Embroider the Truth

Blog by artist/printmaker Dawn Cole

The traces of touch

I have been asked to write something in response to the disappearance of the phone book I created for the Innovation Box project. To backtrack a little first though.


I was invited to devise a project to be placed within a telephone box to explore notions of innovation. There is more about the Innovation Box here. I came up with ‘A penny for your thoughts’ , a project that would collect people’s memories of using telephones and telephone boxes. To do this I created a blank telephone directory, it’s cover design inspired by a vintage directory cover and the pages blank except for the image of an old penny in the top right hand corner, perforated so that when someone wrote their entry on a page they could tear out the penny in exchange; a nod to the penny that would have been paid for a telephone call in the 1920’s. The book was placed inside the grade II listed K2 telephone box in Holborn so that anyone could enter and write their anecdote. To run alongside this I create a Facebook page so that anyone who couldn’t get to London to write in the book could make their entry via this online resource.



There was always going to be an element of risk in this project. Placing a book in an unsupervised public space meant that it was highly likely the book would get damaged or at worst get taken. I didn’t perceive this as a problem in such that I didn’t see the book as valuable or feel precious about it – if it was damaged or taken then so be it. The book in itself was cheap to make, the design and printing of the cover taking the most time and cost, so in terms of any monetary value it was minimal. To me, the value of the book lay in the hand written entries and the book would not be complete without these.


The phone book was installed on 12th October 2016. On 17th October it was found thrown on the floor and on 31st October went missing, not to be seen since. During this time the book had received 6 entries which fortunately had been photographed and was beginning to attract media interest.


Photo by John McKiernan


And so to the response I have been asked to write:

I have contacted some of the people who wrote in the book to find out what their thoughts were when they found out about the disappearance of the book  and had some interesting responses

“I was impressed by the boldness in undertaking a project where that was a risk, as many arts organisations would dismiss the idea because of it. We need arts organisations and commissioners to accept these kind of risks more!

It’s also part of the story – phone books notoriously got damaged, set alight, or vandalised – that’s why they were removed from phone boxes by the time I was a child! I remember looking at the empty slot in phone boxes; it was like looking at a piece of old, redundant technology!”                                                                                 Dan

“My feelings about the trashed phone box were at first anger and then sadness that such an interesting project was being sabotaged by idiots”                                      Jenny

“I was shocked that someone would take the phone book. The act of taking it provokes so many questions in my mind – who took it , when and why and what does the fact of it being taken suggest about people’s loss of connection to one another.

I haven’t seen phone boxes as places of sanctuary and have associated them with frequent acts of vandalism so the disappearance of the book perhaps runs along this “tradition”.”                                                                                                                             Louise


Thinking about the book going missing, being asked if I am upset, saddened, angry, disappointed, if, as an artist it has made me feel vulnerable or did I feel the work was vulnerable,  has got me thinking about my entire practise and the responsibility that comes with it. Responsibility:

to Clarice, to tell her story sensitively and with respect

to make work that is sensitive to the victims of conflict

to commissioners who pay me to do a good job and deliver the outcome they require

to funding bodies who give me money

and when placing work in an unsupervised public place, like the phone box, a responsibility to those who will view/interact with a work.

The phone book came with those feelings of responsibility.

When devising the project I was mindful of placing the book in a place known to be used as shelter by a homeless person. Would my book offend and seem trivial?

Would someone cut themselves on the paper – yes I know, but it crossed my mind

The book was to be secured with a chain could someone get their head caught in it – a concern that most would not even consider but having done a sculpture for Kent and Canterbury Hospital many years ago this was a major consideration for the commissioners and something I can’t help considering every time I am now commissioned to do something, I just don’t often admit it. So getting your head stuck – the chain needed to be such that it could be easily broken, just in case.

Admitting these rather daft concerns makes me laugh now as the real responsibility I feel now that the book is gone is to the people who took the time and effort to visit the box and write their memory. I am not sad, disappointed, upset that the book has gone. I can make another. What I can’t replace is the time, the thought, the effort of those who completed the book. As an artist whose work centres around archives, as keeper and creator of archives, the handwritten pages were the originals. the photographs that remain are mere copies. They do not hold the ink with which the stories were written or the traces of the touch of those who wrote them. And this is where the sadness lies.That the person who took the book, took original documents. Yes the stories remain, but anyone who works with archives will know, to have the original document is such a valuable thing.

I will be replacing the book, but the disappearance of the first book and the responsibility of trying to keep people’s stories from being taken will make it more difficult for me to ask people to visit the box knowing the fate of the first one. It also raises questions of will this stop people writing in it? Will it make them feel unsafe visiting the box? Will it make people feel why bother? The only way to find out is to do it and see what happens. There is no way I can make the book secure and have to accept that the new one will likely go missing too. It would be very easy to not bother with a new one, to say ‘well we tried’ but the purpose of the project is to collect stories. The process is becoming a story in its own right and as the responses above from those who wrote in the book concur that it mirrors the fate of telephone boxes; vandalised, broken, soiled and disappearing.



One comment on “The traces of touch

  1. Christina France Crews
    January 19, 2017

    Dawn, as you say you are an artist whose work centres around archives, as a keeper and creator of archives. .
    The most moving ‘archives’ I have ever experienced were the cave paintings of Peche Merle where I cried at the sight of an original hand print and wanted so much to put my own hand on it because it was exactly that, the original, unlike the exact reproductions at Lascaux. You are so right when you put such emphasis and value on the original and your work with your great aunt’s archive are respectful, sensitive, responsible and inspiring.
    The people who wrote in the book did so without, I’m sure. the prerogative of their stories being immortal. I’ve written things only to destroy them, but the act of writing was I suppose cathartic. The time, the thought, the effort of those who completed the book mattered, it happened.
    I can’t actually write at the moment but will look forward to finding that phone box in Holborn when I can. It will make change from changing from school uniform into ‘street’ clothes in those evocative small spaces.

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This entry was posted on January 19, 2017 by in Uncategorized.
Resting Place is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Supported by Kent County Council
In collaboration with Platform-7
All images and content © Dawn Cole 2013
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