents of the city to tell their own life stories – or simply individual stories taken from their lives – in 300 words or less. The Project even sponsored community writing workshops for those Philadelphians unsure of their literary abilities – and some of these were so successful that similar groups may yet become regular fixtures at the institutions involved. Over 340 such memoirs were submitted over a six-week period. A panel of local writers and cultural figures then chose 20 particularly memorable autobiographies, and these were printed as full-size posters, complete with a photograph of each author, and installed within bus shelters throughout the city. The posters will remain up until July 23rd.

In many ways, the most interesting aspect of the Autobiography Project is how it has briefly reclaimed a handful of Philadelphia's bus shelters and transport routes in the name of public life and personal narrative. De-commercializing each bus stop, in other words, the Project has replaced ads for new films, hair products, and athletic gear, turning Philadelphia's bus routes into a narrative experience. Traveling from one stop to the next, you not only learn about someone who, until that moment, had been an anonymous stranger – perhaps even someone you once saw on your daily commute – but you may also realize your own capacity for autobiographical reflection.

Out of all the things you've done, for instance – or thought, or witnessed – what would you share with a whole city? What could you communicate using 300 words or less? In this complete list of the chosen stories, including downloadable PDFs, do you see an autobiography whose details resonate with your own?

In the often isolating world of contemporary urbanism, the Autobiography Project makes strangers into people again; a city becomes a community. Of course, this is speaking ideally; after all, the Project only encompasses twenty bus shelters in a city with hundreds of such routes and spaces – and it all ends on July 23rd. But the possibility that this might expand, whether within Philadelphia or outward, to other cities around the world, is both practical and deeply inspiring: private, individual life narratives could someday become a regular feature of the global city, as daily as bus passes, weather reports, and traffic updates.

Knowing the stories of just a few strangers can transform the appearance of countless others. Random people on the sidewalk who you once found irrelevant, even irritating, become multi-dimensional – by virtue of having autobiographies of their own, they are complicated; sympathetic; real.

Various iterations of this kind of approach to substituting public advertising space with literary or socially-oriented material have already occurred around the world. In Mexico City, free books are available in the subway; in Seattle, the buses feature poetry above the seats; and in Denver, as we pointed out today, the sides of buses raise awareness around global warming.


If using public space as a venue for collective self-reflection seems like a good idea to you, and you want to start something like this in your own community, you can always contact the Project's organizers – and perhaps next summer similar posters will begin to appear in public spaces near you.









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Comments

Interesting.
I've noticed that Melbourne has a similar initiative: 'Moving Galleries' which shows drawings, or snippets of 'Rooku' poetry in public transport.
(See http://www.melbourne.org.au/moving_galleries.0.html, especially if you want to learn about 'rooku', which appears to be an Australian variant on 'Haiku')

Does anyone else have a similar example in their locality?


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 17 Jul 06

This is a *FANTASTIC* idea.
We do not have a similar project in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, but I'm going to rally some friends and see if we can get something started. Completely ingenious.


Posted by: sarah on 18 Jul 06

I guess nobody else finds this disturbing. It seems to me what they did was take the culture of celebrity and reduce it down to random individuals. It seems to me also that this kind of exposure could render one vulnerable to encounters with all sorts of people, most of them undesirable types that you wouldn't want to meet let alone spend five minutes with.

as has been documented in memoirs and fiction over the past century, many creative people moved to urban spaces because the connectedness of small towns and villages was oppressive. And people want to change that so you can't just move about your business without anybody knowing who you are? Social isolation and shallow emotional connections are one of the few benefits of living in city space.


Posted by: country mouse on 18 Jul 06

Country Mouse - Sure, if you take this to an Orwellian extreme and legally require all residents of the city to reveal their personal lives and most embarrassing secrets in public. But since the project doesn't in any way call for that level of personal commitment, exposure, or surveillance, I think it's kind of an empty criticism. Many of the submissions were sent in anonymously - in fact, one of the final posters includes no identificatory information of any kind, which also means no photograph – and the autobiographies were not chosen based on their MySpace potential as social advertisements for instant celebrity. One of the autobiographers, for instance, relates how she kept an orange hidden in her desk for years and years as she waited for WWII to end – and then she threw the orange away when the war was over. If revealing that for a few weeks on a bus poster makes her vulnerable to public encounter, then surely so does the very act of living in a city. So if it just boils down to not wanting to participate, then you don't have to participate - this wasn't an extension of the police state into your personal life.

I would also point out that many people - perhaps even a majority of those who move to a city by choice (and not out of economic necessity) - actually move away from small towns and villages precisely because there's no one to talk to there and real emotional connections are so hard to come by. City dwellers are not inherently misanthropic. Though, for what it's worth, I think it'd be hilarious and great if you were to produce a convincingly anti-emotional, pro-isolation autobiography and get it put it up on a bus poster somewhere; to push random commuters of all economic backgrounds toward a re-consideration of the alien environment surrounding them could be a very exciting and counter-intuitive thing.

No one ever said the stories had to be personally revealing, pro-human, or even happy - and many of them, in fact, are not.


Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 18 Jul 06

In response to whether other cities have similar projects: Toronto has poetry on our public transit, called "on the way". It's actually part of a larger project funded by the Canada Council for the Arts that funds poetry on transit across the country.
http://www.canadacouncil.ca/writing/poetry_poesie.htm
Similar projects seem to happen all over the world (just google 'poetry' and 'transit').

Many cities have extensive transit and public art projects - Stockholm and Montreal were big ones to start it in the west years ago -- and some even have books or tour guides directing people to the great transit 'galleries'.

What I think is great about this project is obviously the personal nature of it, it isn't famous writers or artists, but everyday people.


Posted by: emily on 20 Jul 06



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