The “telephone game” of life: UVU student conducts social experiment at Provo library

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At geological coordinates N 40° 14.476 W 111° 39.449, Ben Swisher stands with the book “Silence” by John Cage in his hands. The location he chose to wait for the hour was premeditated: right where the book with the ISBN 1439167184 is shelved. Here, he awaits the next subject in his social experiment that functions as a sort of “telephone game” of life advice.

Swisher, a UVU student from Seattle studying audio engineering, decided to perform this experiment out of curiosity over how people connected to one another, and has been recording each person’s word of wisdom for the next person as they visit him in the Provo City Library.

Ben Swisher, seen here, has been conducting a series of social experiments at Provo Library. (Photo by Griffith Jones)
Ben Swisher, seen here, has been conducting a series of social experiments at the Provo Library. (Photo by Griffith Jones)

This is different than simply fulfilling an assignment for sociology, however. Swisher says he is still figuring out the reasons behind his experiment as he goes along.

“After knowing great artists personally, I’ve learned to be OK with not knowing why you’re doing something or why you’re creating something,” he said.

Swisher wants people to meet him at the coordinates where he stands with Cage’s book, which the first person will receive in exchange for their own item or advice they wish to pass on. Swisher then gives that advice to the next person, who then leaves their own for the following person.

“Bring (1) any information about yourself that you wish to pass on to the next person to find me, as well as (2) any advice you want them to have in their life. (You may bring an item to pass on if you’d like, though it’s not required),” says Swisher on his Facebook event page. He records each piece of advice and each response on his phone.

Swisher draws inspiration from geocaching and his overall love for atlases. “I’ve always been interested in maps and cartography and how that connects us.” Reading “Mapheads,” the X on the treasure map for the physical geocache, “made me think about the things we do to connect with people, the things we do to find out where we are,” he said.

With American composer John Cage’s book, Swisher is “telling people to be quiet and not talk” and “to be a better friend, to be more supportive, to grow and progress and learn from people and become things they are through listening.”

Cage’s famous piece is titled 4’33” in which the performer sits at his instrument of choice for 4 minutes and 33 seconds in silence. The audience is then forced to listen to the silence or experience the sounds of their environment.

“Hearing (Cage’s) music and finding out about him not only shaped the way I see music and the satisfaction that I find from sound,” Swisher said. “It made me just appreciate listening. It made me really appreciate wanting to hear things, wanting to hear people.”

For Swisher, having people meet him with advice they want to pass on to the next person is his way of figuring out how they are each connected “in terms of culture and everything in Provo.”

“For a long time I appreciated sounds around me, conversation, people talking, not even like hearing exactly what they’re saying, but just a sort of satisfying sense of feeling connected, satisfying like being present and being able to hear sound. There’s just a really musical element to that. That inspires me more musically and artistically. I’ve come to a point where I wanted to see musically from people sharing advice.”

Griffith Jones, a 26-year-old at BYU double majoring in psychology and photography, is one of Swisher’s good friends. To him, “Ben has been a unique and creative person.”

“(Swisher’s) love of art, and maybe the fact that he’s loved libraries since he was a shorter, younger man, has finally led him to this incredible performance piece,” Jones said. “It may be the height of his blooming performance career. But who can say.”

In the end, Swisher also wants to learn from the advice each person passes on. “And even though it’s for other people, I feel like, in a small way, it’s for me.”

Swisher stands at N 40° 14.476 W 111° 39.449, by ISBN 1439167184, from 5 to 6 p.m. every Friday and from 2 to 3 p.m. every Saturday. This will continue through Aug. 24.

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