Let’s face it, these days through social media tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, we can meet friends, followers, and contacts in a matter of seconds. How many of these “friends” and “contacts” do we really feel a sense of connection with?
About a month ago, I wrote a post about a Pecha Kucha event I attended. In it, I mentioned that I was blown away by the final speaker of the night. Not only did she blow me away with her amazing delivery…after all she practiced about 60 hours on the six minute, 40 second presentation…and it showed! But she also blew me away with a brilliant project she participated in. It was a social experiment, called Peoplescape, where she met and befriended one person a day for a year. Her name is Maria Scileppi and I feel honored to share her story with you here.
I feel a deep sense of admiration for Maria because she took the time and energy to get to know the people in her project a little bit deeper. I also feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to meet Maria in person and talk with her more about her Peoplescape project…
Why did you decide to do the Peoplescape project?
I had just moved to Chicago and was starting fresh in every way- new city, new career and I didn’t really know anyone. Even though I’m from Chicago it had been eight years since I lived here. I also remember the moment I fell in love with the city and wanted Chicago to embrace me. I knew the only way for this to happen was if I embraced Chicago through its people.
Please describe the interactions: did you have a minimum amount of time that you spent with your new friends?
I had three simple rules for this experiment: It had to be a significant social exchange, I had to hold off as long as possible before revealing my project and asking them to be in it, and I couldn’t go home until I had made a friend. Sometimes I felt a connection with someone after 30 minutes, other times it took many hours. There were times it would take several hours just to start a conversation with someone. I never based the friendship on time, but rather through feeling the connection.
How did you document this project?
Once I asked someone to be my “person for the day” I would take their picture and jot down a few notes. I also documented their name, email, occupation and the answer to the question, “Why are you here?” which they could answer on any level, i.e. literally, figuratively, metaphysically. That night I’d go home and write up the story of our encounter. The material was showcased in Peoplescape – the exhibition on June 13, 2009 and the Pecha Kucha presentation. Currently, I am working on other forms of expression for Peoplescape, the concept.
Please describe more about the Peoplescape exhibition that took place last June. Where did it take place? Did all of the friends you meet become friends, too?
The first (and only at this point) happening took place on June 13, 2009 at Flatfile gallery. It was definitely not the typical staid art show. The cost of entry into the event was answering the question, “What have you done that no one else in the room has done?” When they turned this in they received someone else’s answer. Their mission: find the person who’s answer they have. Many people found their person but even if they didn’t, they now had a reason to walk up to any of the 350 people at the event and start a conversation. The answers were amazing and all over the map. I cried I was laughing so hard at ones I was able to hold onto afterward (see Happening card below) 88 of the 412 people (sometimes I documented more than one person in a day) in the project came to the opening.
Describe the pressure you felt in trying to meet one friend per day.
I didn’t realize how much pressure I felt each day until I had met someone for the day and felt the weight lift from my shoulders. It was always scary because meeting someone wasn’t something I could rely on myself for it required someone to say yes to me, which was out of my control.
Who were some of the most memorable friends that you met?
Brett, my January 20th, was a distraught honorably discharged Iraqi vet. I was at a Starbucks to meet a blind date. Brett was sitting next to us and it was obvious he needed a friend STAT. I shifted my focus to him and listened to his story. My date left and I continued to listen and console Brett. He’d just come back, his stuff hadn’t even arrived yet. The military was his life and his identity and now he didn’t know what to do or think. He’s a drunk (his words) and he stays away from his family because he doesn’t want to embarrass them. He was feeling guilt and at one point went into the Starbucks bathroom to drink a 1/5 of vodka so he could muster the courage to tell me how he accidentally killed a civilian family in Falujah. He haunted me for weeks. We had a couple email exchanges and I tried to be a support for him. I fear that he is now on the streets.
Jessimy, my March 19th, is now my best friend and was the catalyst for the exhibition. She had just moved to Chicago and also didn’t know anyone. We hit it off and became partners in crime. She found my business card, explaining the project, in her bag and didn’t remember meeting me so she emailed me. I also didn’t remember meeting her but told her if we met up, she could be in it. Turns out we had a brief conversation at a roller derby pre-party at Cobra lounge. We started hanging out on a regular basis and she was with me when I met many of the people in the project. I was at a point where I didn’t think I had it in me to do it. She said yes you have to put it all together and you have four months to pull it off but It’ll help you. She became my editor and producer for the show (see below).
I met Peggy, my November 8th, on a flight down to Austin. She was sitting next to me reading, “Starting a Museum: The Essentials”. I was intrigued so I asked if she was starting a museum. She wasn’t but she does write historical plays for different communities and has the towns people act it out. She really liked the concept of my project so we chatted the rest of the flight. I got an email from Peggy a couple weeks later telling me about her flight home. She sat next to a woman but never talked to her. Then as they waited for their bags they were standing beside each other. Peggy, wanting to kill time, decided to tell the woman about meeting me and my project and the question I always ask: Why are you here? The woman then blurted out, “I’m here because my sister has cancer.” They bonded and hugged when Peggy revealed her sister also has cancer. This was a huge moment for me because it was the first time I felt the ripple affect of what I was doing. My friendship was spreading.
As you can tell, Maria’s project was fascinating. To read more about her project, please check back on Friday. Maria will share more stories about the friends she met and will share some of the lessons she learned as a result of this project.