About 10 years ago, in Chicago, Davy Rothbart found the worst kind of note on his windshield. Amber had nailed him; after he'd claimed to be working, here was his car parked in front of this other woman's apartment. The note was riddled, understandably, with lots of f-bombs and variations of the word "hate." And there was an incongruous postscript: "Page me later."
That note changed Rothbart's life. Not because he'd been snaking on Amber. But because it was actually addressed to a dude named Mario. All that intimate ire which would only have meaning for two people on the entire planet, misfired and lost in the stars and cars. Rothbart began looking for cast-off communications, and launched FOUND magazine with the results. And FOUND magazine has enlisted thousands of others to take up the hunt.
"I think of it as a large-scale community art project, with thousands of people participating from around the country and around the world," Rothbart says. "A lot of the people who come to the shows are artists or creative. But it is something that anybody can play."
No doubt you've happened upon other people's correspondence (perhaps even by accident?). So you know it's a trip. Imagine pages and pages of middle-school suicide threats, break-up rants, love poetry, reminders to oneself to fix one's life with detailed specifics, and on and on. The effect is somehow simultaneously disorienting and reassuring.
"Early on I thought it would make the differences between people more apparent," Rothbart says. "But I'm more struck by the similarities. You might have a CEO and you might have a guy writing from a prison cell. They express themselves using different language, but the core sentiments are the same. It makes you feel like people are more connected than you had imagined."
FOUND circulates as art for the most part. Most people find it irresistible. At the same time, one suspects that most people find it awkward to be seen reading it. It's not necessarily an invasion of privacy or a personal violation, but it is spending time with something that was not intended for you. Rothbart, after years of collecting and curating the stuff, thinks that the process is both healthy and important.
"I think it makes you really, profoundly, sensitive," he says. "They're all anonymous. You don't know who the authors of these notes found blowing down the street are. I find myself attaching them to other strangers I see walking down the street.
"I'll usually read through the finds once a day or once a week. They all get sent to my parents' house and it's about a crate of mail a week. I'll be at a party that night and there'll be some guy sitting in a corner sipping a beer, looking down and out. And if I read that day about a guy who's struggling with his spouse's cancer, or had a bad break up, my heart will go out to this guy at the party. You attach these story fragments you know to people whose stories you don't know."
There is a tradition of artfully mining the personal details of the anonymous and unknown from a safe, intellectual remove. Susan Sontag's On Photography and Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment are good examples. Both books plumbed the worlds to be found in the randomly chosen personal photographs of others. Before them came Duchamp, whose found objects communicated less directly but certainly with some power.
FOUND is published annually, and there are two bound anthologies. Rothbart's current project is Requiem for a Paper Bag, which hits shelves next month and features brief essays from celebrities on the subject of their own favorite finds. Kimya Dawson and a glass eye, Billy Bragg's fossils, Michael Musto's talking Joe Camel, etc. To herald Requiem's release, Rothbart and his brother Peter have embarked upon one of their notorious guerilla book tours. Instead of the more typical reading or signing, the Rothbarts perform their favorite finds.
"It's basically a rowdy reading and music event," Rothbart says. "I get up there with a stack of my favorite found notes, and I basically read them out loud. But I get rowdy and carried away. I try to read them with the energy and emotion they were written with. It's kind of hard to go wrong. Some of them are just so funny. My brother, Peter, plays guitar and sings songs based on some of the found notes. Some of the songs are kind of pretty, like folk songs. Others are just ridiculous, like Flight of the Conchords.
"Sometimes people bring their found notes to the events, and sometimes they'll share them with everybody or we'll just look at them afterwards. Mostly it's just to encourage people to participate. I do notice that often when we do an event, we'll start getting a flood of finds from that city. My grandmother says I'm like Johnny Appleseed."