In many cultures there is a tradition of charity. However expressed, a spiritual aspect of charity is often central to the society’s concept of love, justice and ethical behavior, linking the individual and the individual act of giving directly to the social fabric. In Jewish culture the tradition of Tzedakah – charity – is deeply embedded in the fabric of society. I remember having a box on the counter in the kitchen to place coins to be collected and distributed to the poor. In the Tzedakah Box installations people offer the gift of experience, wisdom and personal stories — their innermost thoughts, most poignant moments and deep insights. True to the essence of Tzedakah, the offering is more than an act of charity; it is their responsibility as a member of society. This is a celebration of the interaction that integrates the individual into his or her community in a way that respects the value of what everyone has to offer, and provides an opportunity to listen and learn.
Ancient cultures and burials record kindnesses and acts of charity in stone and dirt. Our most poignant moments are woven into everyday life with songs and stories. Century by century they are told, retold, written and now made into movies and television. These spiritual and mythic combinations are human to human gifts of experience, wisdom and wit.
The concept for the Tzedakah Box project originated in an installation created for the 1993 Gutter Festival in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The neighborhood suffered from the impact of crime and poverty, and the Gutter Festivals were designed to take back a particular neighborhood alley and create a safe space for the community. For the 1993 Gutter Festival I created an interactive sound installation called “The Sharing Place,” which was designed for meditation and gentle sharing of stories. People offered stories that became part of the sound environment, and were invited to stand or sit in the installation to listen to a sound environment based on the stories told.
Tzedakah Box projects always incorporate a gathering – a seeding party – designed to bring people together to share stories and make offerings to the sound environment. Stories and conversations at these events are recorded, and the collected material “seeds” the sound environment prior to installation in public exhibition.
Tzedakah Box I (1994)
Tzedakah Box I was created for the 1994 ACM Conference Art Exhibition, and honors this creative tradition with seeded and gathered individual stories that combine and recombine into an interactive sound installation. Tzedakah Box I draws upon a sand and sea theme, reinforcing the ancient and constant interplay between water and earth. During the ebb and flow that is the nature of their interaction, both sand and sea offer a part of their worlds, whether it is the incremental offering of grains of sand, or the sometimes tumultuous depositing of wood, sea weed, and shells.
The receptacle consists of water-formed and painted leathers, incorporating found elements from the beach, including such currency as sand dollars, shells, stones, and objects left or lost. An interactive, multi-channel sound environment comprised of performances or clusters of previous offerings creates an ambient backdrop. Visitors to the installation are invited to participate by experiencing presentations of previous offerings, and by offering the gift of their own experience. Tzedakah Box I reinforces the oral tradition, an ancient method of passing along the substance of our existence, long after the people have left.
Environment I: The Offering
Where the single voice rings through (true)
In Environment I the participant initiates the recording of their story (offering). The entire sound is recorded, with an environmental enhancement to create a personal presence and an auditory sense of privacy.
Environment II: Community — where voices come together
Interacting – communicating – struggling to communicate
A sometimes playful and sometimes anguished interchange is characteristic of Environment II. The Charity Box performs sound complexes created from the just-recorded offering. During the course of the sound constellation, fragments from previous offerings enter into interaction on the same sound plane as the primary component, creating an audible conversational quality of people discussing their respective offerings. The sound dissipates as it becomes part of the ambient environment.
Environment III: The Ambiance
The Universe – where past merges with the present, suggesting the future.
All of the sounds heard in Environments I and II merge as part of a gentle, ambient backdrop. The sound complexes heard in Environment II become intermittent clusters of background activity. The complete recordings of the offerings become gentle bursts of words and phrases amidst a crowd of conversation and history. The sound of the present space is reflected as an ongoing room presence.
Tzedakah Box II (2011)
Tzedakah Box II is an immersive interactive sculpture that flows from the Tzedakah Box tradition integrating sound and visual elements into an immersive environment that changes with the viewer’s interaction. Rather than giving money, though, in Tzedakah Box II people offer the gift of their life experience – their wisdom and personal stories, fond memories, innermost thoughts, poignant moments and deep insights. Offerings were collected from people of different ages and backgrounds, and a soundscape reflects the echoes of their presence.
The project was developed and produced in 2011, and exhibited at the Sabes JCC Shapiro Tychman Gallery Uncommon Visions exhibition. Candy Kuehn created the tree sculpture. Formed on the image of the Tree of Life, discrete areas surround the paper clay glazed tree structure, defined by the tree limbs hung with large painted and designed fabric “leaves”, representing life’s seasons. We collaborated with Stephen Goldstein to develop sound design; Paul Sobczak developed the interactive control engineering.
Speakers are embedded throughout the sculpture. A laptop computer resides in the trunk of the tree. Visitors interact with the sculpture, and explore the offerings. Buttons trigger sound complexes from recorded stories. Proximity sensors provide a ‘play space’, where the sound environment responds to the location of the participant.In many cultures there is a tradition of charity. However expressed, a spiritual aspect of charity is often central to the society’s concept of love, justice and ethical behavior, linking the individual and the individual act of giving directly to the social fabric. In Tzedakah Box II the individuals offer the gift of experience, wisdom and personal stories — their innermost thoughts, most poignant moments and deep insights. True to the essence of Tzedakah, the offering is more than and act of charity; it is their responsibility as a member of society. This is a celebration of the interaction that integrates the individual into his or her community in a way that respects the value of what everyone has to offer, and provides an opportunity to listen and learn.