Sunday, May 08, 2005

"investigating new possibilities with friends. now is the time!"

The cookie rolling (project description) has begun (Flickr slideshow from installation #1).

Installion #1. City: San Francisco. Cookies: Fortune cookies. Freshly baked at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Word: "The." # of cookies consumed on-site: 7.

Design note: My San Francisco cookie choice was inspired by a local 1983 mock court case, in which California's Historical Court of Review declared that fortune cookies were invented in San Francisco.


I decide to buy my inaugural cookies at a tiny factory tucked inside the brightly muralled Ross Alley in Chinatown.

I find the factory easily -- I was there more than 3 years ago in January 2002, location scouting for the North Beach/Chinatown Go Game that I was designing at the time. Today, the Go Game still runs variations of that North Beach game almost every month, but all of the Chinatown missions have been scrapped. Chinatown, as it turns out, is a tough neighborhood for pervasive play. Maybe that's why I am drawn back there for my first cookie rolling experiment.

Inside the factory. While I am picking out my cookies, I remember with some surprise that I know some conversational Mandarin Chinese. So I say xie xie, thank you, to the woman who gives me an unfolded cookie right off the hot press. Xie xie again to the gentleman who hands me my two bags of cookies -- one for the installation and another to take home to share with friends at the next the cookie is still rolling progress update party. I am lucky that xie xie is the most apt thing I could possibly say in these circumstances. It just so happens to be my best Mandarin phrase. One of the very few I pronounce with the correct tone.

("Thank you", I realize an hour later when I am traveling back home on the BART, is the only phrase I always am sure to learn to pronounce correctly when I travel to foreign countries. There is something very liberating about being able to communicate only the sentiment of gratitude for weeks at a time. I find that I like the person I am when the only thing I can communicate in the local language is "thank you." Garrison Keillor wrote a poem about this phenomenon, a poem I read once with great pleasure and have been unable to track down since.)

After xie xie-ing my heart out, I go back into the alley to consume my mandatory cookie. This is my fortune: "Investigating new possibilities with friends. Now is the time!" I rather like the imperative nature of the latter half of the fortune. It has... momentum. But I want to tell the cookie that I probably will be conducting most of my investigations alone, not with friends. Cookie rolling, I think to myself, is a solitary task. After all, I initially designed the project as a way to give me something concrete and goal-oriented to do on my many travels alone to strange places. (Otherwise, I am inclined to hide out in my hotel room.) But perhaps there will be cookie rolling with friends. I decide I like the idea of cookie rolling allies... even if Sisyphus did not have anyone helping him push the rock.

I find an incline for rolling: one of San Francisco's patently steep residential streets. I open up a bag and select the cookie that I will roll. The physical affordances of a fortune cookie do not suggest a particularly smooth rolling action. And in fact, the rolling itself is rather clunky, especially uphill. When it is time to allow the cookie to roll down the incline, though, it rolls a little better than I expect. To be fair, I do give it a pretty good push. I wonder briefly if Sisyphus was actually pushing the rock down himself all those years.

It is time, finally, to spell out the word. I choose a spot near the corner of the sidewalk by a decorative Chinese post. There are two pedestrian crosswalks nearby, which makes me happy. I love pedestrians (I don't have a driver's license), and I love playing in crosswalks. The TransAmerica Building is in view, which also makes me happy. It is one of my favorite San Francisco landmarks, and Kiyash and I can see it on the San Francisco skyline from our apartment building.

As I am arranging dozens of fortune cookies to form the word "the", I notice that on all of the fortune slips sticking out of the cookies, there is an image of a bee. I love bees. This is not the sort of thing I would have noticed before the summer of 2004. I also notice that one slip in particular seems especially motivated to sneak out before the cookie is officially cracked. This is what I can make out on that sneaky slip: "-tic places. [...]place." I am tempted to pull the slip out to see what it has to say about (fantastic?) places and the meaning of place. the cookie is still rolling, after all, is a project all about place. However, I decide to leave the actual fortune a mystery. Perhaps it is the purpose of this project to fill in those missing words. Perhaps over time, after dozens of other site-specific cookie installations, I will come to learn what there is to know about -tic places and place.

I eat six more cookies during the rolling and spelling process. I am hungry. Not only have I just given a talk for the Word-of-Mouth Marketing panel at AD:TECH 2005, but also rolling cookies up San Francisco streets is hard work. As I work my way through the additional cookies, I decide that each subsequent fortune I receive is exponentially less predictive for me. (Perhaps I should chart a decay curve illustrating this imagined effect.) Because really, one can only encounter fortune cookie destiny once in any given meal. So the only other fortune I pay much attention to is this one: "Your uniqueness is more than an outward appearance." I am stumped by this fortune, because I am an identical twin. My uniqueness is not, in fact, to be found in my outward appearance at all. Not even in my DNA.

I finish installing "the" in fortune cookies at the base of the decorative Chinese post. While I am documenting the installation with my digital camera, a late middle-aged Chinese woman walking by stops in her tracks and begings stomping on the cookies. "These are for the children!" (or is it "the chickens?") ::stomp stomp:: "That's why they crush them!" ::stomp stomp:: I manage to capture a quick video of the stomping before she wanders off. I have no idea what has prompted this stranger's intervention. However, I am inspired by her decisive action. Looking down at the remains of the installation, I realize that a pile of fragile fortune cookies on the ground absolutely, positively demands to be stomped on. What an obvious affordance! What a pleasurable and natural response!

My first cookie word survived a mere 30 seconds in the wild. I take this to be a most auspicious beginning to an experiment in edible existentialism.


Future cities to be cookie rolled this week: Seattle and Los Angeles. Upcoming words: "gods" and "had".


The Dancing Kids said...

i am pretty sure she is saying "Chickens"

I have watched this video like 10 times. I am FASCINATED with it - all the unanswered questions - the main one being "why the hell did she do that?" It's so RANDOM!! LOVE IT!!

Ariock said...

Absolutely perfect. I am afraid that:
1. things could never get this surreal again.
2. things will become more surreal than this.
Ok, I am actually hoping for 2. But if anyone can handle it, it is you.

krystyn said...


Dave (Dasro) said...

Cookies! I love how calmly she crushes your project. Which, by the way, is magnificent. Rock on.

and on.