Whether or not Frank Warren is an artist is debatable. It’s probably more appropriate to consider his project, PostSecret, as a canvas upon which Warren serves as a conduit. The PostSecret blog began as a quasi-social experiment in 2004 when Warren handed out about 3,000 postcards to strangers in Washington, D.C., inviting them to send him a truthful and unshared secret. Seven years, five New York Times best-sellers and half-a-million postcards later, Warren owns the most popular, ad-free blog in the world. The continued popularity of his project has afforded him the opportunity to tour the country, selling out speaking appearances at colleges and universities, while putting on exhibitions at various museums such as Loyola University Chicago and a potential future date with MoMa in New York.
One such appearance took place at the Artisphere, a recently opened art gallery in Arlington, Virginia. The impressively modern and technologically advanced venue boasts a geodesic dome on its crown, a remnant from its days as the home to D.C.’s Newseum. Booked as a “special” live collaboration between PostSecret and the local music duo, BlueBrain, the event was very much in the philanthropic spirit of D.C. as it benefited IM ALIVE, a virtual suicide hotline.
True to the understated format of PostSecret, the hour long event required relatively few words from Warren. While he spoke with eloquence and revealed secrets of his own, his messages of inspiration, hope and the power of sharing were artfully conveyed through two short films that delicately explored the human condition. If you’ve read PostSecret, you know that the subjects can run anywhere from the hilarious “I first jerked off to a LaToya Jackson video” or “I pee in the shower” to especially difficult subjects such as rape, desperation, lost love and suicide.
The first video, “Fifty People, One Question” provided a gentle segue into Warren’s distribution of the postcards he selected for the next update to PostSecret. He admitted that he had never handed out the secrets before, but by placing them in the hands of the audience he exacted the same kind of trust that every stranger has given to him. To hold one of those secrets in your hand and feel their imperfections was truly surreal; their physical form transformed them from invisible baggage to tangible afflictions that required an unspoken delicacy and respect.
The second film was a 30-minute, unreleased film/montage that featured a live score by BlueBrain. The inventive duo recently put the finishing touches on their new iPhone app/album, “The National Mall”, a ground breaking experiment utilizing GPS to direct changes in music as a listener travels throughout the National Mall in Washington D.C. The evening’s collaboration with PostSecret gave a glimpse into BlueBrain’s transformational sound-tracking as they created a live score to the film as it was projected onto the dome of the Artisphere.
As a performance, the collaboration was exceptional. The genius of BlueBrain is their ability to accurately represent a visual moment with a musical parallel. The poignancy of the film, combined with BlueBrain’s inventive yet germane ambiance succeeded where the single dimension of PostSecret can often fall short. It was as if the music removed a filter that had been holding back the audience. As BlueBrain conducted, each postcard sparked more immediate visceral responses; laughter became hardier and the room occasionally became thick with sniffles during tender moments in which they had previously been absent.
By the end of the show it was clear that although Warren is closing in on a celebrity status in the art and blog world, his speaking appearances, books and exhibitions are the product of an exceptional altruistic quality. As its creator, the more PostSecret grows in popularity the more Warren is labeled as an “artist”. But rather than labor to clarify his role, he utilizes the attention to develop a community of support and awareness.
Selecting from over 1,000 postcards a week (chosen “by his gut”), Warren deliberately maintains the difficult conversations we often shy away from or choose to keep secret. In doing so, he’s managed to turn secrets into art and successfully make the world a little bit less lonely.
In that respect, perhaps Warren truly is an artist.