Stalking the wild Toynbee tile.

Sep 18, 2010

Last Saturday was 9/11, a day of infamy that went down in United States history as the day in 2001 when everything started going off the rails. In a strange sort of way, the year 2001 also figures into the history of science fiction thanks to the novel of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke, and the history of culture jamming and art hacking by way of license plate-sized wodges of linoleum and adhesive called Toynbee tiles. I've been fascinated by them for years, those cryptic messages which read TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER stuck flush with the asphalt of city streets. The first one I'd ever seen was when I was but a wee lad about the age of seven in downtown Pittsburgh on Smithfield Street. It puzzled me then as it does now: why would someone suggest attempting to resurrect the dead on (using the word 'on' as loosely as I can) a world which is a sphere of toxic gases, pulverizing gravity, storms the likes of which this world can but imagine in its wildest nightmares, and hard radiation that might qualify it as one of the nicer suburbs of Hell?

As near as anyone can tell, Toynbee tiles are part of a culture jamming effort that might have been the work of one person at first, but branched out as more and more people saw tham. Ultimately, they are a glitch in the Matrix, a just barely submerged rock in the collective stream of consciousness that jolts us out of our get up-get Starbucks-go to work-go home-pass out on the couch workaday by making us say to ourselves for a second, "What the fuck?" Some people pass them by with nary a second glance; others find odd bits of themselves tickled into activation, gently bending the course of their evolution in new directions...

But I digress.

The message on the tiles is almost always the same; as the phenomenon of the tiles has spread the verbiage has drifted a little and been translated into other languages as they've appeared on the streets of other countries around the world. Usually a second, smaller plaque manufactured using the same method is found in the immediate vicinity bearing a different message. At first the ancilliary messages were blurbs about conspiracies involving media corporations, ethnic groups, and the USSR (which dates them just a bit), but every once in a while you'd see other things. One of the tiles in Pittsburgh, for example, contained partial instructions for the construction of a Toynbee tile but it was also badly damaged so you could never quite make out what it said. At least one person has found a freshly deployed Toynbee tile before cars, trucks, and buses started fusing it to the pavement, reverse engineered it, and wrote up a method of manufacture which, thinking about it a little, should work if done correctly. When you get right down to it there really isn't any reason that you couldn't do something a little more abstract with them, but again I begin to wander off track.

I wasn't at the edition of Mad Science Coffee a few weeks ago when they came up as a topic of discussion, but after discussing it with Hasufin a bit it seemed like an interesting idea to go looking for them while the weather in DC was still nice. By 'still nice' I mean that we haven't gotten our usual crushingly humid, swelteringly hot September yet (though few of us are complaining). Plus, we hadn't yet gone wandering around this year, and to be frank most of us were game for a little less "la vida greyface" and a little more "frat party at the Invisible College". Hasufin wanted to photograph the ones we found for posterity because Toynbee tiles wouldn't last long in a city like DC, and I was interested in reminiscing a bit because I haven't seen any since I left Pittsburgh a half-decade ago. So, Hasufin bought a collapsible tripod for his camera and I charged up the power cell in mine because I'd wanted to get a little practice taking pictures without physical support, and ideally have something to show for our trip.

The original plan was for Lyssa and I to get up early and head for downtown DC. We were supposed to meet everyone at Metro Center and then move our expedition en masse through the city. That afternoon 'everyone' happened to consist of Hasufin, Lyssa, and myself. No one else turned out for the hunt, sadly, which improved logistics somewhat in the long run. A few days before the hunt Hasufin found a public Google map which had pushpins for every intersection in which a Toynbee tile had been found downtown. The map was dated April of 2007 so there was some doubt as to whether or not we'd actually find anything. On Saturday afternoon Hasufin brought some printed maps showing the Toynbee placements while I loaded the Google map into my smartphone. The built-in GPS in my phone hooked into the realtime navigation system (which makes walking tours so much easier when you don't know what you're doing) and allowed us to navigate between intersections without much trouble. I wasn't able to update any of the pushpins on the map so Hasufin wrote everything down on one of the maps to take back with him. Ultimately we weren't sure whether or not the trip would be a wash because DC's streets are redone more frequently than Pittsburgh's due to how busy they are. The single biggest killer of Toynbee tiles are paving teams, unfortunately.

Our basic plan was to wander around and photograph whatever tiles we found or cross off the ones that were gone. Lyssa's plans were to roam with us for a while but have the option to later break off and find a book or fiber store, as yarn cultists are wont to do, and we would rejoin her after all of the windmills were tilted. After the first three or four PIA (Paved In Action) tiles she exercised her option and headed for Dupont Circle, leaving Hasufin and I. As it turned out the ten or so intersections we searched no longer had any signs of the tiles so we did a bit of sightseeing in the park and worked on our respective photographic techniques so the day wouldn't be a total waste of shoe leather. We got some nice photographs of one of the parks, the fountain, a few of the buildings, and even a gazebo on the edge of a duck pond that was the cause of not a few Utena jokes. By the end of the afternoon Hasufin and I caught the Metro to Dupont Circle to check a few more now-unlikely locations as well to meet up with Lyssa for a late lunch. We passed the time in the station chatting about payphones and COCOTs in particular and debating the merits of various methods of mothballing computers for long term storage (which is easier than one would think so long as the environment is controlled).

After going topside again we wandered around a little bit in Dupont Circle searching for the few tiles said to still be there but came up with nothing more than a little roadwork to show for it. Somewhere near the fountain we decided to give up in our quest and got in touch with Lyssa. Once we met up again we hiked to Teaism a few blocks away for a late lunch on the top floor. Good food and good service, but I wish they'd had the windows open upstairs so we could get cross-ventilation. As luck would have it, on our way back to the Metro station we discovered in the middle of the crosswalk what might have been the remains of a Toynbee tile stuck in the pavement in the middle of the crosswalk. The bit of yellow plastic still bore a couple of letters but it was in pretty bad shape. I stood in the middle of the street snapping a few pictures freehand while Hasufin set up his tripod on the sidewalk and Lyssa kept me appraised of how many cars were ready to run me down for blocking traffic. In a few seconds he carried the tripod into the crosswalk and took a few of his own; this process was repeated during the next green light after a hasty power cell switchout.

With our mission fractionally completed we headed for home to rest a little before meeting up with everyone at a local lounge called the Sea Pearl. Lyssa and I have eaten there a couple of times and enjoyed the decor and food immensely (I give it one flaregun - highly recommended) though you'll pay a bit more than usual for the privilege of doing so. In the back of the restaurant, however, they have a tastefully appointed lounge and bar done up in an undersea theme. It's pretty upscale: not your average neighborbood dive bar nor one of the sports bars that have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain, so I'd advise that you save up a bit for it, dress nicely, and go with a couple of friends to sit on the couches or in the easy chairs, savor a mixed drink (responsibly, of course), and enjoy yourself for a while. Lyssa, Hasufin, Mika, Jason, Laurelinde, and I took over one of the corners for a few hours and used the time catching up because we'd all had nastily busy weeks with little time to relax.