The World’s Longest Game of Telephone: An Interview with Lexie Mountain

by Michael Anthony Farley on May 18, 2016 Baltimore + Interview

Lexie Mountain and museum staff have been busy plotting the meandering course through the Walters.

Lexie Mountain and museum staff have been busy plotting the meandering course through the Walters. Image courtesy Thea Canlas/Walters Art Museum

Artist, writer, curator, and musician Lexie Mountain is planning to break the Guinness World Record for the longest game of “telephone”, the childhood pastime wherein participants whisper a phrase from one end of a line to another. Along the way, the message might be misheard, mutate, and end up with a totally different meaning. It’s a fitting endeavor for Lexie Mountain, who has a prolific oeuvre of examining and manipulating meaning in a variety of media—from performances live-remixing audience-recorded tapes to dissecting the tropes and idiosyncrasies of art history. [Full disclosure, Lexie and I attended grad school together and she’s contributed to AFC]

This Sunday, (hopefully) more than 1,330 people will snake throughout the galleries of the Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore, following a line of red tape, to pass along a phrase Lexie will whisper in one participant’s ear. We sat down to discuss the project, Egyptian gods, and documentation just across the park from the museum:

So, I guess the biggest question: why do you want to have the world’s longest game of telephone?

When Awesome Foundation posted a call for entries in 2014 I reviewed the list of ideas I keep on my phone and “REALLY LONG GAME OF TELEPHONE” was in there. It seemed like the perfect thing to throw their way: Why couldn’t Baltimore break a world record like that? Why not try? It seemed fitting since the very first telecommunication ever landed in Baltimore in 1844 when Samuel Morse let Anne Ellsworth choose the phrase “What Hath God Wrought” from the Bible and sent it via telegraph from Washington, D.C. to Mount Clare Station. This was essentially the first text message; Anne was a teenager at the time! Anyhow, Awesome Foundation awarded the idea in December 2014 and I’ve been working on the project ever since.

I love that a teenage girl sent the world’s first text. I had no idea. Did you play telephone as a child? What’s the craziest miscommunication you remember?

I remember playing as a child, but the craziest miscommunication I can actually remember happened just a few weeks ago when we assembled a variety of museum employees to run through the game path and make sure everything was agreeable to the conservators, security, marketing, publicity, etc. About ten of us stood in a line and passed along a practice phrase, which almost instantly turned into something extremely blue. I forget what we started with – something like “Love is the key to the world” and ended up with something about naked people.

I guess context counts? For those unfamiliar, the Walters is known for its collection of antiquities—lots of nude classical sculpture and the like. This isn’t the type of thing that typically happens there, what’s it been like working with the museum, figuring out logistics, etc?

Enlightening and exhaustive! Nearly every department of the museum is involved in some way, because the game path moves through almost all of the Walters’ collection. From ensuring with conservators that the red masking tape marking the game path through the museum won’t destroy the flooring to working with Security to make sure that the art won’t be disturbed, we’ve had to enlist the help of an amazing variety of personnel. Luckily the Public Programs team is heavily invested in the success of the event, and have bent over backwards to advocate for the project within the institution. I could not be doing this without their help.

From October 2014 to July 2015 I was the Samuel H Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Walters, and I worked interdepartmentally between Education and Curatorial to develop an engagement approach for the reopening of Hackerman House in 2017. Initially I was hoping to hold the game outside, and then one day during my tenure the Director of Education Amanda Kodeck suggested casually “Why not the Walters?”, which I’m sure she regrets on some level! Neither of us realized how much work this would be, but she has been crucial in making it happen and I am thankful for her support. I don’t think I would have put this forward if I hadn’t been working at the museum at the time, and knowing how the museum works internally gives me some perspective when we run up against certain issues.

Lexie Mountain plotting the path through the museum. Image courtousy of Thea Canlas/ Walters Art Museum

Lexie Mountain plotting the path through the museum. Image courtousy of Thea Canlas/ Walters Art Museum

And also, putting this sort of absurd but monumental, record-breaking happening in the context of all these art historical relics commemorating political or religious events is pretty special.

I loved the idea of having this game about transmission of meaning take place in a building containing centuries’ worth of artistic output and transformation. In this case, the trade-off between my initial vision and the necessary constraints placed upon the process by the institution is worth it for a project of this type. Participants are protected from the rain and have access to restrooms and snacks which they might not have if we did this in a park or stadium, and I think that is a small price to pay to make sure nobody bumps into the vitrines.

But there’s also the added content from the museum as context. I know you’re preparing a zine that contains suggested games for people to play while waiting in line as well as facts about the museum’s collection, so there’s a component of engaging with that history as well. What are some the zine highlights?

Curators, docents and educators contributed content in the form of games, facts and suggestions, and integrating their work into the zine-making process is an interesting part of the overall effort. I used to make zines and calendars—just hunkering down with a copy machine for hours and hours—and bringing that part of my process to this situation was not one that I initially envisioned. Maybe this speaks more to your earlier question about how having this at a museum has affected my process—it has reignited my urge to cut and paste!

My personal favorite highlight in researching artwork to include in the zine is learning that Ptah, one of the primary Egyptian gods, is the patron of artists and referred to as the “Master of Ceremonies.” He’s also the spouse of Sekhmet, the lion-headed warrior goddess of war and healing—a dualism that, to me, really points to acts of destruction and creation inherent in the artistic process. She is also the patron god of dance. The two 3,000-pound Sekhmet sculptures on display in the 2nd floor lobby at the entrance to the Ancient World galleries are heading back to the UK soon, and I want to absorb as much of her solar nature as possible.

Sekhmet at the Walters [image from Mike Fitzpatrick]

Sekhmet at the Walters [image from Mike Fitzpatrick]

And you’re documenting this with a video that will go on to be it’s own type of artwork, right? How do you envision that?

Agora Productions heard about the game and expressed serious interest, and the video that they will be shooting before, during, and after the game serves a tri-fold purpose. In addition to gathering exhaustive documentation that can be used to submit to Guinness for the record title, Agora is collecting footage based on my input for a future installation that individualizes game participants in their moment of message transmission. They are also interested in making their own documentary about the project.  

Oh yeah, I forgot all about the actual record. How does one go about breaking a Guinness World Record? Do they send special investigators to measure the telephone queue? Is there any concern that maybe the game won’t be long enough to break the record?

I have faith that Baltimore will rally and absolutely crush it on game day. Even if this event doesn’t break the previous record of 1330 people, it will have been worth it to embark on a project of this scale. Hiring a Guinness Judge is fantastically expensive, so we are going to go the slow route and send documentation electronically. It could take up to twelve weeks for them to declare us the winner, so fingers crossed nobody else anywhere tries to scoop us on this.

Best of luck! I’ll be there.

Thanks and see you on the red line!

The World’s Longest Game of telephone will take place this Sunday, May 22nd from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. More information about the event is available here.

Poster by Kevin Sherry

Poster by Kevin Sherry

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