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Somerville artist's fliers ask big questions of total strangers

Posted by Matt Byrne  May 24, 2011 10:04 AM

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Courtesy Tim Devin

A simple poster asks a big question, thanks to Tim Devin, whose non-invasive street art aims to foster critical thought about community issues.

Tim Devin cares about people, especially those he may never meet.

The 35-year-old librarian, who makes public art in his spare time, has undertaken a new project that asks big questions on one of the oldest and most ubiquitous formats in city life: the public poster.

Called "BBC Broadsides," the homemade printouts take varied forms but all seek to engage people in one way or another, if only for a moment. One format, which he dubbed "Mappy Facts," depict the distribution of wealth or crime statistics in the region in an infographic. A second form asks  how people feel about their community in an informal poll. And at their most whimsical, a third format displays poetry.

The posters don't ask for a donation, demand political involvement, or require much other than a willingness for passersby to stop and think, said Devin, who also sits on the Somerville Arts Council.

Mappy1.jpgAnd in Somerville, a city where innovation and policy are driven often by scientific data collection, including the recent effort to formally measure residents' happiness, the posters make a similar case for reflection amid the hustle of New England's most densely populated city.

"There are people who live for years and don't feel like they connect with where they live, and it effects they're personal happiness," Devin said in a phone interview.

"I think there are a lot of people that they don't recognize there is a sense of community, so they don't try to get to know their neighbors or they feel excluded by it. And its really too bad. I always hear people talk about how cold and unfriendly people are here."

Devin has undertaken these types of social experiments before, using the public flier to incite creative thought. In past experiments he has left seemingly personal messages on car windshields, collecting accounts of people's meaningful encounters with strangers.

One of his web-based projects mapped the location of first kisses and subsequent breakups. In another, he asked people to tell Somerville's "history" 90 years into the future, and compiled the document into a book. (Spoiler alert: The Green Line will extend to Medford and traffic will still be an issue, despite the introduction of the flying car, Devin's history portends.)

"I don't get money for any of this stuff," Devin said. "I like the sense of connecting with people. I find people really interesting."

Devin said he's plastered more than 100 of the sheets to telephone polls and lamp posts around Somerville.

Mappy3.jpgIn one series of sheets, called "Mappy Facts," Devin draws a color-coded map of the region sectioned by neighborhood or town and shows the areas based on income or crime. The unsolicited infographic will hopefully give some pause, he said. 

"We have vague notions of 'Yeah, there are rich people out there, or poor people out there,' " Devin said. "But seeing a map like that showing where you live, gives more context than having a conversation about wealth."

The result, he hopes, is a renewed sense of ownership by the people who live in a neighborhood.

"What I like is feeling connected to people, feeling like maybe there is a possibility that I will create a positive change somehow by getting peple to think about community," he said.

The question sheets are the simplest of his creations, and take a familiar form, with tiny tearaway tabs that -- instead of the phone number for a professional dog-walker or guitar teacher -- contain the answers "yes," or "no." The tearing of the tab is tantamount to a response, he said, and give a far from formal, but still useful, measurement of how people feel.

Devin said he doesn't keep a tally, but monitors a couple of the sheets that were plastered along the route from his front door to the nearest T station.

His more whimsical entries are two poems by Paul Johns, printed with graphical flairs.

"I like poems, I thought it would brighten [people's] day a little bit," he said.

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