The LETTERS project
For the implementation of this project in Utrecht, The Netherlands, see De Letters van Utrecht. The ideas below will certainly evolve with the development of actual implementations.
- A group of poets conceives the begin of a poem but keeps it secret.
- (Every poet adds an amount worth about several years)
- The poem is published on the stones of a street at a rate of one character per week, on a fixed day of the week. About three years for an average sentence.
- A cobblestone is turned into one bearing the first letter on it by a mason
- The following week the next letter is hewn into the stone next to the previous one, and so forth, so that the poem slowly becomes legible.
- The stones should also carry a consecutive number (counting weeks), much smaller on the face (e.g., bottom left) of the stone.
- Whoever pays for the making of the stone can (if desired) have a name published on the website (see below), and can have it engraved on the side of the stone, and can print a a picture of the stone from the website with e.g., sponsor information, date, location and the poem to this date.
- The local authorities authorize the route and organize the placement of the stones.
- With the first stone(s), stones with time markers (e.g., year numbers) are set in the pavement along the planned route marking the year when the poem is expected to reach the marker.
- This should go a considerable number of years ahead, certainly beyond the expected lifespan of any viewer, say 500 years:
- every year marked for the next nine,
- every tenth year marked for the next 100,
- every hundreth year marked after that.
- When a marker is reached, another of its kind is placed further up the planned route to maintain the number of years the markers walk ahead.
- Markers might have to be shifted to account for changes in street pavement or route.
- Markers remain in place after the poem has reached them to show the history and form the scale of a 'meter of time', a one dimensional calendar counting weeks.
- The intention is to continue this for as long as someone writes poems, pays for the making of stone letters and can place them.
- Before the poem is published completely, someone else extends the poem, and again keeps it secret to be published only one stone per week (seven days).
- Future individuals can decide whether or not they want to continue the effort.
- The letters and markers stay
- Authorities can at any time decide to discontinue placements of stones on their territory, or alter the route, or remove the stones, but if the concept (and poem) is interesting, they have a motivation to keep and maintain it and let the effort continue
- If the pavement is changed, construction goes on along the past or future route, or the effort is vandalized, future people might be motivated to move or reconstruct the poem and continue the effort, or someone can start and continue a similar effort elsewhere, which might run longer.
- If this continues for centuries, the citizens draw letters on the map of the changing city with the line of poem.
- An information board could be placed at the beginning, and in regular intervals, e.g. next to every ten or 25 year marker when that is reached. It informs about
- Secret poem published in weekly rhythm,
- Paid for by public,
- Intention to continue, to benefit future individuals,
- Authors, supporters,
- Good causes that are supported,
- Where to contribute/pay for stones and find credits (website, possibly a folder at tourist information).
- Information boards and (marker) stones (if technically feasible) might include a unit to play the longplayer's music when touched or stepped upon.
- Ensure this is done and continued only as long as it is supported by nearby residents and the Longplayer's organizers.
- A website publishes and guides the effort. It should at least perform the following:
- Show the poem text up to its current letter, along with the poems physical location, pictures and planned route.
- Provide a mechanism for the public to contribute the cost of letters
- Credit those who paid for the letters (list, newest first, name&city or anonymous as selected by payer, cause and contribution to good cause) and the amount,
- Possibly later: allow for suggesting and recommending on recognized (tax-excempt) good causes with a relation to long term issues.
- Possibly later: allow the sponsor to select an (external) good cause from the (five?) causes with the most votes in the past year (or selects one at random with weights according to the number of votes when the payer doesn't specify).
- Allows public access to all documents, account statements and financial reports of the effort (except for details of payers who choose to be anonymous, the remaining parts of the poem and the notary) as they become available.
- Possibly later: allow the public to have a say in decisions, such as suggesting organization that benefit from the effort or which poets should conceive the continuation (this part need only be operational a bit before the decisions are due). Initially, such decisions are taken by the board of a non-profit volunteer-run foundation set up to organize the effort, and decisions on the next poets are left to the gild of poets who contribute the previous poem.
- Possibly later: allow the public to translate the published parts of the poem into other languages and improve on such translations (a la wikipedia, this needs only to be operational after some time when sufficient text is available).
- Inform about the history of the effort and the organizers and host cities as well as and similar initiatives and longplayer.
- Possibly later: host a forum for comments and suggestions on the subject, if necessary moderated by the organizers.
- Let anyone submit a drawing. With the number of the stone where it belongs. Screen for some relation with the content of the poem. Display on website until displaced by other drawing for a nearby position (show max. two or three layers at once). If someone pays for the making of a drawing in stone, that drawing can be created in a stone and placed on the street. Next to the poem. Or on a building nearby.
- Possibly later: the effort should be hosted by existing organizations with compatible goals for a while, to be passed on to another every ten years or so, to be decided by the public. Initially, it seems more practical to have a non-profit volunteer-run foundation organize the effort.
- Reasonable precautions should be taken to keep the remainder of the poem secret but secure and the appropriate letters are made available only as time passes.
- The unpublished parts of the poem should be known only to the poet(s) and as back-up a notary
- The poet (or an automatic service) provides the next letter as late as possible for logistics to the person engraving the next stone, and provides notice when the last 50 letters are begun.
- The poem should not be known to the organizers or the host city.
- The notary/notaries receive the poem and disclose it only upon request of all active members of the board of the foundation.
- If secrecy and malfunction can be reasonably ensured, the poem might be encrypted and published per letter on the website with advance notice only to the stone engraver.
- If the remainder of the poem becomes known, the public selects another poet from suggestions of the organizers and conceives a continuation, which starts as early as possible.
- The effort is for the benefit of future people i.e., not-for-profit.
- Suppliers and participants are asked to contribute for free or at cost (name on site). Poets should be paid per letter as these are published. Stone masons should be paid and organize themselves in a guild to ensure that the weekly rhythm can be maintained.
- If contributors/participants benefit disproportionately from their effort e.g., by increasing their reputation beyond an adequate return for the effort, a good cause of their choice should benefit accordingly.
- If more funding can be obtained than is required to maintain the project, a good cause should benefit that makes it more likely that civilization continues.
- Starting up
- Solicit contributions to pay for starting up the effort and the first several hundered stones/letters.
- could start eg, with a stone 1 on the first selected weekday in Jan 2000, and lay all stones from then until now in one go - so the project is anchored with a more substantial beginning
- Funds to pay for the effort are solicited from the public as described above.
- The public contributions for the stones should pay for:
- the engraving of the stones,
- stones, unless the existing cobblestones can be used,
- the poets receive something per letter - say enough to pay for one meal per month,
- the markers,
- the website:
- maintenance (and improvement) when necessary (e.g., as standards change and new functionality (decisions) are required) - (use and advance open source software wherever possible),
- making and placing of the next marker (each stone pays about 2% of one),
- accounting, bank and notary charges and supervision of finances (again about 2% of annual cost per stone).
- All excess funds should contribute to good causes, with extras left after accounting donated, too. The effort should not require much organization and certainly not reserves.
- Placement of the stones is paid for and organized by the authorities in the host city.
- If additional funds are necessary, these can be solicited seperately, such as for
- starting the effort, including the initial markers and website and information board
- repairing vandalism
- placing and maintaining information boards along the route (e.g., at ten year markers that are reached)
- The effort should not build reserves for more than a year. If nobody wants to fund it, the effort stops.
Maintenance on the growing line of poem becomes more expensive with time. The sale of merchandise can be used to pay for that. Any profits not required for maintenance and continuation of the project must go to an unrelated good cause.
The concepts can of course be adapted to particular situations. Rather than hewing letters in stones one could imaging tiles being processed (cleaned/painted) or replaced.
Name of the Effort
- Letters can be small units of information. Civilization is about information over time.
- nice because it has a double meaning in English and is also a Dutch word
- de Letters van Utrecht / de Letters van U
- de Letters van Jou
- Letters to future / 2future
- Letters for future / 4future
- Name it: "Living Poem". whoever funds a stone could be "godfather of a living poem".
- poem without end
- endless poem
- slow poem
- poem for future
- poem for the future
- ever incomplete poem
- never complete poem
- Stone clock - the original name
- groeiende beschaving
Place of publication
- In the center of Utrecht, The Netherlands
- if the authorities are supportive
- Oudegracht has a suitable dividing line of stones between the pedestrian part and the traffic part of the street running from Lijnmarkt towards Ledig Erf, and similarly Nieuwegracht, probably enough stones for 200 years.
- It is an old street, the canal goes back to the 12th/13th century and is a major attraction of the city that probably will stay for a while.
- Not too crowded.
- People are going to read, so have the line run across a part where not paying attention to traffic has a low chance of leading to accidents.
- Let letters/poem be legible when viewed from the 'pedestrian side' of the street.
- The planned path in Utrecht begins with a “U”, from the South end of Lijnmarkt and down the West side of Oude Gracht, along Ledig Erf and up the Lange Nieuwstraat - coming in sight of the Dom when it is about twice as old as it is now - before turning right and spelling a “T” up and down the Nieuwegracht and out Kromme Nieuwegracht towards the East, with further plans to be adapted by Utrecht’s citizens of another millennium, if they still like the idea. The letters will initially run in the grey stones separating the pedestrian part from the traffic part of the Oude Gracht, the letters legible from the pedestrian part for the safety of readers.
- In Utrecht, Netherlands, on streets for traffic most cobblestones run in a way that gives a crooked line if one wants to follow the street (picture below). Pedestrian parts of the streets often have thin stones placed in parallel but shifted from row to row. Neither are ideal for reading a slow poem. Some streets have a divider between pedestrian and vehicle sections made from stones of about square cross sections. They seem good candidates (picture above).
A never ending poem. The poets or the public ask successors to carry the work on when the letters of the previous poem are published.
If one poet makes a contribution unduly long that risks disinterest and stopping (who would want to be responsible for that?)
Sustaining the project
Originally, this site suggested to auction names on side of stone to pay for expenses, and support good causes (see history of this page). The Letters of Utrecht involved contributors for precisely this purpose, but replaced the auction with a minimum donation and allocated Letters to the first contributor. The contributors turned out much more than a means to fund the project and have become a crucial part for the Letters of Utrecht. That each Letter is connected to the story/life of those who contributed it created an unexpected dimension for the project. Each contribution adds meaning to the project for ever more people, the number of people who tell others about the project and who have an active interest in the project's continuation grows. This anchors the project in civil society and creates
For the Letters of Utrecht, this model has been very successful initially, at least in the first eight years, and unlike an auction could be handled with reasonable effort by a small number of volunteers. Interest of potential contributors grew steadily and is feared to grow considerably more in the future. From 2012 to 2020, the number of contributions grew to more than 100 per year, possible - for a limited time - thanks to 'previous' Letters placed for Saturdays before the opening of the project.
Growing attention might create the need for solutions that can still be handled by a (volunteer) effort. And solutions are needed to maintain an overall positive perception. A way to balance the interest of potential contributors and the supply of Letters is needed. Ideas: - 'price' to balance supply and demand, e.g. in the original auction model or a raised minimum donation. Letters might become more valuable the further in the future they are when contributed. This might raise considerable amounts for good causes or enable a more professional organisation, but making contributions possible only for the rich is unattractive in many ways. - limiting the region where people live who can contribute letters (e.g. within x km from the project) or the reasons for which Letters are contributed (e.g., only for people who were born or alternatively died that week) - increasing the supply of Letters. The weekly rhythm seems a very important aspect of the project, but Letters could go back in time or the project could be replicated with different poems in other places. - In January 2020, Jem Finer, creator of Longplayer (see below), suggested adding translations alongside the original poem.
- material should be widely available, unharmful, lasting
- Have a batch of cobblestones made with the letters engraved. Make sure replacements for vandalism can be ordered later. Could ask local artists to contribute to the surfaces or the letters or embed something in the stones (makes vandalism and theft more likely, though...).
- replace just first stone. then take replaced stone to the artist and have it engraved to replace the next one... (more work & coordination, but more inspiring!)
- first xxx stones exchanged in one go stored leave room for vacations & repairs...
- If you have suitable stones in the street, you could engrave them in situ rather than place a new one. Easier to start, more expensive in the long term.
Why a letter per week
A week is a unit of culture, less dictated by nature than day or year. The year marks along the route still link to nature.
A letter per day or word per week are too fast and less likely to be continued over long periods. A letter per day is rather expensive. A word per stone is difficult to read or destroys the link between distance and time.
Keep it cheap
- A project is sustainable if it is cheap enough to be the first of a series continuing indefinitely into the future. A project is unsustainable if it is so expensive that it cannot be repeated without major political battles. A sustainable project marks the beginning of a new era. An unsustainable project marks the end of an old era. -- Freeman Dyson (thanks, @Treyka)
Maintenance and Resilience
- Keep doing it for as long as possible and make the project independent from any particular person as soon as possible. If the community around it doesn't want to continue, it will likely stop.
- Vandalism and Alterations
- changes to the order could easily be identified due to the numbers on the faces, next to the lettes, notifid on website and restored by city or volunteers if desireable
- removal or destruction of lettered stones could be repaired by asking for additional contributions, adding the name of the new payer as well as the original one on the stone
- removal deposits of paint or substances on the letters - if not removed by normal cleaning of the street or wear within a reasonable time, and not requiring a new stone letter - ?
- Like civilization itself, the stone letters are vulnerable to vandalism, as well as neglect. If the project is worthwhile, means for repair will be found.
- Changes to infrastructure
- Repairs to the streets are complicated by the line, and stones wear and might have to be replaced. Broad support might give it a chance to continue.
- The street along the route could change or disappear. If the project is worthwhile, future individuals will move it.
The letters of a poem convey the will to culture in addition to the content, the weekly rhythm and yearly marks bind civilization and nature. The will to continue expresses the duty felt to posterity.
To last, civilization, too, might need constant care and attention. It's for posterity that we strive, to pass on our genes, or just in the hope that someone will continue to be there and realize that life is wonderful. The continued effort becomes the monument: not only our effort but the continued effort of those after us. Worth a try.
Next to being a monument of our actions for posterity, the poem could become a tourist attraction. Both could help convince the authorities.
- Trees planted next to poem in yearly rhythm in a suitsble month - if space permits. Combines elements of Greg Blonder's TiWalkMe Ten Thousand Year Forest and Joseph Beuys 7000 Eichen.
Placement of stones
- With the right tool ('klinkertrekker/stenentrekker') pulling out a stone it a matter of seconds (see picture below). Replacing it with one of the same size should not take much time either.
Steps to implementation
- joint effort of foundation milliongenerations and the dichtersgilde
- develop and implement communication
- engage supporters and sponsors
- engage the authorities
- alternative: guerillia tactics. start the project and see what happens, city can legalize and support it when it is famous. Could even be different groups starting in different cities - who manages the longest?
History of the project
The project grew out of the Stone clock project. After a discussion with Ingmar Heytze in Utrecht early in 2011 the idea arose to add meaning to the stones by putting letters on them. Ingmar suggested that the guild of poets in Utrecht, the dichtersgilde, could devise the poem.
The stone clock project was inspired by Danny Hillis' 10,000 year clock and reports (1)(2) about it in The Economist with the thought that human intervention might be acceptable as means of perpetuation. Greg Blonder's TiWalkMe Ten Thousand Year Forest was found later but provides important inspiration and is much closer conceptually. The idea of the (endless) poem was inspired by a meeting and exchange with Ingmar Heytze in 2011.
Related efforts, to be inspired by
- Danny Hillis' 10,000 year clock in the mountain built by the LongNow Foundation
- Greg Blonder's TiWalkMe Escapement, a Ten Thousand Year Forest - Timepiece
- John Cage planned his composition ORGAN2/ASLSP (as slow as possible) to last 639 years. A performance in Halberstadt Germany was begun in 2001.
- Longplayer is a one thousand year long musical composition conceived and composed by Jem Finer. It began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999 at the Lighthouse in Trinity Buoy Wharf, London, and intends to continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it hopes to complete its cycle and begin again.
- Painter Roman Opalka documented time in his details 1965 / 1 – ∞, stating "the fundamental basis of my work, to which I have dedicated my life, manifests itself in a process of recording a progression that both documents time and also defines it."
- In Personal Structures artists work around space, time and existence. Their 2009 essay draws on Martin Heidegger's Being and Time.
- Alicia Eggert created pieces dealing with time, including Eternity and Between Now And Then
- On Kawara's Time series and One million years read eg, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
- Joseph Beuys' works of art 7000 Eichen (7000 oaks) and Rose für direkte Demokratie require(d) popular participation and combined art and political expression, and 7000 Eichen has a strong temporal element.
- The Rose for direct Democracy is (was?) an exhibit at Kunstmuseum Bonn with a rose provided regularly by visitors or museum staff. At documenta V in 1972 Beuys had supporters bring a long red rose which stood on his desk in the office for direct democracy and served to symbolize the change to direct democracy he advocated.
- The 7000 oaks project is considered a social sculpture. It was initiated at 1982 at documenta 7, completed in 1987 and since 2003 maintained by a foundation. DIA has an introduction. The project cost 4,3m DM at the time. After initial funding by the Dia Art Foundation it was supposed to be paid for by donations of 500 DM per tree&stone, but sponsor contributions were insufficient in spite of Beuys' popularity (though information on how or whether donors were recognized and involved still has to be found). The project was completed only with major contributions of and advertisements by Beuys himself. The project was intended to be replicated and results would be strongly visible centuries after its initiation. The 7000 oaks foundation states that it now (2011) costs 25.000 Eur annually to mainain the piece of art (paid for and organized by the city of Kassel) and about 1000 Eur to plant a new tree with stone (some 53 are missing for the 7000). They are seeking tax deductible donations for these efforts, the website recognizes a small number of organizations who adopted trees (Baumpatenschaften).
- The social sculpture is said to have inspired Wolfgang Staehle to The Thing.
- The Cow Parade project originated in Zürich (Land in Sicht/Züricher Kuh Kultur), used private sponsors and many artists and spread as a concept through many cities, with large statues of cows or other colorfully painted beasts spread across the town.
- Time Buoys issued a call For Designs That Promote Long-Term Thinking to trigger long-term thinking in public spaces by promoting and disseminating physical reminders that will remain present for millenia.
- Club Interbellum issued a calendar for 2012 counting down the days till the end of the world.
- TiWalkMe's site has links to more related efforts
- Poems, text and symbols in the tiles or stones of the street are found in many places and forms and have been for millennia. E.g., Anne Trubek writes about examples, Poet Simon Armitage and stonemason Pip Hall brought poetry to the Yorkshire Moors in the Stanza Stones Project in 2011, [Utrecht's poet's guild wrote poems in tiles of the Cornheertstraat in Utrecht in 2011, Jeroen Wesselink replaced street tiles in Utrecht with tiles depiction the Dome Tower and spelling the city name. This site has meticulously documented many examples in The Netherlands, mostly from Amsterdam.
efforts similar by name or nature, with different objective
- The endless poets created a site for collaborative poetry creation called Endless Poem as part of a Ruby on Rails programming competition
- The Muse-Mongers' Endless Poem is long
- an episode of the Gundam animated film is called Never-ending poem or endless poem
- Poetry in Stone - a mason describes his work
- Wilfred Wilson Gibson wrote a poem The Stone
- Zeynel Yesilay named a documentaries about North Cyprus and Turkey Endless Poem in 2008