According to research reported by the BBC earlier this year, most people spend an average of almost five hours a day glued to their mobile devices. That’s a daunting statistic about people’s attention spans, but it didn’t deter Dutch designers Bouke Bruins and Wouter Corvers from concocting a plan to draw the focus of a particular community — train riders — back to their surroundings and fellow passengers.
The result is RailTalk Re-Connect, a collaboration between the designers, MARTA ArtBound and the arts nonprofit Flux Projects. The interactive installation is currently on view in seven different MARTA stations through the beginning of October.
RailTalk is the post-pandemic sequel to a popular Atlanta Design Festival installation from 2019 (hence the “Re-Connect” in this year’s effort). The concept is deceptively straightforward: set up magnetic boards on station platforms and bus stops with magnets sporting various letters and shapes so that people can entertain themselves or leave messages for other riders while they wait.
The idea originally started in the Netherlands in 2018 under the name “Stationstaal,” or station language. Dutch Railways asked Bruins and Corvers to devise an engaging way to combat boredom in passengers waiting for the subway: They might not be able to make the trains run faster, but they could probably make the experience more fun.
At first, Bruins and Corvers thought a fitness installation might be the answer, but they found most people were more interested in posing for photos on the exercise equipment than working out. Then they tried setting up interactive games like tic-tac-toe or chess, but those weren’t compelling enough to distract people from their phones.
Next they bought some simple refrigerator magnets, each inscribed with one or more words, and set them up along the underutilized metallic areas of the stations. The positive response was immediate. “The power of this project is the simplicity,” Bruins said. It’s also about the element of surprise. Most people recognize fridge magnets, but when they’re placed out of context, as in a train station, people experience them anew.
Fast forward to Atlanta in 2019, when Bruins and Corvers translated what had worked in the Netherlands into a nine-day experiment/installation for the Atlanta Design Festival. For a week and a half, the two designers rode MARTA, met passengers, spoke about passengers’ experiences “writing” with the magnets, and collected data about patterns of interaction.
They also noticed key differences between passengers’ responses in the Netherlands and Atlanta. Bruins said Atlanta passengers tended to be “more extroverted, wanting to talk about the things they wrote.” They were also more forthcoming about sharing personal sentiments.
The two stations, Midtown and West End, each developed a distinct RailTalk personality. Four thousand passengers left messages at the two sites, ranging from the existential (“Music Heals”) to the personal (“RIP Grandma”) to the cheeky (“Get Paid $ / N / Get Laid”). In a few rare instances when someone left a derogatory or disrespectful message, the designers observed that other passengers would amend it with a shuffling of letters.
This year, after a two-year delay due to the pandemic, the installation returned, better resourced and expanded to seven MARTA rail stations: North Springs, Doraville, Lindbergh Center, West End, College Park, H.E. Holmes, and Indian Creek.
It launched in June and will continue through this year’s Design Festival, October 1 through 9.
Bruins and Corvers also decided to incorporate a greater variety of magnets, with letters of different shapes and sizes and even images instead of letters, to increase accessibility and interest. It appears that the creativity and mixture of sentiments this time around has kept pace with RailTalk’s first outing: In late July, for instance, messages included “Ozone,” “Springtime Red,” “Always Remember You Are Awesome” and “F**k Trump.”
Some of the letters have gone missing, something the designers planned for; but even the absence of letters can lead to more discovery, Bruins said. “In the Netherlands, people were taking the letters with them way more than in Atlanta. Sometimes I go to people’s houses and see these letters, and they’re using them to teach their kids to write.”
For Flux Projects executive director Anne Dennington, this project strikes at an essential component of what public art is all about. “The artists are super smart, and (RailTalk) is well thought out and designed, but it does rely on our audience to share the content and give it meaning. It’s kind of as good as our audience makes it. People have real ownership.”
The team is currently collecting feedback through QR codes on each board. By early August, they had gathered around 80 submissions. After the Design Festival, Bruins and Corvers plan to publish a collection of passengers’ writing and images, and the story behind the whole project.
Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.