CULTURE FRONT: Preserving fleeting messages

By on October 8, 2014

Carlson’s Instagram project captures urgency, intimacy of texts. BEN CARLSON

In a culture of increasing ephemera, even our communication can have a throwaway quality. Dashed off emails. Texting on the fly. Messaging in shorthand. It’s like we leave a trail of babble behind ourselves, littering the virtual paths we travel.

But what if we captured all that spontaneous correspondence? What if someone took a snapshot of the moments of intimacy and immediacy that texting and messaging allow?

Printmaker Ben Carlson has started a project collecting brief text dialogues as a way of documenting the way we talk to one another in a closed, private environment. “Textdocument” is an Instagram and hashtag campaign that collects screenshots of text conversations.

“Lately I’ve been thinking about documenting and collecting cultural artifacts as an art form,” Carlson said. “I looked around to see if anyone was collecting texts in this way, and I couldn’t find any projects that were.”

Carlson’s goal is to capture the poignant, joyful, silly or banal. Anyone can participate. He urges contributors to “dig deep” and revisit texts from emotionally intense moments. “Consider finding evocative snapshots of conversations that might have otherwise remained out of the light,” he said.

Carlson does note the fact that he considers all contributions to be possible source material for future projects, including print projects, turning the digital into physical ephemera. He has long been a documentarian of conversations. In college, he used to save notable voicemails from his friends. He now saves all his text conversations. When I told him I delete most of mine, he seemed shocked. I told him that saving text conversations feels to be in some way an invasion of someone’s privacy — what if a correspondent did not intend for his or her words to last any longer than the present moment?

Carlson, on the other hand, sees capturing texts as a way of keeping track of moments in time. “Part of the art project is for participants to go back to these intimate moments in their lives,” he said. “By the time a segment of a text conversation is posted, it will be entirely anonymous and decontextualized.”

Participation is easy. First, take a screen shot of your texts on your phone. (Press and hold the sleep/wake button and then click the home button.)

Next, submit your image in one of the following three ways:

Select the image (crop out recipient name at the top) and post it on your Instagram account. Use the tag @textdocument or use #‎textdocument. This method helps share the project to others but is less private for you.

Select the image (crop out recipient name at the top) and when you get to “share to” choose “direct” and send it to @textdocument. This method sends the image directly to @textdocument instead of to all of your followers.

Email the image to and let Carlson do the posting.

The results are by turns funny, sweet and sometimes tinged with sadness. One of my favorites is a brief exchange between lovers, where the misspellings add to the poignancy. “y do not understand this fact that y are always in my mind even if i am fully angry with you,” one texter writes, then continues, “y have already come into my hearth. y are travelling through my vessel with my blood.”

All we see of the recipient’s reply is, simply, “My dreams.”

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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