Jim Fleming: Some time ago, Olga Nunes got an invitation to join an email listserve of more than twenty-one thousand artists. The rules of the listserve are simple, everyday one person on the list is randomly selected to write an email and send it, to everyone else. So when it’s your turn, what do you write? Olga Nunes knew exactly what she wanted to do, and Strainchamps asked her to read the email she sent out.
Olga Nunes: Call this number, four one five, eight five seven, zero five eight nine. It leads to a Google voicemail box; you can call it from anywhere. When you call, you will be asked a question. Answer it.
Anne Strainchamps: So what happened when they called that number? What did they hear?
Nunes: Uh, when they called that number, they, they heard a sort of lead-in where I was trying to walk them through very slowly, the experience of how memories are triggered by senses and at the very end I asked them to tell me memory. Um, and I tried to make the questions slow enough that, so by the time they got to the beep they wouldn’t surprised and, and hung up. And actually most people didn’t hang up, most people just started talking. And you could tell that a lot of people were surprised by the answer they gave by the end of it.
Strainchamps: How many people took part in this? How many phone calls did you get?
Nunes: I mean, last time I counted it was about six hundred, six hundred people that left voicemails. So there’s, you know, maybe a hundred more that were super short and got cut off or hung up but it, uh, much smaller percentage of people didn’t leave answers than did.
Strainchamps: Wow, six hundred people, that’s a lot.
Nunes: Yeah! Yeah, it was a lot to go through. I only got through, I think a hundred and fifty or so and then I had to ask for help. <laughter>
Strainchamps: Well, we’ve got a small selection here, so let’s, let’s here a few of them. I mean here’sâ€¦
Strainchamps: Here’s one of my favorites.
Anonymous from Princeton, New Jersey (Voicemail 1): I live in Princeton, New Jersey and the memory that I can remember was brought back to me when I went back to my parent’s house one summer. And I remember pulling out a box, a shoe box underneath my desk that had postcards and trinkets from high school, and I noticed that there was the small bottle of perfume that my first girlfriend, my first kiss, my first love used to wear. There wasn’t much left in the bottle, enough for maybe one more spray. But I opened the cap and the smell just filled me with a sucker punch to the stomach basically and just collapsed with the idea of remembering. And, you know, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself and I sat back, I leaned back and I think I remained motionless, while I was trying to remember and, um, I just stayed there, I just kinda stayed there. And I closed my eyes, almost as if closing my eyes would’ve, would keep that memory where it was. Hopefully as though my, closing my eyes would make sure that it wouldn’t go away. Um, I know I gave my name and everything but if you could please just put me as anonymous from Princeton, New Jersey and don’t include her name, um, just make up a name. Awesome, I think this is a really cool idea. Um, good luck with you and your project.
Strainchamps: Wow, so right away that gives you such a taste of, um, people share so muchâ€¦
Strainchamps: they get intimate so fast. Did that surprise you?
Nunes: It kinda did a little, but I think that there’s probably a safety in the phone call. Like were so used to email and revealing ourselves, and something about calling this anonymous phone number. The thing that was fascinating to me about that one is that he said her name and he said his own name, and you could tell that he wasn’t expecting to tell that story because at the end he’s like, Actually can you delete this cause I can’t you know, share that much.
Strainchamps: Course there not all so heartfelt, some are just funny. Like, umâ€¦
Nunes: Yes! <laughter>
Strainchamps: I love this one about the guy who remembers, um, well we should play it, the guy who remembers sitting in his, his mom’s car.
Voicemail 2: It’s the memory that uh, it sort of always comes back to me. Um, this is gonna seem silly but, uh, I have two brothers and, uh, the memory is driving to soccer practice in my mother’s red Volvo station wagon and sitting in the middle seat in between both of my brothers. And, I am thrown back into that seat anytime I smell either of my brother’s farts. Now, I know that may seem like some sort of joke but I assure you that is the truth. It’s not as often that I spend time with them or see them, as it was when I was a child so, you know, every time I get the opportunity to smell one of my brother’s farts, I, I really cherish it. <laughter> Uh, thank you. Calling from New York, Brooklyn but, uh, the memory comes from growing up in San Diego, California.
Strainchamps: Yeah that one just <laughter> that one’s just hilarious.
Nunes: Most of them don’t actually end up being funny, like some of them end up being like hearted. But they tend to go sort of more personal, and there’s only a couple that are really, really funny that make you giggle
Nunes: â€¦ interesting. I was gonna say, I guess the harder memories, uh, imprint more strongly than the funny ones.
Strainchamps: Huh, it strikes me some of the most memorable ones are, there kind of heart breaking, there memories of, of things I’m, smells I think people would probably rather forget. I’m thinking ofâ€¦
Strainchamps: â€¦the one you called green soap?
Nunes: Yep. Yep, exactly.
Suzanne from the Washington D.C. area (Voicemail 3): It’s the smell of green soap, whenever I smell green soap, like I did last week, I flash backâ€¦ almost fifty years ago to when I was a child going to the dentist. From the ages seven to nine, the dentist sexually molested me. So every time I’m around that green soap smell, I turn back into that frightened seven year old and my heart pounds. My name is Suzanne and I’m in the Washington, D.C. area.
Strainchamps: Wow, the first time I heard that, that’s, I guess that’s when it hit me, how powerful your project is. I mean these aren’t just sweet or nice or funny scent memories, they’re really primal. Umâ€¦
Strainchamps: Why is that, do you think?
Nunes: I, I don’t know. I’m a person who’s constantly tripping over my own past and I feel like most people do it, maybe they just don’t do it nearly as consciously. And, it may be that there are things that you know that we forget or try to forget, and some music or sense of smell will come in and trip us and we’ll end up right back there.
Strainchamps: Yeah, it’s like, like getting ambushed by a smell
Nunes: Yeah. <laughter> Yes exactly, exactly.
Strainchamps: You know, a memory that maybe you don’t even remember, know that you have gets triggered completely out of the blue. Like there’s another one called â€œDisorienting.â€
Voicemail 4: The last strong memory I had that was triggered by a sense was, uh, a smell. And I, uh, walked into a room, and smelled what I always assumed was carpet. And it wasn’t just carpet, it was a specific carpet sounds and I walked in, and I was transported back to my fifth grade classroom, which had the exact same carpet smell and I was eleven years old again. And I, I flipped around and I looked for my friends cause I was there, it was, it was really disorienting actually. And so, but yes, it was a smell and it was the smell of carpet.
Strainchamps: Does it make you feel different if you’re, I don’t know, you’re out and about and in a crowd? Do you look around at other people and think, each one of these people has a story?
Nunes: Yes, yes entirely. That is a perfect description.
Strainchamps: What I’m wondering is, do you feel differently about strangers, about being in the world now?
Nunes: Yeah, I think I do. I think so much of us, you know, walking around as people, were very, very guarded and I think that we actually, I think we actually are all stories that were all walking around with these sort of beautiful and lavish internal narratives that we never really get a chance to say or externalize. So I think more than anything it’s exciting to know that there’s a way to kind of unlock people and get them to start telling you those stories and to feel very strongly that everyone has these inside them.
Strainchamps: The technology that surrounds us, can so often, I think, so often we, we see it as dehumanizing. In someâ€¦
Strainchamps: one way or another. And I just have to say, the thing I really love about your project is that you’re taking the simple everyday technology that we all use and you’re using it for these profoundly humanistic reasons. And it feels like you figured out a way to create a gigantic art project with perfect strangers, I mean make something beautiful together.
Nunes: I’m so glad you think that. <laughter> That’s fantastic.
Strainchamps: Can we end with one more?
Nunes: Um, sure. That’d be greatâ€¦
Strainchamps: We have to end with the story of the girl on the escalator in Madrid, I love that one.
Nunes: Yeah, I love that one too.
Heather from Washington, D.C. (Voicemail 5): My name is Heather and I’m in Washington D.C. Um, when I was a senior in college I spent about three months in Spain teaching English and working with a missionary family there, and it was three of the worst months of my life. I hated just about every minute and I missed my family and I missed my friends and I missed my boyfriend and I just felt such alone. And one day, I was riding the metro home and after I was leaving the metro station, I got on the escalator behind this old women and she smelled exactly like my grandmother, who is one of the most important people in my life. And I almost cried, standing there riding this escalator in the middle of Madrid because I felt so homesick and nostalgic but at the same time, I felt so loved and safe. And as we got off the metro, I had to fight off the deep urge to ask this complete stranger if I could hug her because to me, she smelled like love.
Strainchamps: Hm, that’s beautiful.
Nunes: And so good.
Strainchamps: Can our listeners take part?
Nunes: Yes, yes of course I’d love for them to.
Strainchamps: So, what do we do?
Nunes: All you would do is call the number, which is four one five, eight five seven, zero five eight nine.
Strainchamps: Ok, and leave a message.
Fleming: Did you get it, four one five, eight five seven, zero five eight nine? We’ll put your voicemails on our website at ttbook.org. Olga Nunes told Anne Strainchamps that she was so inspired by this project, she’s writing an album based on it. Your listening to one of her songs right now, it’s called Waiting For.
Nunes (sung): You’re pushing hard to make the right decision. Wake up. You’re driving too fast to see.