Manchester's bestselling what's on guide
There's something strangely moving about looking at text messages compiled sequentially, culled from a plethora of different voices (in different states of duress or composure) as an agglomerated piece. That they individually appear so disposable only augments their unwieldy potency. You can't, then, really get a grip on what they may cumulatively signify, even if they may get at what it means to be alive in the global village circa now better than anything else. To borrow Marshall McLuhan's term, the medium may be the message: and the phenomenon of texts pinging around the world in specific language-curtailments, abbreviated exclamatory reverberations, or one-word prompts quickly flung from one street to the next may be the stuff that only future historians can properly understand.
Tracey Moberly's "Text-Me-Up" is a three-stranded work: a conventional, breakneck autobiography; an assemblage of texts received during the period in question and a contextual commentary on those mobile missives.
It's an intriguing undertaking that has the feel of serious artefactual import, is well worth checking out - her story alone is an insanely eventful, bold, anecdote-strewn picaresque with a cast of hundreds and many an eye-opening cameo - Bill Drummond, Pete Doherty and Howard Marks amongst them - and it prompts all manner of questions, a handful of which Tracey agreed to field.
Text-Me-Up is published by Beautiful Books and is out now. The Manchester launch is at Castlefield Gallery 6-8pm on 7 July.
Texts between 1999-2010 form the basis of the book, with you extrapolating or collapsing them into contexts. How revealing a process was it? Or was it just a case of ordering and shaping things?
The texts were selected randomly by a pin process which I often use. It was by this method of sticking a pin in a map that I first moved to Manchester. Using this approach informed how I wrote each chapter and often the chapter content. It revealed many things such as people whose name I couldn't put a face to, but whose texts I knew intimately which seemed to have a life of their own. It evoked smells, tastes and lost thoughts, whilst stirring atmospheres and emotions. These made me pick up and continue with things I'd dropped several years ago as if I'd done so yesterday. The post texts, current texts and autobiographical section work as three narratives which interweave but sometimes float free of each other standing alone. The texts have helped fix different people in place and time. I'd forgotten much ... like The Libertines launching my T3XT-M3-Up-3! exhibition. From writing another chapter again with The Libertines I learned that interviews with them that I'd been there for and were filmed in the place I then co-owned were featured in their music videos and album artwork. So I revisited things, seeing them like one would the first time round (in some cases it was).
What can you say about the response you had to your first text-based exhibition?
Amazing. I was staggered by the amount of time individuals spent reading the texts. Were they looking for references to themselves in texts from or about them? Were they following a similar path to me and just about to break up from their long-term relationships? Were they happy or sad for me? What did they gain from the exhibition and why did they spend so much time reading the texts?
I've always thought that people don't really look at the artwork on the opening night: that the majority of it is spent as a social event, so I couldn't understand what was so gripping about the exhibition. I was pleased.
You start Text-Me-Up by thanking everyone who has ever sent you a text. Do you still get a frisson whenever you receive one?
Yes! But it's got better ... added to the usual ping of a text message coming into my phone I also get Facebook updates and message alerts. The phone tone is the same for both.
You've received 60,000+ texts thus far, all but one retained, and you credit them with "knitting back the very fabric of my life, confidence and womanhood .. . " Is that through catharsis in any way, letting go, re-evaluation or merely forming a uniquely intimate narrative?
It does form a uniquely intimate narrative - it's something stronger than a diary of events of your life as it's a diary written in other people's words; the strength of one's actions as commented on through other people's texts as you lived your life's narrative. For a period I had lost the ability to practise the phrase I was most motivated by: "I am the author of my own life." Once getting this back as the text . messages came through they helped to rebuild my life and community giving accreditation to my daily actions and thoughts allowing me to feel I was once again in control of my own life story - living each day to the maximum. Even though many of the texts are daft, rude or jovial, they mark turning points; decisions made; beautiful times and people I really appreciate. There is also the subjective element of reading between the lines with a text message where its meaning can vary depending on one's mood.
"It's dad" - which you found unopened on a discarded mobile - is a pretty moving, poignant way to foreground the book. Why are such stray fragments, found messages such as that so powerful?
I found this over two years after my father's death, my father rarely texted. In quantum physics and quantum theory there's a section that suggests quantum information can travel backwards in time so that a piece of information in the future could effect past events - the science fiction idea of time travel in reality could have more to do with sending information backwards and forwards in time rather than people and objects. There have been suggestions that this may be achievable with the Large Hadron Collider in Cern. With my youngest son just embarking on a physics degree and myself starting an arts project with people in Cern analysing data on the first sounds coming out from the LHC it made me think twice. I do however believe you have one chance of life and it's on Earth and that there is nothing afterwards. Death is explored throughout the book from the early chapters when I am digging up 1840s graves in Manchester to later chapters in which I explore Port-Au-Prince cemetery, Haiti and Voodoo/Catholic burials and body parts used in artworks there. Random found messages are very powerful: when receiving them people interpret immediately as a sign, symbol or something that they can positively identify with.
Does hyperbole equate to openness? And is that why men use it less?
No I don't think it necessarily equates to openness in texts - it's frequently encountered in casual speech, so seems logical that this is transferred to emphasise sentiments within a text message. In my experience men seem to do this as much as women if not more, and women use exclamation marks more to emphasise similar elements within a text message. Is the ultimate message here that nothing is disposable? That everything counts? I play with the dichotomy that things are disposable, especially text messages, and once disposed of they can't be retrieved. By saving all my texts, I make them non-disposable, recycling them over and over so they start to become entities of their own taking on a variety of meanings as well as retaining the original meaning - so they become something else as if they have a life of their own.
What do these messages cumulatively say?
The book has been described as "providing an essential document of contemporary social and cultural changes, instigated by technology" .. And further described as "having taken one of the newest, most popular forms of communication and used it as a starting point from which to examine her life, creating a work that straddles art, literature, technology and popular culture". I think the corpus of text messages I have collated and stored from other people is a slice of social history: arguably my social history through their words which I have archived. Ultimately a slice of social and cultural history from the origins of a new technology.
Text messages are unmediated to a large degree, and form part of a throwaway ethos. This tends to mean that anything goes, and often makes their content revelatory. Why do we unburden so easily via text?
As mobile phones have become a part of our daily lives it allows the ease of silent communication literally at our fingertips. This has become synonymous with sharing a thought or sentiment without editing it before it passes from brain to phone, similar to the way that a nervous impulse passes from synapse to dendrite. I personally feel like part of me is missing if I am ever without my mobile phone.
Interview: Lee Monks